The telltale scar for Dick Katende was his profoundly puffy eyes. Katende’s decidedly quirky trademark of a fedora hat and baggy, waist-high pants might have given him the appearance of a lead guitarist in a Congolese band, but it is his steely stare that stood out
It maybe a sweet science, but the sport of boxing has a dark, mean, and — some would say — violent side to it. This may not usually translate to chaos and surreal disorienta-tion, but the sport still has a way of leaving a lasting aftereffect of brutal contact. For Charles Lubulwa, a three-time Olympian who was a win away from podiuming at Los Angeles 1984, the scar is denoted in a couple of missing front teeth.
The telltale scar for Dick Katende was his profoundly puffy eyes. Katende’s decidedly quirky trademark of a fedora hat and baggy, waist-high pants might have given him the appearance of a lead guitarist in a Congolese band, but it is his steely stare that stood out. At once both intimidating and mesmerising, Katende’s gaze transfixed his boxing protégés. His eyes produced a subtly unique contrast of squinting slightly and moving feverishly as he spoke. At least they did so when your columnist conducted a maiden interview with him in the run up to Athens 2004.
Uganda had qualified five boxers (light flyweight Jolly Katongole, featherweight Brian Mayanja, lightweight Sam Rukundo, welterweight Sadat Tebazalwa, and middleweight Joseph Lubega) to the Games of the 28th Olympiad. Whether Katende thought he would persuade Uganda Olympic Committee to mount serious preparations is unclear; if he did, he soon found out how mistaken he was. The preparations had nothing to write home about. A deplorable backstory was sketched out after my tête-a-tête with Katende. It was evident that shoots of anything and everything that could help make a bad situation worse had been watered. Katende and his charges were pitching camp in a National Council of Sports hostel not just in-fested with vermin but stripped of cutting edge facilities.
Government had promised the boxers help, but a dense downpour of neglect is what it delivered. Yet instead of complaining bitterly or attempting to expose of the truth behind the patriotic boilerplate, Katende and his charges were going about business in a thor-oughly professional manner. Such was the character of the man: he never did or said something that would make him regret the crudeness of his exposition.
When life gave Katende lemons, he made lemonade. Retinal tear triggered by action in the ring forced him to call time on his career as a boxer. Instead of wallowing in self pity, he chose to venture into coaching. He would take many boxers to multiple Olympiads between 1990 and 2007.
Of recent, his once sharp eyes that retina tear failed to dim were guilty of some egre-gious lapses notably letting Nasir Bashir grow a beard at the 2015 All Africa Games (a no-no in boxing) and Fazil Juma Kaggwa overshoot his weight category at the 2015 Aiba World Championships. Could the dimmed vision be behind the headlong fall that caused the blood forced trauma that eventually claimed Katende’s life in the most tragic of circumstance aged just 56? It all rests on a cornerstone of conjecture. What is not in dispute is that Katende’s passing leaves Ugandan boxing poorer.
Yet despite enlisting roaring tributes, it perhaps speaks volumes of Ugandan boxing that Katende was not quite equipped with skills to excel in the 21st century. He was in fact barred from doing cornerman duties at international events.
His response to the bodyblow was polite in the sense that he betrayed no outward bitterness. Responsible authorities can honour Katende’s memory by building capacity in the coaching realm. While it is greatly pleasing that the cloak-and-dagger intrigues that swirled over Ugandan boxing are struggling to beat the count, a lot still need to be done to rehabilitate the sport.
It does not, for instance, reflect well on the sport that no home-based boxer qualified for Rio 2016 (both Ronald Serugo and Kennedy Katende are based in Sweden). Recently, only seven of the 25 coaches who attended an Aiba One Star course got the all-clear. This is a telling statistic that captures the scale of what needs to be done to ensure that boxing remains Uganda’s most successful Olympic sport.
Of Uganda’s flag bearers and their less than stellar history
Yesterday, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Joshua Ekirikubinza, a 19-year-old swimmer set to make his Olympic debut in the 50 metres freestyle heats on Thursday, experienced his proudest moment yet when he carried Uganda’s flag during the opening ceremony of the 31st Olympiad. Ekirikubinza is among the 10,500 athletes from 206 nations that will compete in 306 events across 42 sports.
But while there is an inevitability about the coronation of most of the nations’ flag bearers — take Team USA’s Michael Phelps or Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce — Ekirikubinza was forthright enough to tell Ugandan media that he does not expect to podium.
In an interview with NTV, his tone was deliberate, sombre, and terrifying in its certainty. He will attempt to break his personal best in the 50 metres freestyle (which at 25.54 also happens to be the national record), but is quite aware that this will not be good enough to get him a sniff at a podium placement.
Ekirikubinza has logged a few years in the US so much so that, like your average Yankee, he not only finds refugee between beats headphones but also quietude amid tumult. If the swimmer pulls up short as the sincerity of his message indicates, he will join a long list of flag bearers for Uganda to bite the dust at the Olympics. Ekirikubinza’s predecessor Ganzi Mugula did not make it out of his 50 metres freestyle heat at London 2012 after posting 27.58 seconds. Mugula’s uncle, Benjamin Ndugga, was the first Ugandan to carry a flag at Melbourne 1956 when the then British Protectorate of Uganda made its Olympic bow.
Ndugga put in a performance that was entertainingly over the top when he won his 100-metre dash heat in 10.7 seconds. He, however, petered out in the quarterfinals where a sixth placement ended his interest in the games. And thus began the poor run of Uganda’s flag bearers at the Olympics.
The proud owner of four out of seven medals won, boxing is Uganda’s most successful Olympic sport. It has also contributed the lion’s share of flag bearers. Ronald Sserugo was the last boxer to carry Uganda’s tri-coloured flag during Beijing 2008. The then light flyweight boxer did not fare well in the ring during the 29th Olympiad. He fell to Mongolia’s Pürevdorjiin Serdamba at the first hurdle. Spared of the kiss of death that is carrying the flag, Sserugo will seek to make amends at Rio 2016 when he goes in the flyweight category.
Before Sserugo, Joseph Lubega had carried Uganda’s flag at Athens 2004. He lost to Suriya Prasathinphimai at the first time of asking. The Thai boxer went on to win bronze in the middleweight category. Fred Muteweta, another boxer who carried Uganda’s flag at Barcelona 1992, also soundly pulled up short.
Uganda has had two female flag bearers at the Olympic Games. Ruth Kyalisiima was the first to shatter the glass ceiling at Los Angeles 1984 after she was named Uganda sports personality of 1983.
Kyalisiima went in the 400 metres hurdles and managed to reach the semifinals. Uganda’s other female flag bearer was table tennis player Mary Musoke at Atlanta 1996.
Musoke lost all her singles and doubles matches at the games that are best remembered for Davis Kamoga’s bronze in the 400 metres.
It has not always been a journey to the dark side though. At Munich 1972, John Akii-Bua won gold in the 400 metres hurdles in a then world record time of 47.82 after carry-ing Uganda’s flag.