Athletics As My Ugandan Guide

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[Sports & Life]


Recently, I was in Adjumani, here in Uganda.

Nice place though it is, I had no reason to visit Adjumani, except for one – a national athletics selection trial was being held there.

So not only did I learn a bit more athletics, I also learnt, for example about the awful condition of the murram road between Gulu and Atiak. Since this is also the main highway to Sudan, it highlighted in my mind one of the many developmental challenges facing the northern part of Uganda and Southern Sudan.

It was another athletics meeting – two years ago in the town of Lira – that enabled me to make my first visit to an internal refugee camp. It was memories of this visit that caused me to write in last week’s Roving Eye:

“If you have bathed in a urinal today, or are waiting in a long line with your jerry can to reach a standpipe in an IDP camp, there can be little doubt that you would regard 8-shower Mukula as one of ‘them,’ brave boy though he was for showering in unheated water in Luzira Prison!”

In short whether it be Kabale, Gulu, Ntungamo, Sironko, Tororo and innumerable other places in Uganda, athletics has taken me there over the last 13 years. One of the most wonderful things that has ever been said to me is when a Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) official observed:

“An athletics meeting would not be an athletics meeting unless the O’Connors are there!” Well that is a big exaggeration, but what I would say is that athletics has provided a wonderful doorway into Ugandan life. For as one travels to meetings around the country, the insights one gains are not just into athletics and geography, but into Ugandan society and culture.

A further dimension is added by coaching athletics. My wife and I specialize in coaching middle distance running--800m and 1500m. Since we do this in our spare time, on a voluntary basis, we limit ourselves, currently, to three athletes, but aim to deliver them a high quality service. We meet for training three or four times per week, and speak additionally on the telephone.

Our many conversation are, of course, not just about racing and training. We get many insights into the lives of young Ugandans.

For example, a 20-year old 1,500m runner, in paid employment, has no children herself, but is still responsible for the school fees of several children; her brothers and sisters. This oh-so-common reality in Uganda, would be more or less unknown in my own country of origin, UK.

There are many reasons why I, and my father before me, need to say a big “thank you” to running.

Athletics has enabled me to learn much about Uganda, though, as always in life, there is still a vast amount still to learn.

The writer, who coaches young athletes in Uganda, can be reached via



O’Connor’s new book “Ugandan Society Observed,” is available via Michigan State University;Barnes and Noble;Amazon and the African Books Collective

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