Joseph Paul Amoah was virtually unknown in Ghanaian athletic circles before he was crowned “Ghana’s fastest human”. Now he’s the new face of sprinting in a country looking to transform its running culture.
“It’s been an instant shot to fame,” said the 19-year-old from the central Ashantiregion, after reportedly clocking an impressive winning time of 10.08 sec in the 100m.
In early September, 160 runners from four qualifying competitions held across Ghana converged on the country’s second city Kumasi to participate in the race, set up by former Olympian Reks Brobby.
In 2013, Brobby founded Ghana’s Fastest Human (GFH), an annual 100-metre competition designed to unearth the country’s best sprinting talent with the hope of boosting future track success.
On offer: supervision from a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, a muscle-trigger specialist and four premier sprinting coaches.
– Make running ‘sexy’ –
Brobby, who competed for Ghana’s 4x100m relay team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, finishing fifth in their semi-final, hopes the programme will help put Ghana’s sprinters back on the athletics map.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Ghana had a consistent presence at international sprinting competitions throughout Africa with runners such as Michael Ahey, George Daniels, Hannah Afriyie and Alice Annum, but the pool of talent began to stagnate.
“I want to make (running) sexy again so that Ghanaians will start dominating the world by Tokyo 2020 and beyond,” stated Brobby, rather ambitiously.
But he might not have to wait until the next Olympics to see results.
And even though they failed to secure any medals, it only took them three years to go from promising local talents to appearing on the international stage.
– ‘Equal attention’ –
Brobby’s ability to acquire big-name sponsors for his programme has defied the odds in a country often criticised for not giving enough funding to athletics.
The budget for the youth and sports ministry has been cut by more than 58 percent, from 54.2 million cedi in 2012 to 22.6 million cedi ($5.7 million/5.1 million euros) this year.
Even with the funds that are currently allocated, critics say the government prioritises football to the detriment of other sports.
In July, Ghana’s Youth and Sports Minister Edwin Nii Lantey Vanderpuye called for a more equitable distribution of resources.
“It’s sad to see all the attention given to football,” he said.
“We hardly spend on the other sports. I think we need to give every sport equal attention.”
The lack of funds can be demoralising for some of Ghana’s best runners, especially when their competitors in other countries benefit from more institutional support.
But Olympic runner Gyaman is persistent, even if inadequate funding makes it difficult for her to attend international competitions outside Ghana.
“It is difficult here but I will promise the Ghanaian people that if I get support, I’ll bring home a medal one day,” she said.
Exposure to diverse global talent is critical for athletes at her level, said Ohene Karikari, a former Olympic sprinter and the chief coach for GFH.
“You cannot run with your peers forever,” he said.
– ‘Mr Hollywood‘ –
Brobby, who used to be named “the fastest man in Africa”, spent more than a decade in the United States before returning to Ghana full-time in 2003 to help revive local sprinting.
“I was Mr LA. I was Mr Hollywood,” Brobby recalled.
“But I thought I needed to go back (to Ghana), where I didn’t want to go, where there wasn’t a McDonald‘s and the nice roads.”
The success of Brobby’s movement ultimately depends on the will of the athletes.
“It takes athletes about four to six years to peak,” said Brobby.
“They have to fall flat on their faces. They have to pull muscles. They have to go home and cry.
“But that’s what we’re doing: finding athletes who in the next four to six years will be world champions.”