Why Rwandan athletes remain minnows in Kigali International Peace Marathon

Started in 2005, as a way to use sports in the healing and reconciliation process after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and a medium to spread peace beyond the borders, the Kigali International Peace Marathon has grown into one of the region’s prestigious athletics events.

On May 20, the 14th edition of the annual event will be held here in Kigali, the one-day expected to attract a record 8000 participants, who will be vying for honors in three different categories namely; full marathon (42km), half marathon (21km), and a 7km run-for-fun.

Nonetheless, Rwandan athletes have remained minnows in their own race, with Kenyans dominating it year in year out, despite the fact that the race doesn’t attract their first tier athletes. 

Since its inception, no Rwandan athlete has won the full marathon. In 2006, retired long distance and cross-country runner Dieudonné Disi became the first and only Rwandan to win the men’s half marathon.

Last year, fast-rising female long distance runner Salome Nyirarukundo became the first female athlete to claim gold in the women half marathon.

In 2015, Jean Baptiste Ruvubi came close to making history in full marathon but fell short, finishing second behind Kenya’s Ezekial Omullo Kemboi (2:18:15), who finished 48 seconds ahead of the Gicumbi-born runner.

Despite the fact that Rwanda is located in the East African region famously known to be home of world’s best distance athletes, it has failed to replicate the successes of other East African countries Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. In an effort to find out the reasons behind this jinx, Saturday Sport exclusively talked to two former Rwandan athletes; US-based Disi Dieudonne, who is regarded as the best the country has ever produced in the sport, and Johnson Rukundo, a former secretary-general for Rwanda Athletics Federation (RAF), who is now based in Sweden. 

‘Lack of professional mindset’

According to Rukundo, Rwandan athletes have failed to develop a professional mindset and most of them depend on the federation to facilitate them even in their daily training.

“Rwandan athletes are not thinking about the sport in a professional way and they haven't worked hard to achieve what a professional athlete should. Thus, it’s hard to see a Rwandan athlete win marathon – even in Kigali – at least for another couple years to come,” he said. 

“There is need for athletes to take and practice the sport as a career,” he said.

Rukundo condemned the tendency of most Rwandan athletes that still believe it’s the role of the federation to always do everything for them. “In the best performing countries, athletes train by themselves while their federations only bring them together for only a month or two. The federation’s major preoccupation is to find various competitions for all the categories of athletes.”  

For local athletes to end this jinx, there must be a collective effort but the main task really lies with them primarily.

Rwanda remains the only East African country that has never won an Olympic medal, not only in athletics but also in any sport despite being regular participants since making their debut 1984 – in Los Angeles Olympics, United States.

Kenyan athletes have won 91 medals in total since 1956, all from boxing, and track and field events. Of those, 61 medals come from the long-distance running events; Ugandan athletes have won a total of seven medals, all in athletics and boxing since 1956.

Tanzania and Burundi have two Olympic medals apiece.

‘Poor preparations’

For Disi, Rwandan athletes have failed in the sport largely due to poor preparations and this will always haunt them on the international arena.

“There are a number of reasons for this failure, but the main one is poor preparations. For instance, in Kenya, there are over 5000 athletes training in full-marathon daily throughout the year. In Rwanda, we don’t even have ten and none of them is ranked in the top 500 on IAAF global rankings.”

“To be a competent marathoner, one needs to have at least a volume of 200km training weekly, which makes it around 2,400km in three months. None of our athletes even hits 1,200km in three months,” Didi explained.  

Jean de Dieu Nkundabera became the country’s first and only Paralympics medalist at the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, winning bronze in the T46 men’s 800 meters race.

Legendary Dieudonné Disi competed in full-marathon at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in August but pulled out at the 28km mark due to an injury.

He recovered a few weeks later with a series of major victories, winning the 10,000m race at the Jeux de la Francophonie in Lebanon, the 20 ‘Kilometres de Paris’ in France before clinching the Reims Half Marathon.


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