Commonwealth Games: Africa is doing its sports all's not greedy enough

The continent is being figured nations that can't mint long distance runners from local stock are buying African athletes with citizenship

THE skeet. Queens Prize Pairs. Rythmic-individual ribbon. Men’s pommel. The Keirin.

Unless you are an African aficionado of specific disciplines, or just a freak, chances are that you have never heard of most of the above sporting categories.

You wouldn’t be in the minority.

The England-Australia fix

Yet by the time the first athletics medal was handed out on the fifth day of this year’s Commonwealth Games, England and Australia were tallying up their medals in double figures, on the back of wins in such sports as shooting, gymnastics and cycling classes. 

With the Glasgow games winding down this Sunday, the highest-ranked African nation is currently South Africa with 11 gold - a quarter of England’s gold medal tally.

By early Friday Nigeria and Kenya had a combined gold medal tally of 12, with Kenya’s five so far all having come from the track.  Notably, in addition to the sprints, the West African country has also been throwing its weight around—half of its gold haul has come from weightlifting.

South Africa’s haul is remarkably well distributed, but the identity of its best disciplines is a giveaway: lawn bowls—which has brought in half the golds—swimming and judo.   

Yet this distribution of medals could be a pointer to the future of sports in Africa. Here’s how.

Why does the world hold international sporting meetings? Because it is good business all round.

Like any other international meetings, multinational sporting events are meant to promote sovereign interests—only that they are usually seen in terms of visibility and reputation enhancement. The global good, as a reason, comes second.

Of little Jamaica

An example of this in practice is Jamaica. The Caribbean island is currently enjoying a solid spell of global recognition due to its most visible sporting brand ambassador, Usain Bolt. This comes hand in glove with increased positive awareness about the country in general, and with attendant benefits such as more tourists (going to see the home Bolt was raised as a child, for example) and some diplomatic prestige.

Kenya’s athletes are world renowned, and usually serve as better envoys of the country than most marketing campaigns the country mounts. One complaint has been that they are not media savvy, showing just how image is important in today’s global market.

The success of Kenya and major rival Ethiopia are mainly derived from the distance races.  Indeed up to 99% of their medals at major meets usually come from athletics. It looks quite good in those competitions where this single discipline is enhanced, such as the World Championships, but fades badly when the big multidiscipline competitions such as the Olympics show up.  

It is a classic case study in the economic theory of absolute advantage—that these are countries able to produce more world-beaters than other countries given the same amount of resources.

The study of why certain countries do better at some things than at others has long fascinated economists from the days of Adam Smith. Most answers have tended to interprete this from a context of the dynamics of international trade.

This advantage in its most basic sense plays up the concept of specialisation—that as a country do what you are good at, and then trade this for what you are pants at.

For long it was in Kenya’s advantage to hone in on the distance races, for the reason that it was simply cheaper to do so given their natural proclivity, aided in large part by a unique geographical advantage.

But Western athletes gradually caught on to this advantage and begun to flock to the country to train in high altitude camps. And year on year their performances began to pick up, ratcheting up competition and leading to previously rare instances of African athletes failing drugs tests.

Invading Kenya-Ethiopia territory

The 3,000m men’s steeplechase was for example the preserve of Kenyans for years—with the famed expectation of a 1-2-3 podium sweep—and for some time they delivered.

But recently this sequence hasn’t happened, there is always a different nationality in among the Kenyans, even if they invariably win the race. The most interesting thing is the nationality of the “spoilsport”—Frenchman Mahiedine Mekhissi-Bennabbad has been in among the Kenyan medals in the last four major competitions—two Olympics and  two Worlds. In 2008 he won silver at Beijing—the first non-Kenyan to finish first or second at the event for 24 years.

For long even the big sporting world powers followed the specialisation argument, with the Americans doing the short races, the Chinese excelling in gymnastics, the Australians starring in water sports.

Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations further advanced the flip argument to the specialisation model—that of comparative advantage. Seen from a sporting perspective, you do what you are good at, but still take a stab at what you are average in. 

The big world powers now enter competitors in almost all disciplines—even if they think they have little chance of winning. And the bets are beginning to pay off.

Australian Michael Shelley upset the form book to win the Glasgow men’s marathon fold, shocking the highly-fancied Africans.  Western and Chinese athletes now regularly pop up among the medals during middle to long distance races. And, increasingly, rich nations that can’t mint long distance runners from indigenous stock, are using a rather old-fashioned tool - offering African athletes citizenship and a good life for their families. 

Follow the money

With the sand shifting under their feet, Africa can use these tactics to change its dwindling sporting fortunes. Sports is now a $30 billion-a-year industry that is glitzily packaged, and the continent must begin to treat its participation in it as if it were trading in an international commodity.  

Some Kenyan and Ethiopian entrepreneurs have long realised this and are putting up dozens of training camps in high altitude areas, and charging foreigners to make use of them. British great Mo Farah regularly trains at a training centre in Kenya owned by long-distance star Lornah Kiplagat, where he makes use of Western-style accommodations. Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrsselassie also has a training centre, as does compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba.

If you can’t beat them, counter them. Recently an Angolan gymnast won a gold medal at the discipline’s World Cup last month. Studying in Russia was definitely a major factor for Ana Panzo, but the southern Africa country does have gymnastic facilities, even if its federation head admitted they were more likely to injure users.

Kenyan brothers Jason and David Dunford have been making waves in the country —none less than when the latter broke an Olympic Record in Beijing, although it was subsequently bettered.  In the 2012 Commonwealth Games Jason bagged Kenya’s first-ever swimming gold in the competition. He has been on a swimming scholarship in the US.

This is one way African can compete—tap its vast diaspora and persuade them to turn out for it. It may not be easy, but it is a win-win situation.   

The continent also needs to diversify, even if the returns may not be apparent at first. African athletes at the Winter Olympics are currently a curiosity, leading to regular human interest stories about their beating the odds, but they have still come a long way.

In 1984 the first African country, Senegal, participated in these Games. Since then Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Togo and Zimbabwe have had a stab at it. Uganda also tried its luck in the Winter Paralympic Games, before losing the athlete to Norway.

This route does not need much upfront capital to cultivate a competitive hunger—the cash will soon come in.

Kenya’s evergreen skier Philip Boit trained using roller skis on dirt terrain in the tropical heat of his hometown Eldoret when he was not farming. His hunger to compete never dimmed. In the 1998 Olympics in Nagano he placed dead last, in 2002 he beat three others, in 2006 he bested five competitors in the 97-strong field. 

This is the message - Africa should throw itself at every discipline. The law of averages demands that a medal will soon show up. Ask Julius Yego—Kenya’s new Commonwealth Games javelin champion who trained by watching YouTube videos.

Twitter: @LMAfrican


blog comments powered by Disqus