NAIROBI, July 7 (Xinhua) — Kenya is famed as an Olympics giant in distance running. At the last Summer Games in Rio, the East African nation topped the African medal charts with six gold, six silver and a bronze, all in athletics.

In the past, however, the country produced potent ball game teams to the Olympics – with men’s hockey featuring the most with seven appearances when it used to be among the finest in the world before its spectacular decline in the 1990s.

At the turn of the century, the women volleyball team – known at home as Malkia (Queen) Strikers – took up the mantle, qualifying twice in a row for the Summer Games at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 editions where they finished 11th on both occasions.

The run was inspired by a golden generation of women volleyball players that swept to nine African titles between 1991 and 2015, the last time Malkia lifted the continental crown.

It was the same year that Kenya women’s volleyball team celebrated its first-ever international trophy when Malkia beat Peru to win the 2015 FIVB World Grand Prix group 3.

That was as good as it got for the volleyball queens. An aging squad that relied on a backbone of established stars with over a decade of experience started breaking up and the coaching musical chairs that followed did not help as the team missed out on the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Kenya stood by and watched as bitter rivals Egypt and Cameroon emerged as the new African superpowers in women’s volleyball.

In August 2019, Paul Bitok, who had left Kenya to coach Rwanda women’s volleyball team and established them as an emerging nation in the game, was reappointed as Malkia head coach.

Five months later, in January 2020, Malkia once again ruled the roost when they blanked Nigeria 3-0 at the finals of the African Olympic qualifiers in Cameroon.

Victory was made sweeter by silencing host and African champion Cameroon in the semis as Kenya sought to reclaim her place at the summit of the continental game.

Despite a barren run of six years without victory at the African championship and a year-long delay of the Olympics due to the pandemic, Malkia are relishing the chance to make up for lost time in Japan.

In fact, they will be the first Kenyan team to depart for Tokyo, with two delegations of the squad leaving for Japan on Wednesday and Thursday having trained under a bubble in Nairobi since January.

Such was the stiff competition to make the final squad that veterans, opposite hitter Violet Makuto, Trizah Atuka and libero Elizabeth Wanyama were axed from the team of 12 players that will travel to Japan.

While the decision to drop Makuto who was seeking a last hooray at the Olympics, Atuka and Wanyama caused ripples, the global pandemic proved to be the hardest obstacle to their build-up to Tokyo.

Captain Mercy Moim and setter Jane Wacu are the most experienced stars that made the cut and will lead the new-age Malkia for the tough assignment.

“We had to fight hard to make this team because we have a group of young players coming through. Due to the COVID-19 situation, we could not play in build-up games and this is the first time we are experiencing this,” Moim told the media at a virtual press conference ahead of departure for Japan.

The team will travel to the Japanese city of Kurume for their final tune-up which, according to the coaches, will not involve technical training but will focus on tactical planning ahead of their opening Pool A clash against host Japan on July 25 at Tokyo’s Ariake Arena.

Brazil, Serbia, South Korea and the Dominican Republic round off the six-team pool where the top four will qualify for the quarterfinals with the bottom two featuring in placement matches.

Coach Bitok explained the difficult decision of dropping five experienced players from the initial provisional squad of 25, including two players who featured in the qualifiers that sparked controversy ahead of their Japan mission.

“The new players that came in brought a new standard and level after working with us. This is a competition, to select 12 they had to compete with each other. The young players were improving day by day and we gave them a chance to make the final team,” he told journalists.

Bitok revealed that he had faced untold pressure from local politicians and club coaches to include the dropped players.

He advised that anyone appointed as Malkia head coach in future should resign from the club they manage to avoid biased selections or criticism from those who feel their players are not being selected in the team.

To aid their preparations for Tokyo, Malkia in April welcomed technical coaches seconded from Brazil as part of world governing body FIVB’s Empowerment Program in collaboration with Kenya Volleyball Federation and Olympics Kenya.

To aid in their tactical planning, the coaching team will take the players through video analysis of all their opponents opponents they will face in Tokyo.

But as the optimistic squad packed their bags for Japan, the severity of the impact of the global pandemic was not far from their minds.

Malkia are eying to play at least two build-up fixtures in Japan before their opener and after the Olympics, continuing with the same system of training that precluded Japan.