Fine speculation on Uganda’s new athletics glory

 Charles Onyango-Obbo

Uganda just had a fabulous outing at the just-ended 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Three gold, one silver, two bronze – all in athletics and boxing.
Until the dying hours of the game, Uganda was even ahead of African long-and-middle-distance-running powerhouse Kenya! In the end, we placed 15th out of 39, not bad for a country whose funding for athletics you can put in a small envelope, and where training facilities are abysmal.

Some wags have quipped that our medal winners, “sound suspiciously” Kenyan, with “Kip” “Che” and even “Mutai” names.
If you think of East Africa as one big village, then the issue doesn’t arise. They are all children of the village, and the village has raised them. But even without that, remember our friend military strongman Idi Amin?
We nearly went to war with Kenya in the mid-1970s because Amin laid claim to all the areas in Kenya inhabited by people with “Che” and “Kip” names. He said they were once our lands. Amin was correct that chunks of western Kenya and the Rift Valley were once part of Uganda.

His mistake was to view history as static. Without sweating the issue, borders and people’s have moved dramatically in Africa over the last 125 years.
So, how come, Uganda is doing well again in athletics, despite the lack of State funding? Part of the explanation for this, as for several other African countries, goes back nearly 30 years. As we have hinted before, it was when the economy was freed and the foreign exchange was liberalised.

No one thought of the impact of this on sports. But from once closed places like Ethiopia, across the breadth of the continent, the fact that sportsmen and women could go abroad and earn big dollars in things like marathons, bring it home, keep it in a bank or exchange it at market (not government-fixed) rates perhaps provided the biggest impetus for Africans to become world-class athletes.

People might fight for their nation, but they don’t run or play for it despite the fact they often claim that they do so for flag and country. There’s no way an African will go to run in the New York marathon, win $250,000, bring it home, hand it to the Central Bank for, say, Sh1,000 to the dollar and then withhold 50 per cent of it (so he gets Shs125m), then sit back and watch the president’s sister-in-law being allocated $200,000 at the same rate, and then she sells it on “the Kibanda” market for Sh3,000, and make a profit of Sh400m. He won’t run again.
So the most far-reaching sports policy was the institution of free foreign exchange markets.

Secondly, the Internet. Take Kenya’s powerful man Julius Yego, the African and Commonwealth record holder in the javelin. He taught himself to throw the javelin using YouTube.
Many relatively “poor” African athletes who can’t afford a foreign coach, now need only a good Internet connection, and before long they are away to the races. If you look beyond sports, there are things like the black natural hair movement, which has been fuelled by a unique nexus of the Internet and Afropolitanism.

But geography also matters. If you are in a region of early success stories in a sport (long and middle distance in the Horn and East Africa), you can tap into the training ecosystem for the sport (eg training partners and private training camps in Kenya) and lift your game.
You can see that Southern and West Africa, which have had historical success in the sprints, do better in those sports than East Africans. The day an East African wins the 100 metres gold at the Olympics, it will signal some dramatic social or economic shift.

There are a couple of other factors one could list, but we shall end with an economic – the uneven spread of the benefits of economic growth, and corruption.
Difficult sports like boxing and long distance running are still the preserve of “the rest”, not the upper class. It’s conceivable that a minister’s daughter can become national tennis champion, and a deputy prime minister’s son can become a top golfer. But there is no way the president’s favourite nephew would be the national marathon record holder.
That is more likely to go to a “Kip” from the mountains, and the leading hurdler will probably be a “Bua” from the north – or Naguru working class quarters – all largely marginalised areas.

Sports is one area where patronage and nepotism don’t work. A State House can ensure that the First Lady’s niece wins the national beauty contest. But it can’t make the president’s inept brother-in-law the national cross-country champion.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

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