By Enock Muchinjo — The Olympic Games are a global spectacle, the world’s most exciting multi-sport event. Africa, though, has underachieved at the Olympics, although this time around in Rio de Janeiro, there is new hope that the continent can finally start to make its mark in other disciplines other than distance running – where Kenya and Ethiopia have hauled a respectable number of medals. Enock Muchinjo previews the Games with African lenses.
Let the Games begin!
Today, the familiar murmurs of skepticism towards non-global economic powers hosting major international sporting events will give way to reverberating sound of both joy and relief as Brazil’s coastal city of Rio de Janeiro officially unveils the festivities of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
Joy because the Olympics is the world’s biggest sporting party, a stage where the entertainers, athletes drawn from all over the planet across multiple sporting codes, not only thrill with highly-charged battles for supremacy, but in line with the Olympic spirit, also strive to be “faster, higher and stronger.”
Millions of Brazilians will of course breathe a collective sigh of relief that after all, despite some notable stars pulling out of the games in fear of the Zika virus, most of the world’s leading sportsmen and women will strut their stuff in the land of the samba – defying calls for the games to be moved elsewhere.
The Russian doping scandal, which came to light before the games and could so easily have resulted in a blanket ban on all athletes from that country, also threatened to mar the Rio Olympics. But, thankfully, that did not directly have anything to do with the host.
Brazil’s biggest apprehension about the games was external lingering doubt over its readiness and capacity to host a successful Olympic Games.
South Africa was subject to such scrutiny before the 2010 football World Cup, and Brazil itself had to undergo deep inspection when it was its turn to host the world football’s greatest showpiece two years later.
Both South Africa and Brazil put up quite an impressive show, a source of enormous pride for both Africa and Latin America, the global south.
More of that later, though – after Brazil has hosted what should be an astonishingly successful Rio Olympics that will quell fears and surprise skeptics.
Africa’s best hope
Let’s for now focus on Africa’s prospects in Rio.
Is this the year athletes from the continent will start to make their well-known physical prowess count in terms of competing equally on the medal table?
There are a few guarantees for the continent.
Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia – in that order Africa’s highest ranked nations on the all-time Olympic medal table – will once again lead the continent’s charge.
Kenya and Ethiopia’s world-class long-distance runners are the bedrock on which their success is based.
“There is a lot more Africa can achieve at the Rio Olympics due to the increased funding and training afforded to athletes from different codes by the International Olympic Committee,”says Titus Zvomuya, a member of Zimbabwe’s Olympics committee and the country’s chef de mission in Rio.
As for South Africa, they are just a sports-mad country. Mzansi’s rich sporting heritage, versatility across a variety of disciplines and unparalleled investment in sport in Africa makes them tough competitors in a lot of Olympic sports.
But who will be the Rainbow Nation’s main medal hopefuls in Rio?
Swimmer Chad Le Clos will carry the hopes of a big nation after he won gold in the 200-metre butterfly and silver in the 100-metre butterfly in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya and 400m specialist Wayde Van Niekerk are also in there with a chance for South Africa.
All eyes on Kenya
In Kenya, all eyes will be on the East African country’s track and field team, as is always the case, but sadly this time around it’s also for the wrong reasons.
In the past few months, an expose commissioned by The Times of London and German TV channel ARD, claimed it found evidence of “widespread doping” among Kenyan and European athletes at high altitude training camps in the North Rift region.
In the past few years, 42 Kenyan athletes have been banned for doping, the most prominent being former Boston Marathon champion Rita Jeptoo.
The increase in positive cases prompted the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to place Kenya on a doping watch list, later declaring the country “non-compliant.”
But expect Kenya to shrug off that and, once again, claim a glut of medals at yet another edition of the Olympics.
The Kenyans are poised to dominate in their most favoured event, the men’s 3000m steeplechase, where Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto and Conseslus Kipruto make up the team for Rio.
Ethiopia, Kenya’s fellow East Africans, are in fact chasing what would be a remarkable Olympic record in Rio. They stand a chance of becoming the next nation to achieve a medal sweep in an athletics event at the Olympics, a feat they recorded by winning the gold, silver and bronze in the women’s 5000m at last year’s IAAF World Championships.
To date, 10 nations have achieved the feat: USA, Great Britain, Sweden, Russia, Soviet Union, Finland, Kenya, Unified Team, East Germany and Jamaica.
Kirsty, Africa’s best Olympian
Still on the subject of Olympic records, down the continent in the south, Zimbabwean sporting icon Kirsty Coventry is aiming to become the most decorated individual female swimmer in the history of the Olympics. The 32-year-old former Olympic champion and world record holder – currently tied on seven medals with Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi – is just one podium finish away from writing her own piece of history.
Pity, Coventry hasn’t had the privilege of competing in relays because of Zimbabwe’s lack of depth, otherwise she could have won a few more medals at the Olympics.
Coventry, with seven individual medals, is already Africa’s most successful athlete in the history of the Olympics in terms of medals. No one from the continent has won more medals than her without the support of teammates.
Coventry’s achievements (she is her country’s only ever individual Olympics medalist), perhaps best tells the story of Africa at the Olympics – success in numbers is infrequent, a once-in-a-life-time sort of thing.
We saw that when Mozambican maestro Maria Mutola exited the scene.It is the same with the sprinter Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. And what happened after Tunisia’s Ousamma Melloudi became the first African male to win an Olympic swimming medal at Athens 2008, and long-distance runner Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea won his country’s first ever Olympic medal?
Africa will only achieve consistency and greater success at the Olympics with more action going towards longer term athlete and coach development, more action in providing athletes with the facilities and equipment they need and greater governance to increase trust and attract local corporate sponsorships.
But let us not digress. We are still in Rio. There are more Africans athletes and teams hoping to compete well.
Who else is there to look up to?
Angola’s basketball team is constantly the best in Africa, and often stretches some of the top international sides to the limit.
In later years, Nigeria has joined Angola at the pinnacle of African basketball, thanks chiefly to American-born professionals retracing their Nigeria roots and representing their homeland with distinction.
Nigerian basketball is currently flying high, having recently won their first Afrobasket title, and going to the Olympics for a second consecutive time.
Perhaps not exactly medal hopefuls yet, but the Angolans and Nigerians will add an African flavour to the basketball competition in Brazil.
Up north, Egypt and Tunisia are regularly competitive across such disciplines as weightlifting, shooting, wrestling, sailing, swimming, gymnastics, badminton and boxing.
But in the case of Egypt, they have been dealt a heavy blow ahead of Rio in terms of medal prospects after Ihab Abdelrahman, a silver medallist in the men’s javelin at last year’s World Championships, was suspended for failing a doping test.
The 27-year-old secured Egypt’s first medal at a major athletic championship in Beijing last year and was the country’s biggest hope for a medal in Brazil.
What of the athletes and teams that have best characterised the spirit of the Olympics by defying a host of challenges to make it to Rio?
Look no further than Zimbabwe’s women football team, which has had to endure low pay, deplorable camping conditions, poor diet and training facilities on top of unequal treatment – yet they went on to become the first team from their country to qualify for a major football tournament.
Fellow countrywoman Kirsty Coventry has lauded the courageous footballers, saying they have already achieved great things by qualifying.
“For the first time in history, the Zimbabwe woman’s soccer team qualified for the Olympics – this is success. The future for Zimbabwe at the Olympics is in the hands of all stakeholders and for it to be a successful future then all stakeholders need to put their sweat and tears into it, not just the athletes.”
High praise indeed, coming from an Olympic champion. But wait: the Zimbabwean female footballers are adamant they are not in Rio to just make up the numbers.
Africa will need this kind of fire to leave a lasting mark.