Olympics 2016: Why doesn’t Africa excel on the World Stage?

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The Olympics offer the chance for some of the worlds greatest sportsmen and women to showcase their talents. Just their talents. It is supposedly a stage that grants everyone equal opportunity. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Africa. Those competitors that do excel from the continent often do so despite a lack of rudimentary funding.Having said that, it would be wrong to merely suggest that Africa’s pitfalls are largely as a result of funding, just as it would be wrong to suggest that the pitfalls do not vary across the continent.

Africa had 5% of the medals, as did Oceania. The population of Africa stands at 1.1 Billion. The population of Oceania is 38 Million.

The number of those entered into the Olympics is shockingly low when you take into account the population of Africa. That is not to say that there is a correlation between the numbers entered and success, one only has to look at India’s performance to quash that theory. The figure rather reflects the manner in which sport is viewed. The performance of Africans can largely be attributed to the mentality of the continent. Africa has the worlds fastest growing middle class, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB) they currently make up 34% of its population, these group take an arguably pragmatic approach. They desire for their children to be future Doctor’s, Lawyers and Engineers, sport is viewed as nothing more than a pastime and children are actively discouraged from pursuing careers within the Sports realm. Furthermore, the state of equipment at schools is often sub-par, and safe recreational playing areas that are apt for a range of sports are far and few between. Whilst on the topic of mentality, one could ascribe the lack of achievement on the world stage to an inferiority complex, one that leads to the inability to, at the very least question blatant corruption within various Africa sporting infrastructure.

Several African Sportsmen and women have taken the decision to further their careers by representing different nations such as Qatar and Bahrain. Athletes have switched for a host of reasons; some athletes have done so purely because the competition in their native country is lacking. With regards to the African exodus, more athletes are leaving as a result of the manner in which their respective sports are managed, the fact that they are likely to be duly recognized and more handsomely rewarded monetarily overseas is another contributing factor. A study in 2004 found that African football was plagued by “rampant corruption, maladministration and lack of accountability have negatively impacted on the development of football in Africa” corruption is widely known amongst sporting governances in Africa yet little is done to eradicate this disease.

Whilst some athletes have moved merely to further themselves, others moved or did not participate because they feared for their lives. Ethiopian athletes that descend from the Oromo ethnic group have been omitted from recent competitions as a result of their ethnicity. Sports federations are also rife with nepotism; some agencies even have the audacity to display such biases in front of the world. It is said that Robel Habte the Ethiopian swimmer that recently went viral as a result of coming last in 100m heats is the son of the president of the Ethiopian swimming federation. Feyisa Lilesa, Olympic marathon runner recently drew attention to official Ethiopian malpractices in his homeland as he crossed his arms above his head whilst crossing the finish line. He did so to draw attention to the suppression of Oromo people.

I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism” Abebe Bikila

A simpleton may sardonically claim that the continent has greater issues at hand, whilst undoubtedly true it simply does not answer why Africa fails to excel. Take the Olympic hosts Brazil, they are now deemed to be one of the worlds fastest growing economies, but prior to this, they excelled in certain sports namely football. They did so without the advantages that many western countries had and enjoyed, they simply revelled in the opportunity to showcase their talents and furthermore, to portray their country in a positive light. For Africa, unfortunately, invasive politics and corruption work antagonistically to the investments of African athletes. Resources are simply not distributed in the most efficient manner, Azumah Nelson claimed that poor performances can also be associated with concentrating only on certain sporting disciplines namely football to the total exclusion of others.

Many countries went into the Olympics hoping to make the headlines for the rights reasons, arguably to restore pride and also to invoke a needed injection of morale for their citizens. Having said that, Africa did enjoy some successes; athletes broke world records that their own counterparts had set previously, Cameroon won Gold for the first time. Sadly, what can only be described as childish politics and bureaucracy on the part of the usual suspects overshadowed such events. For instance, Nigeria’s kits arriving late, lack of transport to the games, resulting in extra financial donations from a Japanese plastic surgeon. The level of ineptitude amongst the unprincipled bureaucrats in charge of sports in Africa is confounding. There is a plethora of fundamental wrongdoings that contribute to Africa’s lack of success – attributing it simply to Africa’s financial standing alone would be detrimental to future attempts to find remedies to the malaise.

Written by Kweku Bimpong, NIAS

Kweku Bimpong is a research intern at NIAS. He is also a undergraduate student in Pharmacy at Durham University.