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Africa dominates at distance, lags in medals

Posted: Monday August 30, 2004 10:09PM; Updated: Monday August 30, 2004 10:09PM
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ATHENS, Aug 30 (Reuters) -- Africa maintained its dominance of distance running at the Athens Olympics and also served up some of the more unlikely champions, such as a white Zimbabwean swimmer and a Cameroonian triple jumper without a coach.

But the world's poorest continent continues to lag way behind others in the medals table despite its size and has made no progress since the Sydney Olympics four years ago.

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African athletes won nine gold, 13 silver and 13 bronze medals in Greece for a total of 35. In Australia, they also won 35 medals -- nine gold, 11 silver and 15 bronze.

Despite its modest showing in the medals table, the continent still provided some of the top sporting performances.

Hicham El Guerrouj, one of the greatest ever 1,500 metre runners, finally won an Olympic gold at the distance at his third attempt with a thrilling finish. He then completed a historic double by taking the 5,000 metres title.

Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele sealed his reputation as the new king of the 10,000 metres with a blistering last lap.

He takes on the mantle of compatriot Haile Gebrselassie, revered for his modesty as well as his ability, who ran the final despite injury and will now move up to the marathon.

But even in the distance events, African dominance was not complete.

NO MEN'S MARATHON MEDALS

Kenyan world record holder Paul Tergat finished out of the medals in a men's marathon won by an Italian while Xing Huina of China took the women's 10,000 metres ahead of three incredulous Ethiopians who thought she was a lapped runner.

Competitors in other sports made up for some of those disappointments for African sports fans.

Swimmer Kirsty Coventry became Zimbabwe's first Olympic gold medallist in 24 years.

President Robert Mugabe, more often associated with tough policies towards the white minority, welcomed her home with an official reception, $50,000 and a diplomatic passport.

Cameroon's Francoise Mbango Etone won gold in the triple jump, beating favourite Tatyana Lebedeva into third place.

"I train by myself. My training is based on what a Russian trainer taught me around five years ago," she said. "I don't have a physio or an entourage around me. It all costs money."

Mbango Etone's only advice comes from a younger sister.

"She doesn't know anything about the event. She just says what she sees," she said.

But successes away from distance running were the exceptions rather than the rule.

While Asia has made a great leap forward in Athens, African sport is still handicapped by the poverty and corruption afflicting the whole continent, which means talents are neglected and many others choose to train or live abroad.

Nigeria celebrated Francis Obikwelu's surprise silver medal winner in the Games' blue riband event, the men's 100 metres. But Obikwelu ran for Portugal -- he switched nationalities in 2001, complaining of neglect by Nigerian sports authorities.

(Additional reporting by Tony Lawrence)

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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