How will Ugandan sports shape up this year?
For Ugandan sport, this year will be shaped in Brazil and Burkina Faso, period.
The former will play host to the summer Olympics with the latter home to the first leg of the home-and-away 2017 AFCON qualifier between the Uganda Cranes and the Stallions on March 26.
While the 2016 calendar has plenty of engaging activities across the local sports landscape, a gold or three at the Olympics and an away victory in Ouagadougou will be enough to make this year a success.
In fact, those feats would make this year more successful than 2015, a year that brought the country a netball World Cup appearance, two debuts in continental basketball competitions, four medals at the All Africa Games, promotion to rugby Division 1A and qualification for African Nations Championship.
Oh yes, Ivan Byekwaso won a Mr Universe title and Solomon Mutai claimed bronze at the World Athletics Championship in the country’s biggest individual achievements of 2015.
Who will win gold for Uganda?
But gold in Rio would arguably outdo all that. Don’t forget Uganda has two in history. Don’t forget the madness each generated. John Akii Bua and Stephen Kiprotich are largely considered Uganda’s greatest sportsmen for precisely the same reason.
The Olympics are unrivalled in prestige and that’s why if you could reduce the ambitions of Ugandan sport in 2016 to one prayer request, winning Olympic gold would probably be it. Which begs the question, who will do it for Uganda? Kiprotich and Mutai are inevitably the best nominees.
The Uganda Olympic Committee is hoping to raise a 25-strong team for the Games but the country’s medal prospects are limited to the marathon duo. If there is to be a surprise, it will also come from Uganda’s long distance runners.
Kiprotich is the defending marathon Olympics champion and is naturally Uganda’s best hope. However, it’s likely Uganda will return home empty-handed because Kiprotich and Mutai could easily fail deliver.
The depth of competition in long distance running is too wide and the talent production too dynamic, as Kiprotich’s surprise feat in London showed.
Judgment Day in Ouagadougou
The good news is by the time Team Uganda fly to Rio, they may already be celebrating the longest unfulfilled desire of Ugandan sport - qualification to the Nations Cup. To do so, Uganda only need to stay top of Group D through the next critical three games.
Two of them are away from home, starting with the all-important battle against the Burkinabe in Ouagadougou. If Uganda win in Burkina Faso on March 26, they will most likely beat the Stallions three days later at Namboole.
Uganda enjoy a three-point lead on Botswana and Burkina Faso, with pointless Comoros warming the basement. But Uganda’s doubleheader against the Stallions is followed by a daunting away trip to Botswana on June 4, who are expected to secure maximum points against Comoros ahead of hosting the Cranes.
In other words, the work is far from done for the Cranes, who round out the qualification with a winnable home fixture against Comoros on September 3.
The Cranes have a history of turning good qualification starts into wrecked conclusions and there is admittedly plenty of opportunity for Uganda to bottle it again. Still, the quest to end almost 40 years of pain will probably come down to the day of judgment in Ouagadougou.
Pressure on Ugandan basketball
Ugandan basketball is fresh from a historic year but the immediate future promises to stretch FUBA, as the governing body seeks to strengthen their grip on new-found success.
Uganda qualified both its senior national basketball teams for the continental Afrobasket Championships for the first time last year but qualification for the next edition is being touted as a must because of a new change in the qualification format for editions post 2017.
Nations that qualify for Afrobasket 2017 will be ranked in Division 1A, making it easier for them to qualify for subsequent tournaments. In other words, those that don’t will face a tougher road to break in.
The Afrobasket qualifier will be held sometime in the third quarter of the year and Uganda are desperate to host it, aware home advantage could be the thing that tips the scales in their favour.
Rugby Cranes and CHAN tests
Meanwhile, the Rugby Cranes will need a special year to cope with life on their return to Rugby Africa Division 1A. Every one of Uganda’s Division 1A games in 2016 is fraught with potential pain as Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe are, according to the form book, expected to incinerate Uganda.
But expectations can be surpassed and the Cranes (of the national football team) can set the ball rolling for Ugandan sport at the Africa Nations Champions in Kigali later this month.
Micho Srejodovic’s team are not among the favourites, of course, but no Ugandan will be losing sleep over that. Ugandan sport lives for surprises and 2016 has plenty of room for them.