The ongoing All Africa Games in Congo’s capital city of Brazzaville, just like the previous editions, are a sham, and efforts should be speeded up to reform and restructure them. To achieve this quickly, it may well be in order that the African sports ministers who run the games must be told to shape up or ship out.
As it is, sporting enthusiasts across the continent are deprived of the real cream of African sports with the absence of athletics superstars as well as other players in major team events such as basketball and volleyball. And the root of all this is the poor management of the games at whose helm are people who are not necessarily sportspersons at heart, but are there at the will of their presidents who may even have appointed them to the sports portfolio out of favour. As various nations continue to celebrate some bagged Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the Pan African games, a tussle for the control of the event by continental sports ministers and their countries’ respective Olympic chiefs is searing on the sidelines.
The African Union Sports Council (AUSC), led by sports ministers, wants to continue being in charge of the continental games while the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) feels the games should be run under their ambit – and given the shambles that have characterised the Games over the years, perhaps the time has come to allow ANOCA, a body run by bona fide sportspersons, to take over the ownership of the games as they so aggressively want to. Perhaps the African Olympic movement can bring some semblance to the games that have been a farce and are continuing to play ‘tenth fiddle’ to all other major international sport events across the globe. The politicians continuing to run the Games will not bring to an end a situation where top continental athletes continue to absent themselves mainly because they despise the value the games add to their professional ambitions, as well as the event’s general organisation.
It has been a norm for the Games to live beneath expectations as most competitors have not often been the best of the continent. Even as recent as the 2003 Games in Abuja, Nigeria, the then cream of African athletics in the likes of 800m sensation Maria Mutola of Mozambique, Haile Gerbrselassie of Ethiopia and the then marathon world record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya were conspicuous absentees from the event when the whole continent had waited to cheer them up. Big athletes often find other international events more appealing, better organised and lucrative. The argument has always been for such big stars to treat their homeland with respect and appreciate the games as a vehicle through which the African Union seeks to unite Africans. But many such athletes have often argued that the games are poorly-organised and marketed, with the past editions not even managing to attract any television interest.
The last All Africa Games in Mozambique are a case in point – there was little marketing of the Games and with no television rights organised, Africa itself, and the rest of the world, could not see what the continental stars were doing! And, sports ministers being politicians rather than sportspersons, they are often trapped in the political patriotism drive of asking who the other non-African event organisers think they are rather than work to forge relations that will help in the synchronisation of all world events to avoid clashes that always leave African athletes on the fence. Every edition of the All Africa Games has thus been found to clash with one other event or another, especially the IAAF World Championships where the dates either overlap or clash directly as was the case with the previous edition in Mozambique. Even this year, the dates for the two competitions had only four days in between, whereas top athletes could need more time for recuperation between major events.
But the ministers do not understand this – otherwise they would do their scheduling of games in consultation with all other international event organisers, something the sports people at ANOCA would easily achieve given that most international events are run under the Olympic movement. The ministers, however, say they will not budge, and when they met at their Region 5 caucus meeting last week, they described ANOCA’s call for the control of the Games as “disrespectful and arrogant.” Botswana’s sports minister Thapelo Olopeng has since undertaken to discuss the stance of the African ministers further in a press conference he has called for next Monday. “African ministers have rejected and condemned ANOCA’s attempt to take ownership of the Games as disrespectful and arrogant,” Minister Olopeng said on Friday, adding that the Games “shall remain fully owned by Member States through the AUSC and that the position is non-negotiable.”
It is strange however, that ANOCA has no role in the only Olympic-style event meant for African sports people, with governments saying they cannot trust sportspersons with their money. Only in Africa! The well-acclaimed Asian Games, Pan-American Games and the European Games are run by their Olympic movements and are thus used as Olympic qualifiers. In contrast, most disciplines within the African Games are not used as Olympic qualifiers hence some top athletes see no need to participate at the games. In the end, the shine of African sports continues to be eclipsed by political wrangling and in-fighting over who should run the games. In the meantime, development suffers and there is little improvement in the organisation of games meant for the athletes. It should thus not surprise anyone when most top African stars end up switching nationalities to represent more progressive countries overseas.
Perhaps the ministers at the AUSC – in case they do not let go of the Games - should start working harmoniously with other international event organisers to avoid the recurring clashes that have characterised the continental games for years. Athletes often find themselves having to run themselves to exhaustion in search of world prestigious accolades only to dash to Africa to make courtesy appearances where quality is inevitably compromised. This is why the All Africa Games don’t usually produce world record-breaking performances because African top stars treat them the same way premier league football stars in Botswana treat Christmas holiday matches at their home villages. They feel there is little to fight for at such games. A couple of days before the games in Congo, Africa’s sprint sensation Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor, who is Africa’s and Commonwealth Games’ best in the short sprints, asked not to be included in Nigeria’s All Africa Games team, giving no reasons for her decision. She is nowhere near the games, yet she would have been the easy favourite to win Gold in her races – 100m and 200m. Yet she was at the IAAF World Championships in China where she made this announcement.
Many African athletes are often torn between these international events and the African Games. Even Botswana’s 400m star Amantle Montsho had to arrive late at the 2011 Games in Mozambique because she had just been at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Other African athletes stayed away. This year, Isaac Makwala and Nijel Amos could not travel to Congo with Team Botswana because there were still more important events to attend to in Zurich and Berlin immediately after their participation at the world championships. The general disdain for the All Africa Games by most athletes is such that they can afford to participate in a series of European and American events in a short space of time without crying of exhaustion, yet when they have to come to an African event they give out a series of excuses. It is no secret that they see no value in the Games. The current games have also seen countries like Tunisia, Kenya and Egypt send their second string volleyball teams to the Games because they clash with an ongoing major FIVB world cup event taking place in Hiroshima, Japan.
All of the IAAF World Championships’ Gold medalists from Kenya are not competing at the Games but are busy at other international athletics events. Ethiopia too will not have any of their Gold medalists except 5000m world champion Almaz Ayana. There has also been doubts about the participation of South Africa’s 400m world champion Wayde van Niekerk although he too was named in Team SA. Such is the result of poor management of the Games by their handlers, resulting further in the lack of quality that could see the rest of the world and top sponsors having interest in the games. As it is, companies like Samsung would not care much about the All Africa Games because at about the same time the Games are ongoing in Congo, top African athletes are competing at their events as has been the case with David Rudisha, Mohammed Aman, Amos and Makwala who have just been at the IAAF Samsung Diamond League. It is for this reason that the Games should be taken from the hands of politicians and be run by sportspersons who will best work with the IOC to give the games a slot far away from other major events. The issue of governments funding the games should be treated as much as the situation at Football where governments provide the funding, and football people run the game.
Yet the sports ministers do not like that. At the Africa International Sports Convention (CISA) that was held this March in Rwanda, Ugandan sports minister Charles Bakkabulindi was clear that sports administrators like the National Olympic body chiefs could not be entrusted with Government money.
“We should not forget why the African Union came up with the All Africa games concept. The games started as a political outfit. Which means that the ministers need to remain at the policy and supervisory levels of these games. The sports leaders need to see that we can only be partners. They have the experience, they have the mandate, but the Government wants to see and wants to know what they are doing,” the sports minister clearly stated. Yet the infamous and chaotic constituency tournaments in Botswana are a clear example of what a disaster it can be if governments force through the control of sports events simply because money comes from them. It is no different to a rich football club owner who starts meddling in team selection issues – the team never performs, hence the shambles that is the All Africa Games.