Africa’s glory days at the Olympics might be over, and here’s the reasonBy CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO | Thursday, August 2 2012 at 11:17
The Olympics are on in London. The first few days of the games are usually about activities like swimming, fencing, cycling, rowing, archery, horse-riding, judo, tennis, volleyball, badminton, and sports like those.
As of early Wednesday, 43 countries had won medals. Only one, South Africa, was from Africa. South Africa had two medals in swimming, and they were both from, eh, how do we put this? White South Africans.
In a few days, the track events begin and the tables will turn. Some countries like South Korea and North Korea, which are currently in the top 10, will get very few or no medals at all in this phase, and slide down the rankings.
Africa’s athletic powerhouses like Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco will begin gathering medals.
By the time the games are done, Kenya and Ethiopia will almost certainly have eclipsed South Africa, and will be the top African medal winners.
They will also probably have more medals than South Korea and Russia Federation, countries that harvest their medals in the first phase of the games.
The Olympics, therefore, offer interesting insights into the levels of social mobility, and what the good old Marxists called the “modes of production” of countries.
Developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia usually do well in the sports that young people can learn and practise in their “natural” environment.
Thus one of the world’s most iconic long-distance runners, Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, became good at the sport because he was born into a poor family and had to run 20 kilometres to school every day.
John Akii-Bua was the first Ugandan to win Olympic gold — at the Munich games in 1972. He is also the last.
Also, no African since Akii-Bua has won the 110 metres hurdles at the Olympics. So how did he manage this feat?
There are many stories about that, but the most popular is that as a child growing up in the village in northern Uganda, his family lived in an area that had many wild animals, so he spent his childhood running away from lions while he was on errands.
That story is certainly embellished, but it captures the basic reality — Akii-Bua didn’t learn to run on a fancy track in some stadium.
Kenya’s Paul Tergat was born into a humble background, and he has said if it were not for the World Food Programme’s school feeding programme, he would never have developed the strength to become a great runner.
Likewise, many of Africa’s great footballers are from poor or working class families, who learnt the game kicking improvised balls in the slums or village squares.
As soon as it comes to games that require expensive equipment, club membership, or pricey animals, we disappear.
Still, that begs the question; why don’t the young privileged Africans who have access to exclusive clubs with their swimming pools and tennis courts, become great Olympians in these sports?
My sense is that in our countries, sports have become entrenched as a get-out-of-poverty card. For middle class Africans who are better off, sports is recreational.
In Kenya when they go to Nairobi’s various exclusive clubs where their parents are members to swim, they are not looking to become professional swimmers.
Sports is still very much evolving in Africa, and right now, it is in its utilitarian phase and far from being a widespread professional industry.
If, then, sports is still a get-out-of-poverty activity, even if somehow Africa’s poor could find a cheap way learn how to ride horses and fence, they probably still wouldn’t.
This is because some sports offer quicker riches and fame than others.
It is still easier (for everyone, not just Africans) to become a millionaire running the marathon, boxing, and playing football, than being an accomplished gymnast or archer.
All this tells us a lot about the future. Even if African countries become the richest in the world, they might not top the Olympic Games medals tables.
On the contrary, a rich Africa means that the hardships and poverty that motivate young people to be world-beating athletes today will be gone, and with it the incentive to excel. A richer Africa, therefore, could end up winning fewer medals.
Maybe the Olympics are, after all, not really about sports.
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