National women volleyball team, Malkia Strikers, put a smile on the faces of Kenyans despite a tough year by sealing a return to the Olympics Games to end a 16-year wait.
Furthermore, Kenya finally reclaimed its top position in Africa after dethroning rivals Cameroon.
According to the continental rankings recently released by the African Volleyball Confederation (CAVB), Malkia Strikers rank as the top side ahead of rivals Cameroon who are in second place.
At the same time, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) ranked Kenya in position 23 globally, while Cameroon follow closely in 24 spot.
This is a drop since last year, where FIVB placed Kenya in position 19 while Cameroon was ranked 17th.
Kenya occupy the top position in Africa owing to their qualification to the postponed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo after outsmarting Cameroon in January, a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic threw the sports’ calendar in disarray.
Malkia Strikers reclaimed their reputation as Africa’s top dog in volleyball after bagging the sole Games ticket reserved for the African countries.
Kenya turned the tables on Cameroon during the qualifiers this year after Cameroon denied them a chance to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Paul Bitok-coached side held their nerve to see off the stubborn hosts 3-2 (25-16, 23-25, 25-21, 23-25 and 15-11) early this year in the qualifiers that attracted five nations in the qualifiers played in Yaoundé.
Bitok’s charges ended their campaign with a one-point advantage over arch-rivals Cameroon who came second on 10 and the hosts’ 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Kenyans, at the penultimate fixture played on January 7, proved costly.
Prior to this decider, the two Africa heavy weights jointly led the table of the qualifiers which was played in a round-robin format.
Kenya had earlier on defeated Botswana, Egypt, and Nigeria to book the sole slot reserved for Africa at the Olympics.
By defeating favourites Cameroon, Kenya topped the standings on eight points, one above the hosts and went on to grab the single ticket.
Interestingly, Bitok has not lost a match against Cameroon since he took over the leadership of the national team last year in August.
He led Malkia Strikers to three wins in a row against Cameron, winning 3-2 during the All African Games finals in Morocco, 3-1 at the FIVB World Cup Championship and then finally 3-2 at the January Olympics qualifier.
By securing the 2020 Games ticket, Malkia Strikers exerted revenge on their rivals who in 2016, at the same venue, won the rights to represent Africa in Rio at the expense of the East African queens.
“We will start intense training in January. We expect to prepare well for six months before taking on Japan in our first Olympic match on July 25. It’s no easy task,” Bitok said during a recent interview with the Standard Sports.
Their Olympic qualification heroics were also recognised by President Uhuru Kenyatta who hosted the team at the Mama Ngina Drive Waterfront in Mombasa where he paid glowing tribute for their tireless effort and dedication that saw the country end a 16-year wait for Olympics
In Tokyo, Kenya have been drawn in pool “A” with tough opponents South Korea, European champions Serbia, Dominican Republic, two-time Olympic gold medalists Brazil and hosts Japan.
Now it remains to be seen if they will guard their momentum and push for their presence to be felt at the world stage and more so during the Olympics.
Elsewhere, the national beach volleyball teams’ efforts of making it to the Olympics were also cut short by Covid-19.
The pair of Gaudencia Makokha and Brackcides Agala, as well as team captain Phoscah Kasisi and Yvonne Wavinya, failed to make the trip to Nigeria for the second round of the Tokyo Games Qualifiers.
Kenya was to battle Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Togo in the second round.
Men’s national team
While the women’s team, Malkia Strikers picked up the pieces, their men counterparts have remained dormant with the only consolation being that many players turned professional compared to the women.
Kenya Prisons duo of Michael Chemos and Sila Kipruto left for Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively while Abiud Chirchir of General Service Unit moved to Tunisia with Kenya Ports Authority’s Enock Mogeni moving to Sweden.
Locally, the pandemic denied fans and critics the chance to see how clubs will perform in the National League and at the African Clubs Championship after action was called off due to restrictions that were put in place.
Kenya Prisons and KCB were to compete in the Africa event by virtue of finishing in first and second place last season.