CWG 2022: Kenya is known as a distance-running giant, but Ferdinand Omanyala, the fastest African ever, is showing they can excel at sprints too

Written by Nihal Koshie

Updated: July 23, 2022 1:07:25 am

Ferdinand Omanyala, left, of Kenya, runs in a heat of the men's 100-meter run at the World Athletics Championships Friday, July 15, 2022, in Eugene, Ore.(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Ferdinand Omanyala has sprinted much faster than the 10.01 seconds he clocked at a Grand Prix in Lagos in March last year, a few months before the Tokyo Olympics. But there is a reason he remembers the heats where he finished first, before winning the final a few hours later.

With the Olympics round the corner, Omanyala wanted more exposure by running against the best sprinters. A letter was sent out to the director of a Diamond League competition for an entry for Africa’s most exciting sprint star.

“You will not believe the reply. I ran 10.01 in Nigeria and we sent a request to participate. Then the guy replies that he doesn’t believe the times because he doesn’t believe a Kenyan can run so fast. He said ‘let us look out and see what he runs in the future’. It showed people didn’t believe I could run fast because I was from Kenya,” Omanyala says.

Congratulations son of the soil 🇰🇪 Ferdinand Omanyala.

despite the challenges,you made it💛#Omanyala

— Alex Wa Nyandarua🇰🇪 (@AlexWaNyandarua) July 16, 2022

The 26-year-old soon proved the Diamond League director’s doubts were misplaced. At the Olympics, he became the first Kenyan to reach the semifinals of the men’s 100 metres. When he returned home, Omanyala was greeted by dancing crowds at the airport and taken on open-top car rides as hundreds cheered.

A couple of months later at the Kip Keino Classic in Kasarani, in a field which included America’s best – Justin Gatlin and Trayvon Bromell – Omanyala clocked 9.77 seconds, the ninth-fastest ever in the 100m.

This year too, he is clocking fast times and is also winning races against some of the best. Omanyala won a title which matters in the continent.

At the African Athletics Championships, he beat defending champion Akani Simbine, this generation’s foremost sprinter from Africa, by three-thousandths of a second. South African Simbine and Omanyala both clocked 9.93 seconds and it required a photo finish to decide the winner. The Kenyan thus earned bragging rights in Africa. Bettering Simbine, a fourth-place finisher at the Tokyo Games, was testament to Omanyala’s rising stature.

To find another Kenyan with the title of fastest in Africa, the clock has to be turned back to 1990. Joseph Gikonyo’s personal best was 10.28 seconds. He also clocked 10 seconds but it was wind-aided. Omanyala has gone sub-10 seven times in the past 18 months.

A sprinter from Kenya at the highest echelons of the event is still a novelty for a country which has dominated middle- and long-distance running for years at the Olympic Games and World Championships.

“So many people are asking how to do that (sprint), but it is great to do something different. I still get those questions because so many people cannot believe that a Kenyan can sprint,” Omanyala says.

At the African Athletics Championships, Omanyala beat defending champion Akani Simbine, this generation’s foremost sprinter from Africa, by three-thousandths of a second. (Twitter)

All in the mind

A culture that discouraged youngsters in Kenya to take up sprinting created a mental block, Omanyala believes. Even the few who tried their hand at the 100m and 200m didn’t have the drive and belief to take them to the next level.

“Previously, people had this notion in their head that a Kenyan can’t sprint. So, any time a kid or an athlete or someone wanted to do sprints, a guardian would tell them that you won’t be going too far with this. Also, the federation was not supporting sprinters much because when sprinters would be taken to championships, they would go out there and not compete seriously. The federations treated sprinters as jokers. There was not much support. Sprinters also thought of just making the national team and didn’t want to push themselves to greater achievements. It was mostly about the mind,” Omanyala says.

This trend was not surprising.

The Rift Valley in Southern Kenya is home to some of the best middle- and long-distance runners and is where athletes from around the world come to train. At nearly 2000 metres above sea level, it is ideal for high-altitude training. But that isn’t the only reason why the likes of Eliud Kipchoge, widely considered the greatest marathon runner, has emerged from this region. Kipchoge, like many of the other elite runners from the region, belongs to the Kalenjin tribe. Their lean muscular frame, long legs and endurance built from a young age when they walked or travelled by foot for many kilometres to get to school have made them good distance runners. Of the 113 medals Kenya has won at the Olympics, 106 have been in track and field and a majority of them in middle- and long-distance running, including marathons. However, no sprinter has come close to winning a medal on the world stage.

Omanyala believes the winds of change are blowing. “I am the first one to do sprints professionally in Kenya. It is not an easy way of coming up. But now that I am there, I will try to promote sprints. The country also now thinks we can do well in sprints. I remember there was a weekend meet (in January) and there were about 19 heats. Earlier, there could have been four to five heats maximum. In the near future, we will have sprinters from not just Kenya coming up but also from Africa,” he says.

From rugby to sprinting

Omanyala’s father was a footballer and sprinter but wanted his five sons to be academically-inclined. The boys had a library at home built by their father. The books were all about “coursework and the syllabus”, Omanyala recalls.

“Growing up, I was not much into sports. My dad wanted us to get through school and work hard. Primary school was all about classes and reading. There were not many sports activities.”

His father got a feeling that the third of his five sons could run fast. Omanyala was difficult to get hold of when the former sprinter wanted to discipline him.

“I remember, I used to make a mistake and was chased by my parents but they could not catch me. My dad used to tell me I am fast.”

School was 30 minutes away by bicycle and Omanyala cycled up and down. He started playing a sport at a school in Kimilili. Track and field didn’t catch his fancy; it was rugby.

“I never ever imagined I could be where I am today, because I never thought I could be a sprinter. In high school, I got interested in rugby. So, I wanted to be a rugby star because Kenya is known for its rugby sevens. I trained with a rugby team.”

As a winger, a young Omanyala was too fast for most of the teams. He didn’t have to even side-step to beat defenders.

As a winger, a young Omanyala was too fast for most of the teams. He didn’t have to even side-step to beat defenders.(Twitter)

“I was a winger. I was really fast. I was being given the ball just to run. The school team got to some level it had never got to because I was getting more tries for them. After high school, I joined the University of Nairobi. I wanted to become a professional in rugby.”

Omanyala was playing rugby at club level and still had some way to go before a big breakthrough. But his dream of being a rugby sevens great was put on hold when a teammate asked him to try sprinting.

“A fellow player who used to sprint and switched to rugby told me you are too fast for us in the field. ‘So why don’t you go and try athletics?’”

Early success

Omanyala was open to the experiment. In his mind, he had decided that he would try sprinting for six months. Soon after the conversation with the friend, he downloaded a competition calendar and headed to the weekend circuit meet.

“I won the first competition. That is when I started getting publicity as a sprinter. I wore my rugby tights and rugby socks. My dad bought me my first spikes. When I told him I was going to compete, he sent me money for spikes.”

Omanyala never returned to rugby and went from strength to strength on the track.

“I still talk to my rugby friends. They didn’t know I would go this fast. I am also an inspiration for them. There are a couple of sprinters coming up and you will see them next year.”

His career came to a temporary halt in 2017 when he was banned for 14 months after testing positive for a banned substance. A painkiller which had a steroid resulted in him being sanctioned. His fastest timings have come after he returned to competition and there are still sceptics who look to pull him down. But Omanyala says the tough times have made him stronger.

“It was a difficult period. For an athlete, even being away for a month is tough. But I can say that it has made me stronger and what I am today.”
His next target is to run a 9.6-second race. “I understand it will be a shock to many, but not a shock to me. Athletics is not an easy thing to do. What I tell youngsters is that they should follow their dreams and never let their dreams die.”

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A gold medal at the Commonwealth Games is one of his targets as he aims to put Kenya on the world sprinting map. Directors of big events have started to take him seriously now. “They know this guy is not a joke. They know I am fast.”

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