Kenya’s women hoping for big boost from Rio sevens
A lucky break allowed them to qualify for Rio de Janeiro but Kenya’s female rugby players are hoping their involvement at the Olympic Games will bring a huge boost to a sport that is played by only a tiny minority of women in the East African nation.
They are under no illusions about the task confronting them as the world’s top women’s sevens teams make history in August when they become the first to play for an Olympic medal.
Kenya are confident, however, they will be ready to compete with the best.
“We are training really hard for the Olympics and we know we can make it (do well),” said captain Kate Abilla, as the team practised backline moves on a waterlogged and unkept pitch in Nairobi.
Kenya only qualified for the Olympics after continental rivals South Africa had decided against going to Brazil.
The women’s Springboks qualified for the Games after winning the African Championships in September, which doubled as an Olympic qualifier.
Yet the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) said advancing through the continental competition did not meet their stricter qualification criteria and opted out.
“The big teams must watch out for us, because everyone thinks we are the underdogs, but we can make it,” Abilla told Reuters at the Kenya Rugby Union’s sports field, where the team had its last training session before leaving for an invitational tournament in Hong Kong.
Abilla weighs only 58kg, but is one of the new faces of Kenyan rugby, as it looks to grow the game among young girls at grassroots level.
There is a dedicated women’s rugby league in Kenya with eight teams that compete weekly involving around 200 players. There is also a school rugby competition to identify potential talent.
The Olympics is lending vital impetus to popularise the sport in Kenya, where the women’s game has struggled to emerge from the shadow of the more established male team, who have made huge strides on the sevens circuit.
“It has created that awareness, that perception and that mindset, so it’s a big game-changer, not only once we land there (in Rio) but it has already started,” said Celestine Masinde, their most experienced player, who is in her 11th season with the team.
Masinde, who remembers when she first tried the game as a teenager and had no boots and wore hot pants to training, said Olympic exposure would hopefully lead to greater investment and the development of a fully professional set-up in Kenya.
“We don’t have much in terms of investment in the sport, but now we want to prove to people that if you give us something to work with, we can take the sport to the next level,” she said.
Rio’s sevens will be the first time the event has been staged at an Olympics, running from Aug. 6-11. The 15-man game was played in four previous Games, the last being in 1924.
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