Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede
No sooner had the 2020 Summer Olympics commenced than now-familiar tales of inadequate preparation and administrative snags involving African Olympic athletes began to trickle out of Tokyo.
And by the closing ceremony and the handover to Paris for the 2024 Olympics, millions of Africans who tuned in to cheer their compatriots were glad to see the back of this summer’s Games.
Tokyo offered up its share of heart-warming moments involving African sportspeople.
Peruth Chemutai became the first-ever Ugandan woman to win an Olympic medal, taking gold in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase. Eliud Kipchoge spectacularly defended his marathon gold medal, and teenagers from Namibia and Tunisia won silver and gold medals respectively.
But the underperformance of athletes from continental giants like Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, DRC, Ghana and Kenya was noticeable, with some countries posting their lowest medal tallies in years.
The circumstances surrounding the underperformance of African athletes at the Games were just as frustrating.
Ten Nigerian athletes were disqualified for failing to meet testing requirements under anti-doping rules. Athletes from Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya were similarly disqualified. Nigeria’s gold-medal hope Blessing Okagbare was also banned for using an illegal substance, while the country’s failure to properly equip its 60 athletes across 10 sports for the 2020 Games may have cost it more than US$50 million of sponsorship deals, leading to a round of finger-pointing among its sports authorities.
South Africa’s 4×100-meter men’s team also disappointed when they dropped the baton in their relay race. Kenya’s 100m sprinter Mark Otieno was provisionally suspended for failing a drug test.
Fans back home and even some of the athletes pinned these disappointing outcomes on administrative oversights by national athletic associations.
Almost immediately, calls for resignations of the officials responsible and a revamping of sports administration structures across various African countries began, among individuals, on social media and across domestic mainstream media. The familiar problems besetting sports organisations were listed, including but not limited to corruption, nepotism, low funding for sports and interference by political elites.
Debates typically centred on whether to retain and improve upon the centralised, state-controlled status quo or if African sports programs would be better off adopting a more ad hoc, private sector-driven approach like in the United States.
Beyond the false dilemma implicit in that argument, it ignores the correlation between decreased spending on education since the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programme era of the 1980s and 1990s; difficulties in developing and managing athletic talent; and disappointing international sports outcomes.
For many decades dating back to the pre-independence period, many African countries produced sports talent through the basic education pipeline.
Local, national, regional and continental school competitions served as a proving ground for athletes, many of whom eventually went on to represent their countries at international athletic competitions. Eventually, the debt crises of the 1980s, coupled with various domestic political dynamics, saw drastic cuts to public-sector spending, severely affecting education and sports infrastructure.
Many athletic facilities crumbled over time due to lack of repair and upgrades, while funding for physical education programmes shrunk and talent cultivation programmes suffered as a result.
It was also during this period that several contemporary trends became popular, like the building of costly, unsustainable sports infrastructure projects, or white elephants; the uneven allocation of funding to football and other popular sports at the expense of a more balanced set of priorities; and the defection of African athletes to athletic federations in other countries, typically Western but now increasingly Middle Eastern as well.
Today, many African countries are still not spending the recommended four to six percent of national GDP and/or 15 to 20 percent of total public expenditure on education, even though funding in absolute terms has generally increased in the past decade. And the odds of that changing seem remote, with a joint World Bank-UNESCO report finding that many low and lower middle-income countries have shrunk their education budgets since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
For a continent with a population of more than 1.3 billion people and an average age of 20, revamping the education-athletics pipeline and creating ways to channel investments to the sports sector amid tightening public revenues ought to be a no-brainer.
The political, economic, social and cultural benefits of sports are considerable, many of them on display during the Olympics.
The successful rollout of the Basketball Africa League illustrates the kind of public-private collaboration that augurs well for a revolutionary sports ecosystem in Africa. The main challenge for African countries is to reconcile infrastructure development and returns on investment with the broader needs of populations and a sustainable sports complex.The continued failure to strike that balance will yield many more disappointments at future Olympics and other international sports events to come. – World Politics Review