Despite what the final medal count might show, Africa was represented at the 2012 London Olympics. Disregard the fact that as a continent, we only won 29 of the potential 962 medals awarded and the fact that our top medal winner, South Africa finished 23rd amongst all other nations with 6 medals, 3 of it gold, Africa definitely made a showing in London. Some of it was memorable like Chad Le Clos beating Michael Phelps in the pool or Kenya’s David Rudisha breaking the 800-meter world record.
Some of it was forgettable like the historic loss by the Nigerian basketball team at the hands of the USA men’s team and even some were for other countries like Mo Farah from Somalia winning two gold for Team GB. Yes Africa was truly represented in all facets at the Olympics except one; No country truly emerged itself as a world power in the making like China did with not only hosting, but also winning the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
For as far back as I can remember African athletes always seem to add a feel good story to the overall picture of the Olympic spirit but at some point we should expect more of ourselves. The question now lies in how we move from just participating and expanding the geographical knowledge of the general public to seriously contending for medals at the greatest international event known to man or woman in sports.
The first issue is to be realistic. The truth of the matter is many African countries will never be able to produce enough athletes to compete against the likes of the U.S, G.B, China etc, but that’s actually not a problem when you think about the economies of scale. Many don’t have the human capital or the financial resources to make such a feat realizable. However, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya are fine with their domination in the long distance running events and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Theirs is really the state of many African countries and my advice is for others to emulate them.
Back to my original issue, when will an African country step up from being an orphan and announce itself on the world stage? Well only two countries come to mind when I think of their ability to compete amongst a variety of sports, that being South Africa and Nigeria. The first producing one of its more successful outings at the Olympics, while the latter its more woeful outing with zero medals a feat not accomplished since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
South Africa was able to finish 23rd amongst 204 nations which, in the grand scheme of things isn’t awful, but if Kazakhstan with a population of 17mil people and a gdp of 216 billion can finish in 12th place recording 13 medals then, South Africa with a population of 48 mil people and gdp of 408 billion has no reason not targeting a top 10 finish. South Africa’s strength is in the water events and they should continue to build on that, but I believe if they invest in other sports like they do swimming and engage the larger population, they can breed world class athletes like Caster Semenya to add to their medal haul.
This brings me to Nigeria and don’t expect me to add the Giant of Africa because from as far back as I can remember, that title lost its merit a long time ago. It is true Nigeria has the largest black population on earth with over 160mil citizens, a recorded gdp of 413 billion, and arguably the best geographical location in all of Africa perfect to breed not only summer Olympic athletes, but even host a summer games. One may wonder then what holds Nigeria back and why our current situation states otherwise.
Out of respect for the other African countries that seem to represent themselves well, I won’t disregard the fact that Nigeria no longer holds the position as an African power on the continent, let alone compare her to the likes of Great Britain, U.S.A, France etc. The truth of the matter is our performance reflects the decaying state of Nigeria as a whole. With corruption at a rampant high, infrastructure non- existent, education at an all time low, it’s hard to figure out how world-class athletes can be bred in such an environment.
Just as the problems are obvious, ironically so are the solutions. I don’t present myself as some all- knowing expert, but I’d like to think I know a little bit and can offer my two cents from my experience with working and competing in sports. So here are my short term and long-term solutions to my beloved Africa.
The first one boils down to empathy and recruiting. Find all your top athletes in the world and woo them like you’ve never wooed anyone before. Countries are always trying to bring in international investors to help grow their economy, why not do the same for your athletes. If done the right way, with patriotism as your pitch, add a boat- load of financial incentives, I’m sure this can bring in a few more medals into the continent. Before you judge me, I suggest you look at other sectors of society, they do it all the time with education and business, just add sports to the list.
My long- term solution stems from a more complicated dichotomy; sort of like the chicken or the egg, which came first. Many would argue that Africa as a whole has bigger problems to deal with than worrying about sports. If this weren’t a sports blog I’d probably agree, but since I am being bias, my response is sports can also be used as the foundation to tackle societal problems especially in a country like Nigeria, which has an overwhelmingly youthful population.
Like a child who attributes his or her life’s success to the effort of a parent or parents, so does an athlete in regards to his or her coach. In order for our athletes to compete on the world stage, our coaches also must be able to do the same. So the first order of the day is educate our coaches, they play a much more significant role than we give them credit for. While we are wooing athletes abroad and winning medals on our short- term agenda, we need to build the infrastructures to give our youth a place to embrace sports, preferably built in our schools.
Every school does not have to participate in every sport, but one sport should be participated by every school. Last but not least, it may sound silly, borderline elementary but my last advice is to just compete. If our athletes are competing at a young age both home and abroad on a consistent basis and not only during major events, the likes of Usain Bolt, Carmelita Jeter, and the USA basketball team won’t seem so overwhelming. How does all this help our society you ask? Well in the case of Nigeria, if you tie sports to education, you get the youth off the streets and into the classrooms and you may not get a million world class athletes, but you will start to breed a more educated society and that means a more productive and safer place to live.