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The Ugandan Olympian shaping Fort Portal into a 'sporting Mecca'

By Samuel Sanya

Added 18th December 2019 12:44 PM

Long before Mutekanga made it to the finals at the 2012 London Olympics, the 800m middle-distance runner ran his heart out on the grass fields of Fort Portal.

The Ugandan Olympian shaping Fort Portal into a 'sporting Mecca'

Julius Mutekanga taking part at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships. (AFP/Getty Images)

Long before Mutekanga made it to the finals at the 2012 London Olympics, the 800m middle-distance runner ran his heart out on the grass fields of Fort Portal.

UGANDAN SPORTS

His wide smile, goatee and muscular build are tale-tell signs of a life spent pushing boundaries and setting new records. Olympian Julius Mutekanga's life has gone full circle to where it all started for him by setting up a charity dedicated to sports development in Fort Portal.

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The name Mutekanga means 'the fearless one', and it sums up its beholder's life, which reads like the adventure of a courageous soldier overcoming numerous obstacles along a ragged path.  

Long before Mutekanga made it to the finals at the 2012 London Olympics, the 800m middle-distance runner ran his heart out on the grass fields of Fort Portal. His father died when he was 10 years old, leaving him and his peasant mother to fend for themselves. Mutekanga, who is now 32, found success on the track.

In between tilling the gardens of neighbors and selling passion fruits from his mother's garden, Mutekanga found time for athletics.

"As a child I did not always want to be a runner, but I liked sports. I used to play football but I saw that football would not take me anywhere. There was someone I saw in the newspapers who was famous because of running and that inspired me to start running in races as a child," he said during a visit to the New Vision offices recently.

"If you start something as a child, whatever you put your mind to becomes gold. In primary school, I used to run barefoot in my khaki shorts. It did not matter, I just kept running. I was winning races."

Garnering a sports scholarship at Hillside Secondary School in his A‘Level in Fort Portal marked the start of Mutekanga's professional journey. Even though he had no coach, the young man would wake up ahead of everyone to jog before morning preps and every evening after class to finish second best in Kabarole district - to the delight of his school.

In 2007, he joined the Uganda Christian University (Kampala campus) and made the team to represent the university and Uganda at the 2007 World inter-university Games competition in Bangkok.

Two semi-final berths in the 800m and 400m got him a coveted scholarship at the Long Island University (LIU) in Brooklyn, in the New York City of US.

Mutekanga was a six-time Northeast Conference champion during his tenure as a track-and-field athlete at LIU Brooklyn.

Mutekanga said that the excellent facilities and support of his American benefactors played a major role in enabling him make the time required to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.  He also made history at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey and at the 2011 World Outdoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea in the same year.

"I ran in the London Olympics and no-one will take that title from me. It felt amazing to represent Uganda at the Olympics. It is impossible to describe the gratitude I felt within. That defined my legacy.

"I did not know I would make the Olympics. I just worked hard with that goal and I never gave up. Some of my friends have a nickname for me: "The Olympian". In fact, my charity is called Olympian Mutekanga Organisation," he said.

Charities urgently needed to save sports in Uganda

On one of his regular trips back home to visit his mother, Mutekanga realized that football fields and basketball courts were getting scarcer.

He found it disheartening to find that some schools had given up on physical education classes altogether and that many pupils do not know how to kick a football.

He also noted that Uganda has insufficient facilities and well-trained coaches to inspire the next batch of Olympians.

"It is not just about running faster," said Mutekanga.

"We need coaches who know how the body works, about energy levels. We need the sports science. We also need facilities to make the players more explosive.

"Many athletes struggle to get money for gym membership. We do not run on grass in international competitions and yet not everyone can afford to go to Namboole to access a good track," he added.

He said his charity - Olympian Mutekanga Organisation - supports youths who show interest in running, football and netball. He hopes that charities like his can inspire government to promote sports at the grassroots by organising competitions for eager youth to participate and showcase the talent of Uganda's next generation of Olympians.

Although his years of competitive running seem to be approaching, and his body is beaten up, Mutekanga is preparing to carry Uganda's torch in middle-distance races against seniors.

While speaking to Uganda's youth, he advised them to always test to know their HIV status, especially after having unprotected sex.

"If you find that you have HIV, you can live a normal life, you will never pass it on, you will never die of HIV/AIDS, and your kids will never catch it as long as you lead a disciplined life and be on medication."

"If the HIV turns to AIDS, your body will depreciate rapidly and there is little that can be done at that point," Mutekanga said in a final word of caution to Uganda's next Olympians. 


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