Ferdinand Omanyala is undoubtedly the man of the moment. Ever since the muscular 25-year-old ran his way into stardom with a new 100-metre African record at the Kip Keino Classic on September 18, it has been a non-stop series of media appearances and promotional events.
The first ever Kenyan to join the elite of sprinting superstars has, at lightning speed, been catapulted from virtual anonymity to the celebrity circuit. Everybody wants a piece of the latest athletics sensation.
The young man, who made his first appearances on the international circuit without a kit sponsorship, now has corporate organisations racing one another for his signature. He can be assured of his next meal.
Yet, after all the razzmatazz, Omanyala must have his feet firmly planted on the ground as he laps up all the adulation during the off-season. He has declared that his sights are now on the 9.58 seconds world record held by the legendary Usain Bolt of Jamaica, an ambition that would have been laughable just a few months ago but now doesn’t look entirely outrageous given his remarkable progression.
Omanyala set a personal best time of 10 seconds in placing fourth in his semi-final heat at the Tokyo Games on August 1.
Two weeks later, August 14 at the International Josko meet in Austria, he shattered his personal best and Kenyan record twice on the same day, clocking 9.96 in the semi-final and lowering that to 9.86 in the final.
That was why he came to the Kip Keino Classic, part of the World Athletics Continental Tour, at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, with such high expectations. And he did not disappoint, finishing second behind Trayvon Bromell of the United States, who lowered his season's lead and personal best to 9.76 with the Kenyan trailing by just a one-hundredth of a second in 9.77.
That phenomenal improvement from 10 seconds flat at the beginning of August indicates that there is still more to come from Omanyala, especially if the Kasarani race is anything to go by.
Bromell flew out of the blocks and held a commanding lead at the halfway stage as Omanyala lagged behind him. The Kenyan then switched on the after-burners and was fast closing in on the American until he ran out of room at the desperate final lunge.
Under intense scrutiny
The sky now is surely the limit for the Kenyan sprinter, who will go into the new season under intense scrutiny. He will be closely watched not just for what he might achieve, but for a blot in his past involving a doping ban. He earned a reprieve after the explanation that it was inadvertent use of the wrong medication for an injury.
Omanyala will be much sought after to grace major global athletics events. Sponsors will be queuing for his signature. And the vultures will be circling.
Whether Omanyala fulfils the promise or implodes into smithereens will depend on his own focus and self-discipline, as well as the support structure around him.
But if the personable and fairly educated and urbane young man looks around him, he will find a landscape littered with the carcasses of hundreds of promising young athletes, who enjoyed their five minutes of fame and then fell by the wayside.
Celebrity status, instant cash, the party life, groupies, leeches, crooked agents and officials have all combined to destroy many careers. Young athletes coming into fame and money need protection from themselves and the social pressures that come with the territory.
They need guidance and mentoring; they need shelter from greedy relatives, hangers-on and adoring crowds; they need time out from media appearances, social events and the party life; and they need good, honest advice on managing their finances.
Unfortunately, the body that runs athletics in Kenya is not equipped to offer the support that is so seriously lacking. All too often, our naïve young athletes are under the control of greedy agents and managers in some of those infamous training camps in Rift Valley. They are signed to lopsided contracts, which loot most of their earnings, over-run to early burnout and, in a few cases, pumped with performance-enhancing drugs.
Athletics officials are aware of those shenanigans but look the other way because they are on the take from the largely foreign owners of the training camps. Even the local media approaches the situation with kid gloves under a mistaken notion of patriotism.
As Omanyala prepares to take on the world, he will be the face of Kenya in an event we have never featured before. His success will depend on the support structure and guidance those in positions of authority can provide.
[email protected] @MachariaGaitho