Kenyans count on Elizabeth
13 July 2012, 16:54
London - Two Kenyan boxers are expected to do well at the London Olympic Games. One is a woman.
Her name is Elizabeth Andiego and she grew up in Nairobi's badlands.
When she turned up at a boxing training session in the Kenyan capital in 2007 the coach thought she would soon bail out of a sport still regarded in the east African country as for men only.
Five years on, Andiego is off to London, having received a wild card to fight at the Olympics.
"The coach thought I was joking around. He said: 'If you really want to train, come and train, I won't stop you,’ says Andiego, who packs a powerful punch and has been working on her footwork.
“He thought I would be there only two days and then I’d be gone. But I kept on training," she recalls.
Andiego, 25, trains with four male boxers in a rundown gymnasium in the Chinese-built Moi International Sports Centre on the city's northern outskirts.
In a grubby ring, she spars with the team's coach, Patrick Waweru, while the men shadow box against the stop-watch.
Waweru spits out the combinations as Andiego's hands fly. Beads of sweat sting her eyes as she hits the pads.
"Pah-pah, pah-pah-pah out, pah-pah, pah-pah-pah out," Waweru says, urging her to keep her hands high and goading her with slaps to the legs to move her feet faster.
DREAMS WERE OVER
In May, Andiego returned dejected from Beijing, where she had failed to qualify for the Games.
"I thought my dreams were over. My morale was down," she says.
But the judges in Beijing had seen enough to hand her a wild-card entry. "Now I am working hard to improve my endurance and speed. To represent my country in the Olympics is my greatest achievement so far."
Women's boxing was almost unknown in Kenya until Conjestina Achieng, nicknamed "Hands of Stone", set the ring alight in the mid 2000s. She became the first African woman to hold an international title.
Kenyan boxers have not won an Olympic medal since Robert Wangila Napunyi won gold in the men's welterweight category in 1988. His compatriot Chris Sande picked up a bronze in the middleweight class at the same Games in Seoul.
Looking to end the drought with Andiego will be 27-year-old flyweight Benson Gicharu.
"I believe in myself and I believe in God. I think my boxing prowess is a gift from God. It even says so on my gown," Gicharu said.
Government support for training facilities and equipment is limited. John Kameta, who heads Kenya's Amateur Boxing Association, says the sport is strapped for cash.
"There are going to be sparks in the ring when the boxers see they are earning something," Kameta said.
About Kenya's medal prospects, Kameta says: "That boy is sharp," referring to Gicharu. "That girl is good. I'm sure she's going to shock the world."