Baltimore: home of crabs, Natty Boh, and members of Ghana’s track and field team for the Olympics.
Several runners from the Ghanaian national team have set up shop at Coppin State University for a 20-day dress rehearsal to prepare for the Summer Games in Tokyo. That means Joseph Amoah, 24, who recently completed his senior season for the Eagles, and Joseph Manu, 24, a soon-to-be Coppin State senior, are hosts for their countrymen.
“I feel at home because I like it here in Baltimore and over the years, it has been good to me,” Amoah, of Greater Accra, said before an early morning practice one day earlier this month. “With them coming over here, they like the hospitality and everything.”
Added Manu, of Accra: “When I heard that we were camping here, I was like, ‘That is cool.’ I don’t have to do a lot of packing and all of that stuff.”
Amoah and Manu are working with West Texas A&M rising sophomore Benjamin Azamati, 23, of Akim Oda, and Texas A&M rising junior Emmanuel Yeboah, 23, of Kumasi, on the 4x100-meter relay, which includes four competitors each running 100 meters and the first three each handing a baton to the next runner.
Amoah earned All-America first-team status after qualifying for the final of the 100-meter dash at the NCAA Division I Championship and second-team honors after finishing with the 10th-fastest time in the 200 — the latter of which he will run at the Olympics that begin Friday. Azamati set an NCAA Division II record in the 100 with a time of 9.97 seconds in the spring and won the outdoor title in 10.02 seconds.
The training in Baltimore, which began June 30 and runs through at least Tuesday, has been a timely chance for Amoah, Manu, Azamati and Yeboah to refine their technique.
“We’ve been wanting this for quite some time because anytime we go for a relay event, we don’t really get any changes in before we run,” said Azamati, who will also run in the 100. “We only get to do it once. But being here for a couple days, I think it’s really going to help us.”
The selection of Baltimore by a team from West Africa might seem unusual. But Andrew Owusu, a coach for Ghana, pointed out that four sprinters from Ghana compete for Coppin State, Baltimore is a centrally located, and Eagles coach Carl Hicks accompanied the team in May at the World Athletic Relays in Silesia, Poland.
“The level of comfort with Coach Hicks and Coppin State and the fact that we have four of them here made a lot of sense to bring them here,” said Owusu. He represented Ghana in the long jump at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and in the triple jump at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and 2004 Olympics in Athens, and holds Ghana’s triple jump record of 17.23 meters.
Amoah, Manu, and Azamati teamed with Sean Safo-Antwi to finish third in the 4x100-meter relay at the World Athletic Relays, but were disqualified due to a faulty baton exchange from Azamati to Manu. That foursome posted the sixth-fastest time in qualifying heats, clocking in at 38.79 seconds.
As swift as the 400 relay is — the world-record time of 36.84 seconds was established by Jamaica in 2012 — timing is critically important. Each runners must be cognizant of staying in his lane, exchanging the baton within the designated portion of the track, and securely transitioning the baton before taking off.
“There are a lot of technicalities involved with the exchanges and all of that stuff,” Manu said. “So, more time is the best. We’re getting our stuff right so that we don’t repeat what happened.”
Owusu also serves as a volunteer assistant track coach in the horizontal jumps at Middle Tennessee State, where he is also an associate professor in the health and human performance department.
He said he likes what he has seen thus far at the training sessions.
“Their exchanges look crisp,” he said. “We have not seen any major issues so far.”
Coppin State assistant coach Jamie Wilson, who oversees sprints and monitored a recent practice, said the sprinters are focused on the training and the work ahead. But, he noted, the runners also enjoy a little fun, especially when Wilson, a native of Grenada, switches from playing soca music (a Trinidadian genre closely related to calypso) to music from Africa.
“They start doing the dances that they do in their culture,” Wilson said. “You can’t be too tense. That’s when stuff might not go your way. The best way to run fast is to stay relaxed and let it show.”
After practices averaging about two hours a day, the sprinters usually congregate in an Airbnb shared by Owusu, Azamati and Yeboah. Conversations about track, music and movies are peppered with sayings in English and Twi, a language spoken in Ghana.
They have dined on waakye (rice and beans) and jollof rice cooked by Coppin State sophomore sprinter Latifa Ali of Kumasi, Ghana. “She treated us good,” Amoah said with a smile.
They have played many games of the FIFA video game on PlayStation 4. “We just laugh at each other anytime that we score,” said Azamati, who frequently plays as France.
Owusu, 48, said he has enjoyed observing his younger countrymen relaxing with one another.
“These guys are mature guys,” he said. “So, they take care of themselves. The house is really clean, and I haven’t been on dad duty yet.”
Owusu called the group “one of the most collegial” he’s been a part of. Manu said there is a sense of brotherhood.
“It’s like friends getting back together again,” he said. “It’s been a long time. It’s like a happy reunion.”
None of the sprinters has participated in the Olympics. They have competed in many international meets, but the games are different.
“You don’t run track and field and not think about being an Olympian one day,” Amoah said. “We don’t want to become complacent. We just want to try to run every race and see if we can make it to the finals.”
Owusu said he has not seen any signs of stress among the runners.
“Part of it is the confidence from 2019, when they won the 4x100 at the African Games and then this year, if not for the exchange, they would have finished third at the world championships,” he said. “So, I think there is that confidence that they feel, which is important. They are not overconfident because they realize the task ahead of them and that the execution is really what counts.”
As thrilling as qualifying for the Olympics is, Azamati said he and his teammates are far from satisfied.
“We’re not going there just to run and come back,” he said. “We have our eyes set on a medal. It’s a race. Anything can happen. We’re going there, being positive, and hoping that we come back home with a medal.”