28 July 2002

Malawi’s only female track athlete dreams of becoming a world champion

Today she will meet `the Queen’ on the track. At 8.25pm the gun will fire for the start of the women’s 5,000 metres and young Catherine Chikwakwa will go head to head with Paula Radcliffe. But 5ft 3in, 7st, Chikwakwa, Malawi’s sole female track athlete at the Commonwealth Games and whose 17th birthday was on Wednesday, will not be intimidated. For on Friday she lunched with the Queen herself.

It must have been one of the jolliest of Her Majesty’s duties and you guess that Chikwakwa’s radiant smile will have thawed out that often frozen public formality which so contrasts with the Queen’s persona in private. But that wondrously white-toothed Malawi smile is itself a symbol of these Games. Of all their hope and happiness and yet of their potential futility, too.

For Chikwakwa will come to the line with a 5,000 metres personal best of 16 minutes 34.08 seconds. That is two seconds quicker than she did in the World Championships at Edmonton last August and four seconds faster than she clocked in the heats of the Olympics at Sydney 2000, when she was just 15. That is progress but hardly fast enough to threaten the lofty Radcliffe, whose best time of 14-32.44 means that Chikwakwa could be lapped twice if `the Queen’ starts peeling off sub-60-second circuits.

But all that remains merely an athletic challenge. Watching this purposeful little figure reeling off her training among the cosmopolitan crowding of the warm-up track next to Manchester’s magnificent new stadium on Friday, it was impossible to shut away thoughts of her beautiful but famine and Aids-ravaged African homeland.

We were watching in the warm sunshine of Friday morning. Only on Wednesday the international Disasters Emergency Committee had put out an appeal stating that 3.2 million were now “at risk” from famine in Malawi, where Aids infects almost a million of its 11 million inhabitants. Just £25 would buy two families food for a month. In Manchester, £6 million had been spent on Thursday night’s opening ceremony and Friday morning’s news had included an item on a bunch of American fatties suing McDonald’s for causing their obesity.

This is a preposterous burden to load on to the braided head of the young girl who is completing her workout under the watchful eye of Elizabeth Olaba, a matronly-looking, former Kenyan heptathlete loaned to Malawi for the last three months as a coach under the Olympic Solidarity Scheme. With but the briefest of breaks there have been three consecutive 300 metres, followed by six consecutive 200 metres. “She has real talent,” says Olaba of her charge, who was first noticed running to school as a 10-year-old. ” Being here will help her a lot. It is very difficult back home.”

Chikwakwa jogs by on her warm down. She is small but not completely waif-like, the muscles in her back and thighs showing as she trots away from us. “I love the training,” she says, “this is a beautiful track. If I train hard I can improve my times. Then in five years’ time maybe . . . ” There is a pause before the whole face splits into this terrific smile. ” . . . then I would like to be world champion.”

There is a track in Blantyre, the southern city near the Mozambique border, where she lives with her sister and two younger brothers with their mother, a nurse, and father, who runs a small shop. But it is the sort of shale track we saw here in the Thirties and much of Chikwakwa’s training has been either out in the tea-planting hills up at Zombo or on the flat lands of her family’s home village of Thyolo.

Mention of Thyolo sees the young face cloud over. “It is very sad,” she says, “many people are hungry.” Her own provisions are hardly of the highly programmed, super diet variety regularly wolfed down by Radcliffe and the other elite athletes among the 16-strong field this evening. Maize meal and vegetables are the Chikwakwas’ staple diet. “It is good to have fish,” she says, “but that is very expensive.”

Some of that will be on the royal table that is beckoning. A dash back through the Manchester traffic saw Chikwakwa ready to take her place among 16 other athletes for the Queen’s lunch in the Games Village. “She was a very nice lady,” said Malawi’s No 1 (and only) when we reconvened on the village lawns later in the afternoon. “She asked about my home, and my family, and my training. She said she liked to talk to young people.”

Chikwakwa was now accompanied by an older one, Mathew Kambale, the Malawi Athletics Secretary General, a small bird-like man whose 25 years of marathon running began with the Munich Olympics in 1972. He has the wistful purity of someone whose life has been grooved on the unforgiving altar of long-distance effort and who would love others to follow him in the cause.

He talks of the new “Talent Identification Programme” unwittingly conjuring up bizarre images of “talent spotters” looking out for the fastest child behind the food lorry. He tells of the catastrophe of Aids among young people, of the frustrations of trying to organize athletics in such an environment, but also of how Chikwakwa’s improved diet and training could see her knock almost half a minute off her best time. He speaks very good, if slightly halting English, and sometimes you wonder whether the pauses are as much a search for political correctness as for exactness in the language.

We sit on the warm grass. Kambale tells of his young days walking 17km to school every morning and then having to go another 10km to market on Saturdays with a large pot on his head to fill up with maize for the return journey. Chikwakwa fiddles with the orange Fila tracksuit she got for the Olympics (no sponsor has come for this year’s Games) and talks of how she would like a sports scholarship but has nowhere to show her prowess.

Radcliffe’s next race is in Sunday’s European showdown in Munich, Chikwakwa’s is in next year’s African Championships. So much hope and happiness in these Commonwealth Games. Yet a sense of futility, too?

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