The Dream Team ... Africa’s great Olympian family
They may call themselves foreign names, sing different national anthems or compete under different flags. But they are still members of the Greater African family at home and in the Diaspora. Just imagine what a team they would make, and where the Olympics would be, if they all competed under one African Union flag. Dammy Oluwasanmi and Baffour Ankomah review Africa’s performance at the Sydney Olympics.
Continental Africa had a decent outing in Sydney, with the best performance going to Ethiopia who won 4 gold, 1 silver and 3 bronze. They were followed by Kenya (2 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze), Algeria (1 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze), Cameroon (1 gold), Mozambique (1 gold), Nigeria (3 silver), South Africa (2 silver, 3 bronze) and Morocco (1 silver, 4 bronze).
Some people may want to point to the 39 odd gold that the USA won, or Russia’s 32, China’s 28 or even Britain’s 11 and try to use that to belittle Africa’s performance. But if you take the number of events and disciplines in which these countries competed and the number of events in which the continental Africans competed, the picture that comes out makes the African performance not as bad as it looks on paper.
It is like the USA investing $1m on the stock market and getting $20,000 in return, and Nigeria investing $10,000 and getting $2,000 in return. You can’t honestly say in this case that the USA did better than Nigeria on the stock market.
In fact, Ethiopia, (after all the senseless and distracting war with Eritrea) still managed to win 4 gold, 1 silver and 3 bronze. And that put Ethiopia fourth overall in the athletics, after USA, Poland and Russia. Ethiopia did beat Britain in the athletics by 4 gold to 3! And Britain competed in 80% more events in athletics than Ethiopia. It’s all a matter of contextualisation.
And then, too, the performance of the Africans in the Diaspora (the Greater African Family), running in the colours of a multitude of countries and winning medals for them, was excellent.
For pan-Africanists whose worldview includes the Africans in the Diaspora, it was a joy to see the medal ceremonies of the 4x100m and 4x400m relays (for both men and women) in which 24 different members of the Greater African Family, stood on the podium, flew different flags and were decorated with gold, silver and bronze. Less than 80 years ago such a scene was beyond human imagination. It shows how far Africa and its peoples (both at home and in the Diaspora) have come.
Continental Africa’s major highlights in Sydney were provided by Cameroon, who followed in Nigeria’s footsteps by retaining the men’s Olympic football title for Africa, beating the 1992 winners, Spain 5-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw. Cameroon came from being two goals down in the first half to equalise through Amaya’s own goal and Samuel Eto’o Fils equaliser to take the game into extra time against 9 men Spain, who had two of their players, Gabbri and Jose Mari, sent off in regulation time. Pierre Wome scored the decisive penalty-kick to give Cameroon the gold medal after the luckless Amaya had missed from the spot.
East Africa, as expected, dominated the men’s long distance races from the 1500m to the Marathon. The Ethiopian phenomenon, Haille GabrSelassie, won the men’s 10,000m by the skin of his teeth with a last gasp effort to edge out Kenya’s Paul Tergat who took the silver medal.
GabrSelassie’s compatriot and 1992 Barcelona Olympics 10,000 women’s champion, Derartu Tulu, emulated his feat by winning gold in the women’s event. Tulu set a new Olympic record in the process, winning in 30min 17.49sec ahead of her team-mate, Gete Wami, who took the silver.
The ?Maputo Express? Maria Mutola finally got her Olympic gold by winning the women’s 800m, the only medal for Mozambique at the Games. It was a sweet victory, as Mutola herself later admitted, coming on Mozambique’s national day. And more especially as she lost the gold (pipped at the post) at the Atlanta Olympics through bad tactics.
Million Wolde won Ethiopia’s third gold in the men’s 5,000m final, ahead of Said Sief of Algeria and Brahim Lahlafi of Morocco. And the 29-year-old Algerian, Nouria Merah-Benidah surprised everyone to win the gold in the women’s 1,500m. Her compatriot and former Olympic champion, Hassiba Boulmerka, was in the stands cheering her all the way.
It was Kenya’s turn for gold and it came in the men’s 3000m steeplechase, won by Reuben Kosgei, and 1,500m won by Noah Ngeny who defeated his Algerian arch-rival Hicham El Guerouj, one of the the greatest middle-distance runners of the modern era.
South Africa’s Hestrie Cloete, the former world champion, settled for silver in the women’s high jump behind the Russian, Yelena Yelesina. Enefiok Udobong of Nigeria ran the race of his life as the anchor man in the final of the 4x400m relay to earn a silver behind the American quartet inspired by the great Michael Johnson.
Trailing in fourth place, with 100 metres to go, Udobong ran an inspired race to edge past Bahamas and Jamaica at the post, and in the process he broke the previous African record of 2min 59.32sec (also set by Nigeria in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). The time achieved in Sydney was 2min 58.68sec.
Fittingly, the final event in Sydney, the marathon, was won by Gezahgne Abera of Ethiopia in 2hrs 10min, ahead of Wainaina of Kenya, who took silver and Tola of Ethiopia, the bronze ? completing a 1-2-3 for Africa.
Notable personal disappointments were recorded in the men’s 800m in which the Kenyan-born-Dane, Wilson Kipketer, was beaten; and in the heptathlon in which the former Sierra Leonean (now French) athlete, Eunice Barber, withdrew due to injury. Also disheartening was the inability of Nigeria’s Fallilat Ogunkoya to pick up a medal of any sort in the women’s 400m.
Time to criticise
Africa’s successes in Sydney were largely confined to track events with the exception of Cameroon’s victory in football and Nigeria’s Ruth Ogbeifo’s silver in the 75kg women’s weightlifting event.
The continent would have to be more ambitious next time in the field and other events such as swimming, boxing, judo, wrestling and weightlifting. These are events that Africa, by nature, should be able to develop world class athletes due to the natural athletic ability and strength of the Africans.
In many riverine areas of Africa, people virtually live on water. It is puzzling why these natural advantages have not been developed to produce world class swimmers in Africa, as swimming has one of the highest number of medals awarded at the Olympics, accounting for the big gold hauls of Australia, America, China, Russia, etc, in Sidney. Australia won only one gold in athletics but 11 or so in swimming.
In East Africa, the natural advantage created by living in higher altitudes thereby having more stamina, has been turned into dominance of the middle to long distance races at the world level. There is a need for African sports administrators to develop a sustainable policy to capitalise on the natural comparative advantage the continent has in certain events.
The fire brigade approach should be jettisoned in favour of a long-term development programme that would lead to the production of quality athletes that would do the continent proud at the world stage. Sending ill prepared and inadequate athletes like the Equatorial Guinean, Eric Moussambani, to major international competitions like the Olympics, opens the continent up to stereotyping and ridicule.
Autocratic actions such as the disbandment and the sacking of the coach of the Nigerian women football team by the sports minister, Damishi Sango, for their failure to get past the first round at the Olympics, should be stopped as such actions do not encourage growth.
It beggars belief that in this day and age, a single individual can order the disbanding of a national team, especially in a democratic environment. The Nigerian authorities would do well to review this blatant abuse of power.
Sports administrators are meant to formulate policy for the development of sports and leave team selection and coaching to the professionals. Undue interference by political figures seeking cheap publicity or popularity such as Damishi Sango’s must be discouraged.
The African Olympics story is incomplete without the golden performances of the African Diasporean athletes. Marion Jones of USA set up her store for 5 gold medals ? she had 3 eventually (100m, 200m, 4x400m; and 2 bronze ? long jump and 4x100m). Not bad for a young woman.
Maurice Greene (USA) had his 100m gold all right, Michael Johnson (USA) did not disappoint in the 400m, Denise Lewis (UK) finally got the heptathlon gold she had craved for since the Atlanta Olympics where she came third, Ivan Pedroso (Cuba) wowed the crowd with his gold winning last jump in the men’s long jump, Audley Harrison (UK) captured the super-heavyweight boxing gold, Venus Williams (USA), the golden girl of tennis, performed as we all expected in the women’s tennis singles, she and her sister Serena again went home with the tennis doubles gold, Bahamas (with its 280,000 national population) punched above its weight winning the women’s 4x100m relay, and the Cuban boxers had their customary haul of gold.
The African Diaspora, as usual, made all of us proud. Imagine what dream team they would be, if they all competed for a United States of Africa.
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