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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Debate on MTN Heathens crowning is good for Ugandan sport

By Mark Namanya

Former professional boxer Justin ‘The Destoyer’ Juuko and the country’s last Olympic medallist Davis Kamoga opened a can of worms when they dismissed the crowning of rugby side MTN Heathens as the 2009 winner of the utl-USPA sportsman of the year award.

Juuko felt fellow boxer and second runner up Jackson Asiku, Uganda’s first world champion since Kassim Ouma, should have won the award. Consequently, he (Juuko) has vowed never to attend the gala again. Bless him.

Kamoga, who has never stopped seething – rightly it must be acknowledged – at missing out on the main prize himself in 1997 after winning a highly commendable 400m silver at the 1997 World Championship in Athens, was equally exasperated. “It is very unfair,” he charged. “Do you know what it takes to finish second in a World Cross-Country race or win a belt in a world boxing championship?” He wondered in reference to the achievements of first runner up Moses Kipsiro, who won silver in Amman, Jordan during the World Cross Country Championship and Asiku.

Juuko and Kamoga probably have a point. They are former great sportsmen who have an idea or two about sporting achievement both in Uganda and world over. But their jurisdiction stops there. I would be mightily surprised if Juuko or Kamoga knew the role of a fly half, let alone a conversion, or the sport of rugby. So they can’t be trusted to judge the feats of Heathens last season. Of that, there is no question. Kamoga’s comments about Heathens were at best hollow. “True Heathens did well,” he noted, shrewdly. Before ruining his wisdom by adding, “But their achievements were limited to the local scene.” More often than not, international glory supersedes domestic success. But not always.

Outside the Nile Hall at Hotel Africana, there were as many people convinced as doubting the crowning of Heathens. This was not limited to guests but Uspa members themselves, the ones who voted for MTN Heathens. The spectacle at times appeared intense and heated.

Standing by with the Uganda Sports Press Association president Douglas Mazune and general secretary Ahmed Hussein, we saw the beautiful side of the debate. There have been countless times when the winner of the award was too easy to call, not this time. The field of candidates made the competition so nail biting that anyone of the candidates other than Brian Umony had a compelling case for the coveted award.

MTN Heathen last year swept everything before them in arguably the most dominant performance by a club in any calendar season. Peter Magona’s side won the league, Uganda Cup, 7s circuit, Hima 10s and the Super Cup. But it wasn’t that they were collecting trophies, they did it with style and finesse.

Asiku’s became Uganda’s first world champion since Kassim Ouma in 2004 when he stopped Heriberto Ruiz to win the IBO featherweight belt. It was a convincing performance from a boxer who has had to bide his time in Australia to etch his name in history.

Kipsiro had a relatively quiet year by his high standards. He narrowly missed out on a medal at the 12th World Athletics Championship in Berlin, Germany where he was expected to emulate or better his bronze medal at the last event in Osaka, Japan two years ago. Kipsiro though had earlier ensconced his name in history by landing Uganda’s first silver medal at the World Cross-Country Championship in Amman, Jordan held in March.

The fourth candidate striker Brian Umony made the shortlist on the strength of his goals for Uganda Cranes and KCC in the first half of 2009, seeing that he barely made an impression in his first months at SuperSport United who he joined in July. Umony’s brave goal against SuperSport while still at KCC was one of several in a terrific spell for the young striker.

While we watched the disagreement, the complexity of the winner was not lost on us, the top executives. In our usual voting sequence of picking the best four in their order, I went for Kipsiro (20 points), Asiku (15), Heathens (10) and Umony 5). Mazune’s vote was wholly different, and so was Hussein’s, treasure Sam Mpoza’s and organizing secretary Fred Katende Malibu’s. Our voting sequences showed vast difference in opinion on who we, as individuals, and the association felt deserved to emerge top.

When the sponsors utl put it to the public to make their choice for a special award that is in its second year – via text, Umony’s emerged runaway winner. With football’s standing as the country’s most popular sport, that was expected. The striker got least votes among Uspa members.

Competition is what makes sport the incomparable entertainment brand it is. Ugandan sport needs it in huge volumes. That can only come about when the associations and federations that run the game provide a platform for excellence.

Ugandan Rugby is no stranger to controversy but the Union has done so many things right that the recognition of Heathens by Uspa members was viewed as due triumph for a sport going places.

*Mark Namanya is also the Vice President of the Uganda Sports Press Association (USPA)

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