Rome — Africa, often referred to as a Sleeping Giant, awoke magnificently from its slumbers at Rome's Olympic Stadium last weekend. African runners won five of the most important track events - capturing every gold medal in the middle and long distance races for men. And this weekend at London's Crystal Palace, fans will turn out to watch not their usual band of British middle distance stars, but rather two African world champions making bids to conquer world record marks.
The events at Rome were like a breath of fresh air sweeping away the sultry atmosphere, ending with an almost unheard-of Kenyan, Douglas Wakihuru, striding alone into the stadium, waving triumphantly toward his country's proud president, Daniel Arap Moi. The second man in was also an African, Inner Houssein Ahmed Saleh, representing the tiny nation of Djibouti.
The scene raised echoes of another summer's evening here 27 years ago when Abebe Bikele, an obscure member of Emperor Haile Selassie's personal bodyguard, glided in bare feet over the cobbles of the Appian Way - bringing Africa its first Olympic gold medal on the same 26-mile, 385-yard route traversed by Wakihuru last Sunday.
Since then there have been many superb African runners who have won Olympic gold medals and set world records. Some, like Uganda's John Aki-Bua or Kenya's Henry Rono and Kip Keino, became well-known figures on tracks worldwide. In recent years, though, the early promise heralded by Bikele and his successors had failed to blossom.
At the Los Angeles Olympics, gold was a color reserved almost exclusively for the first and second worlds, not the third.
The malaise in Africa athletics was sadly exposed in the continent's own championships. In Cairo, 1982, half the top African states did not even attend. Some considered preparations for the Commonwealth Games later that year more important. Others pleaded poverty.
Ernest Obeng was so frustrated with his country's failure to send a team that he paid his own fare to Cairo - and won Ghana's only gold medal, in the 100 meters. He now competes for Great Britain, but hopes one day to return to Africa and become his country's sports minister. He would institute programs to develop talent, he says, and stop politicians interfering in sport.
African athletes have suffered severely by the boycotts imposed by their political masters. They pulled out en bloc from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, because New Zealand's rugby players had undertaken matches against South Africa. Pro-Western states like Kenya also stayed away from the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the US-led boycott. And at last year's Commonwealth Games, all the African states withdrew in protest at Britain's refusal to impose effective political and economic sanctions against South Africa.
The continent has indeed suffered from a poverty of administration - ``too many `fat cats' jockeying for position and influence at the expense of the athletes,'' as an International Amateur Athletics Federation official said at the organization's London headquarters yesterday.
Things have, however, been improving. The IAAF now helps run a development center in Kenya for athletes from all English-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. ``African governments are beginning to realize how much prestige they can gain by the achievements of their athletes,'' said an IAAF spokeswoman.
The absence of suitable training facilities in most African countries has been partly compensated for by the availability of track and field scholarships for promising African athletes at American colleges. Others gravitate toward the ex-colonial powers, as did Obeng to England. The great Moroccan runner, Said Aouita, lives in Italy, while Wakihuru has been studying in Japan.
Aouita - probably the most versatile middle distance runner of all time - has set world records at 1,000 and 1,500 meters, the mile, 2,000 meters, and 5,000 meters, the distance at which he won the gold medal at both the 1984 Olympics and these world championships (the latter with consummate ease). Perhaps more symbolic of Africa's rise at the expense of European athletes was Abdi Bile's victory in the 1,500 meters, following another African's win in the 800 meters - the two blue ribbon events of track.
For a decade, the 1,500 meters and the mile had been dominated by Britain's trio, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, and most recently Steve Cram. The latter's reign came to an abrupt end Sunday, however, when Bile, a Somalian, imperiously strode past him on the back straight. Billy Konchellah of Kenya had earlier captured the 800 meters title.
The 10,000 meters, a traditional African stronghold, was commanded totally by another Kenyan, Peter Kipkoech. And in the 200 meters, the affable and delightfully named Innocent Igbunike, of Nigeria, captured second place.
Africans now have set foot firmly on the world's athletics stage again. Welcome though their return is, their continued success will only be ensured if Africa's own politicians resist the temptation to use and abuse their athletes in their own internal and external political maneuverings. The signs are that they are beginning to learn this lesson.