Africa@ London 2012 – reasons to be cheerful and to be fearful

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 (Pricing Africa off the podium)

As the 30th edition of the modern Olympic Games came to a close, it was fitting for Africa that there was an African winner of that most iconic of all Olympic events: the men’s marathon.

It was the Greeks who bequeathed to the world the Olympics and the marathon, above all else, embodies the spirit of the ancient form of the games. That final race was won by Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, ensuring that Africa ended the Games on a high.

There were a few highs for Africa but far too many lows. Just as these Games represented the best performance by host nation, Great Britain, in more than a century, so they witnessed the worst showing by the African continent in recent editions of the event. The poor showing followed on from Africa’s abject display in the last edition of football’s World Cup. To make matters worse, the last World Cup took place on African soil. Only Ghana’s Black Stars came close to saving Africa’s blushes before being cruelly denied by Uruguay’s Suarez.

Looking at Africa’s return from these two global sporting occasions, the portents for African sport are not encouraging; this, from a continent that has always shown a love for sports. It begs the question of whether Africa can any longer hope to compete at elite level on the global stage. It also raises serious questions that have to be addressed if this downward trend is not to accelerate.

Before we get to that examination, let us once more dwell on the undeniable, incontestable highs from the 2012 Summer Olympics: David Rudisha of Kenya winning one of the historically ‘blue riband’ events of the games, the 800 metres and in doing so becoming the only athlete to set an individual world record at the games. This must have been particularly sweet for Lord Coe, who as ‘plain Sebastian Coe’ was himself a legendary runner at that distance and the 1500 metres. As the man at the head of organising what has gone down as one of the most successful Olympic Games of recent times, this must have been the ‘icing on the cake’. In fact, Lord Coe has gone on record as saying he considers Rudisha’s performance to have been the performance of the games.

The African Roll of Honour at these Games includes: Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, who battled back from injury-plagued years to win gold and retain her 10,000 Metres crown and a creditable bronze in attemptingto defend the 5,000 Metres, losing out to her compatriot and 2004 gold medal winner, Mesret Defar. How could anyone forget Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, who stunned commentators and fellow athletes alike in winning the 1500 Metres with a devastating sprint finish? Most astonishingly, Makhloufi had dropped out after 200 metres of the 800 Metres, been suspended by the Olympic Committee for the longer race and only reinstated after a ‘doctor’s note’ claiming he had been too ill to race the day before!
There are many that will tell you the athlete of the games was Usain Bolt but, there are just as many ready to make a persuasive, possibly unanswerable case for the quiet, unassuming Kenyan as the true star of the games.

Jamaica’s (the world’s?) Bolt may have scooped three gold medals and been the anchor for the Jamaican team’s decimation of the 4×100 metres relay record but he did not set an individual world record. Not only that, Rudisha dragged the whole field in his event who were left trailing in his wake to personal best times or national records; a feat never previously achieved at an Olympic Games.
An unsung hero from the games is Tunisia’s Oussama Mellouli, who became the first man in Games’ history to win swimming medals in the swimming pool and outdoors. He rounded off his historic participation by clinching gold in the most gruelling outdoor swimming event, the 10km marathon swim in London’s Hyde Park. This came days after he won bronze in the 1500 freestyle event. There were a sprinkling of silvers and bronzes spread out among the rest of Africa’s athletes. Where were the previously-dominant middle-and long-distance Kenyan’s, Tunisians, Moroccans and Ethiopians?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that almost every non-African country seemed to have naturalised Africans wearing their colours. Every time you listened to the commentary, you would hear a competitor referred to as ‘former Kenyan’, ‘former Ethiopian’, ‘Former Gambian’ etc. Perhaps the latter was one of the most galling; Ndure, who was his country’s captain and flag-carrier at the Beijing games was now wrapped in the colours of Norway. Bernard Lagat, formerly of Kenya, now of the USA, this list is a long and inglorious one.

For the Kenyans now representing Bahrain and other Gulf States, the lure of a million dollars is understandably had to resist, when all you have to give up is your heritage and birthright. Almost all of these athletes have had to adopt new names in keeping with their new allegiances. In cannot be denied that no African country can afford that sort of largesse and for as long as that remains the case, we will continue to have these ‘country-hopping athletes’, willing to change names and countries for a pot of gold. Sometimes, it is hard to criticise them, but that will never make it any less palatable.

One thing remains certain, if African countries do not invest in their youth, they cannot be surprised if the harvest they reap in the Olympic Games is a meagre one. It seems beyond belief that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country failed to ‘trouble the scorers’: The country did not pick up a medal of any colour in the games: a sobering thought.

Africans are fond of saying that we belong to a diverse continent, not a single, homogeneous country. However, it seems all the countries are united in their short-sightedness and lack of planning and foresight.

Perhaps we should not be so hard on the African continent and contingent; at Atlanta in 1996, African countries won more gold medals than Great Britain. This wasn’t a particularly difficult feat as Great Britain managed the grand total of one gold medal at those games (Men’s Coxless Pairs: Pinsent and Redgrave, if you’re curious). Fast-forward to 2012 and ‘Team GB’ as they now call themselves won 29 gold medals; more than the rest of the Commonwealth combined!

What led to such a startling turnaround in Great Britain? Two words: ‘National Lottery’. The Conservative government led by John Major decided that a number of ‘god causes’ should benefit from lottery funding. Remarkably, sport (not including soccer), was placed at the top of that cash pyramid.

For Africa, the figures involved are staggering: listening to Liz Nicholl, the head of the organisation UK Sport speak two days after the 2012 Games I was staggered to learn that in preparing for the Games, across 47 sports, a total of £310m was spent. And, that in going forward, they intended to spend £100m a year just in support of elite athletes. The figures are mind-boggling and African countries may rightly say that they cannot hope to compete at that level.

The continent needs to wake up. But, even if it did, could it take up the challenge? Many would argue, unanswerably, that there are more pressing and important challenges facing the continent: health, education, electricity, providing jobs (and buying armour-plated cars for our leaders?).

It is a sobering thought that ‘money means medals’ and that if the trend continues, Africa will soon find itself priced-out of future Olympic Games and priced-off the sporting podium for good.

Is there a flipside to this coin? Of course, there is. For Africa, medal hopes have traditionally meant ‘Track’ (mostly) and Field (occasionally, if ever). You can safely ignore African participation in Equestrian, Cycling, Rowing, Gymnastics, Shooting and many other disciplines. With that in mind, we can rightly ask “How much does it cost to train someone to run fast around a track or along the road, as in the marathon?” The answer has to be “surely, not that much”. As such, one may legitimately ask why the medal haul was so poor this time around.

As the incidences of  ‘crossover athletes’ are more likely to increase rather than decrease, future games are likely to see non-African countries represented by teams made up largely or completely of ‘former Africans’. These athletes will gravitate to where the money is. It is a matter of simple economic necessity. The continent has given rise to millions of ‘economic migrants’, is it already giving birth to hundreds or thousands of ‘sporting migrants’? ”It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts”? The future looks bleak for Africa at The Games.

Ade Daramy – Assistant Editor

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