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Athlete Defections Will Hurt Africa Summer Olympics


Thursday, July 3, 2008
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Africa – a continent with a population now approaching a billion people, must organize and work extra hard towards bringing home as many medals as possible from the 2008 Olympic Games slated for Aug. 8-24 in Beijing, China.

Over the years, Africa’s collective performance in such global games has been unimpressive as the continent has continued to lose its best competitors who flee into the first world in search of more money.

More importantly, Africa has not been able to qualify to host such a prestigious event to date. Our first shot will come when South Africa hosts the games in 2012.

This year’s games will comprise of 302 events in 28 sports. How will Africa perform in these competitions? Have we invested enough to hope for improved results?

During the 1996 games in Atlanta, Africa sent some 52 participating nations and won 34 medals – including 11 gold. 

In recent years, Africa’s competitive spirit in sports has emerged in soccer that saw Nigeria win a gold medal after defeating Argentina. Sadly, many African soccer stars have migrated to Europe contributing to a high caliber of professional teams giving credit to European nations as the continent scrambles to get them back to enhance its level of performance at home.

Yet, in the recent past, struggling poor African nations such as Burundi, which has gone through many years of political unrest, was able to produce a gold medalist, Venuste Niyongabo, in the men’s 5,000-meter race. Names like that of Ethiopia’s Haile Gebreselassie who won a gold medal in the 10,000 meters event; Chioma Ajunwa, the Nigerian female tack runner who won her country’s first gold medal in the long-jump competition, and Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, who won the women’s marathon by the largest margin ever, all such stars are Africa’s hope for this year’s Olympics in China.

Africa could do better in Beijing, but has suffered “human capital drain” over the years. During the 2001 Francophone Games in Canada, a total of 106 participants from all over Africa defected to seek asylum in Canada. Similarly, during the Commonwealth Games of Manchester, 21 out of Sierra Leone’s contingent of 30 athletes defected.

Other recent defections occurred in Finland where 12 members of Sierra Leone’s Under-17 national football team “disappeared.”  To add salt to injury, at the Special Olympics in Ireland, four of the six-strong Niger delegation went missing.

As Africa continues to lose its best sportsmen, we still put our future hopes on names like Maria Mutola, Hicham El Guerrouj and Haile Gebreselassie as our continent’s patriots who may bring honor to us from Beijing.

The 2008 Addis Ababa African Athletics Championships revealed new talents from South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya.  South Africa collected 12 gold medals and 10 others, while Nigeria snatched 19 medals, out of which 7 were gold. Ethiopia collected a total of 15 medals and came third.

Ethiopia’s Dibaba sisters (Tirunesh and Ejegayehu) and Kenenisa Bekele were shining stars while Kenya did well in the 3,000 steeplechase event enabling the country to stand fourth in medal acquisition.

President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria has projected that his country should aim at collecting eight gold medals in the Beijing. Unhappily, debates are still raging over money to fund such efforts. His chairman of the National Sports Commission and Minister of Sports, Abdurrahman Hassan Gimba is pessimistic about his country being able to win any medals. Sports observers say that there is a lot of cosmetic talk about sports in Nigeria while Olympics dreams remain under-funded.

Zimbabwe’s hopes for Olympics are in an upbeat mood despite recent political unrest. Already 11 athletes have reached appropriate levels of participating in Beijing.

Cameroon’s Francoise Mbango, who excels in triple jump, is a potential gold medalist. In boxing, the names of Joseph Bessala and Ndongo Ebanga may help in bringing home some medals. Yet, I would not be surprised if some African nations return from Beijing empty-handed!

Since the 2010 FIFA World Cup will take place in South Africa bringing the continent into the global family for the first time, Africa should focus on unleashing a few surprises then for it is too late now to plan for great expectations in the August Beijing Games. We must start our preparations from this very moment to do better in our own soil.

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About Swallehe Msuya

Swallehe Msuya was a senior staff writer at Mshale with extensive media experience in his native Tanzania. He was a general assignments writer. Investigative stories that Mshale undertook were normally his responsibility. Swallehe passed away in Sept. 2009 at the age of 61. Mshale will forever miss his tenacity and wisdom.

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