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2022 Commonwealth Games: Redemption For African Athletes After Missing World Athletics Championships

After several African athletes were denied the chance to compete at the World Athletics Championships, the Commonwealth Games offers some form of redemption.

Cameroonian sprinter Emmanuel Eseme was one of those unable to feature in Oregon, having not been granted a visa in time to travel.

Yet the packed athletics calendar this year – with four major championships in the space of three months – has allowed the 28-year-old to quickly refocus.

“As an athlete, there are two major competitions in which we’ll always want to be competing – the Olympic Games and the World Championships,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“I was really disappointed because I’ve been putting so much work in to compete [in Eugene].

“I was disappointed, but I stay shoulders high because I know that’s not the end. I have another opportunity next year, and I have qualified for great competitions like the Commonwealth and the Islamic Games.”

Eseme’s story went almost unnoticed as he watched his 200m heat with an empty lane and the generic DNS (did not start) appearing next to his name.

A four-time national champion over 100m and 200m, he took silver over the latter distance at the African Championships last month and finished sixth in the 200m final at the World Championships in Doha in 2019.

African 100m champion Ferdinand Omanyala did make it after getting his visa to enter the United States the day before his competition, but his late arrival meant he could not perform to his maximum.

The 26-year-old only landed at the airport only three hours before his heat was scheduled, and although he qualified for the semi-finals he could not progress further despite his determination to “never give up in any situation”.

After finishing fifth in his semi-final Omanyala told BBC Sport Africa: “That’s one of the things I came here to do – to show the world that we are Africans, and we survive through any situation.”

Now the Kenyan’s eyes are fixed on Birmingham, and Omanyala believes he can dethrone reigning champion Akani Simbine of South Africa and win the Commonwealth gold after the athletics programme begins with the men’s and women’s marathons on Saturday.

Eseme is in England too, having had the honour of carrying Cameroon’s flag at the opening ceremony on Thursday – but other Africans who could not compete in Eugene do not have the benefit of another competition so soon.

Visa problems for Africans ‘revolting’

Odile Ahouanwanou at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Odile Ahouanwanou finished 15th in the Olympic heptathlon in Tokyo but did not compete in Eugene

That is the case for Burkina Faso’s long jumper Marthe Koala and Benin’s Odile Ahouanwanou, who was the only African to qualify for the heptathlon at the World Championships and was disheartened after she never received her visa.

“A week before the competition I still didn’t have an answer. I was very worried, I could not even sleep,” Ahouanwanou told BBC Sport Africa.

“Sometimes I would wake up at night and check my phone to see if I received a message from the embassy or from anyone as I knew I was in a complicated situation.”

Frustrated by the outcome, the 31-year-old Beninese has decided to pause her season.

“For the moment, I don’t know if I will pursue my season until the end. I’m taking a break otherwise I will regress because I don’t think I am mentally fit to go back to training.”

Athletes from around the globe were affected, with British marathon runner Chris Thompson among those who did not get a visa in time.

Triple jumper Hugues Fabrice Zango – Burkina Faso’s first ever Olympics and world medallist – knows the experience all too well.

He missed the 2017 World Championships in London and says it was a “real shame” not to be able to compete because of a visa issue.

“After it happened to me in 2017, I wanted to put an end to my season,” Zango told BBC Sport Africa.

“It’s only thanks to my family, who encouraged me to persevere, that I didn’t. Because when you work hard, and you qualify but you can’t take part in a competition, it’s really very difficult for professional athletes.

“African athletes are often the most affected by this, and that’s even more annoying because you feel as if there is some discrimination. It is revolting.

“I hope that the new athletes’ commission at World Athletics will voice what the athletes are feeling, so this won’t happen anymore.”

Ahouanwanou and Koala may be left to reflect on how to revive their seasons, but for the Gambian team and some of the South African athletes who arrived late in Eugene, just like Omanyala, the Commonwealth Games provide a swift opportunity to move on.

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