Sports development in Africa is on my mind. I am asking myself probing questions, penneds Segun Odegbami, sports administrator, in a masterpiece contributed to the Guardian newspaper.
Uganda produced a John Akii-Bua in the early 1970s. He was the greatest hurdler in the world at the 1972 Olympics.
Tanzania produced Filbert Bayi in the mid- 1970s. He was the greatest middle distance runner in the world in the early 1970s.
Zambia produced Samuel Matete in the 1980s into the 1990s. He was a World 400 metres hurdling champion for a spell. Of course, Kenya had its own long list of world and Olympic champions since the early 1970s.
These are all East African countries populated by blacks in a region with similar environmental features and conditions that influenced their athletes’ performances.
In the group, why is it that it is only Kenya that has had a record of consistent successes through the decades and, today, have become the foremost achiever on the African continent in global sports? Mr. Odegbami wonders.
The Ethiopians, and occasionally the Moroccans and Algerians, have produced some of the best middle and long distance runners also. But not like the Kenyans.
The country’s athletes are achieving global success and visibility. They are in almost all middle and long distance races, including the marathons, cross country and grand prix all over the world. Thousands of Kenyan runners win most of the races and take home the trophies and the prize monies.
These days, as the results from Tokyo confirm, Kenyans have become valued raw materials for countries that are offering them citizenship and using them for international competitions. Many Kenyans ran for many foreign countries. There are big opportunities for Kenyan runners to migrate abroad for studies and for running career in countries willing to adopt them.
Without going into the details of ‘how’, the whole of Kenya has gradually become the ‘running capital’ of the world, everybody runs (or walks).
I sat with a group of consultants many years ago at the Jomo Kenyatta University, working on the urban renewal project of the City of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coastline of Kenya. The motto of the project was unofficially tagged “Move or Die.”
So, when you look at the medals table of the most successful countries at the Olympic Games, Kenya would never be in the single digits, yet the whole world considers them a global force in the area of their specialization.
It is interesting. It presents a model for other African countries to emulate, but are not. Why not?
Jamaica is the most successful country of Black persons of African descent in the world of the sprints event. The country is doing with sprinting what Kenya has been doing for decades with the middle and long distance racing, but navigating through a different route to a similar destination.
Jamaicans are loaded with the genes of the fittest and healthiest of the Black human species from the West African sub-region.
They are born to sprint and to jump. They use their natural power, speed and strength to do well in some particular sports particularly sprinting and the jumps, in Track and Field.
Unlike what obtains in East Africa where open fields in high altitude areas are the only requirements to hone natural talents, for the sprints events, the requirements are more technical and sophisticated. Tracks are needed.
What followed, in a nutshell, is that Jamaica redesigned its discovery-of- talents and grassroots sports development strategy along the American Collegiate system, embraced the training methodology of the most successful American coaches out of San Jose University ‘school of sprinting’, imported some Black American coaches, did a train-the- trainers program, introduced measures that made sprinting in athletics a spectacle, and introduced measures that promoted sports as a culture for schools in Jamaica.
They built simple inexpensive infrastructure for training and competitions and within a decade they succeeded in turning Jamaica into the sprinting capital of the World.
The result is what the world has had to confront since Usain Bolt.
Sprinting has become an integral part of life in Jamaica. Today there is an endless production line of sprinters being churned out of Jamaica’s sports complex.
Jamaicans have become exportable products raking in good revenue into the country, the country has developed a sports tourism industry, its camps have become training base for sprinters from other parts of the world desirous to learn from Jamaica, and the name of the country has become, like Kenya, a massive global brand.
The thought of Africa, her present place in the world of sports, her potential and the possibilities of what sports could do for the continent in a world deliberately and unfavourably re-constructed by the West so that Africans never succeed, often deposits a heavy burden on my heart.
It will not take reinventing the wheel for the rest of African countries to take useful lessons from the examples of Kenya and Jamaica, focus their attention on some specific sports that they are gifted in and that would not require sophisticated infrastructure that they cannot afford, and can impact the whole country when successfully deployed.
Between Kenya and Jamaica, they have found the antidote to the exploitation of The Black man’s natural gift and talent.
Nigeria, with a population of over 200 million Black persons that are designed by nature to run and jump at no cost, within an environment that spans through low and high altitudes, and with rich human capacity in knowledge, and history of successes and potential, with the resources to domesticate the processes, won only one medal at the 2016 Olympics, almost 20 places below a neighbouring poor country, Niger, that won 2 medals.
With these in place, and within a few years, Nigeria and several other African countries, taking lessons from the Kenyan and Jamaican experiences, shall join the league of giants in the sports planet and industry.