As the games of the XXX Olympiad toggle, wiggle, and dangle their way into the record books, probably only a few things in life compare to the delight of watching the world’s best athletes compete on this stage. For me, it is the irreplaceable bliss of watching those sports that I seldom watch but every four years: Sports such as synchronized swimming, water polo, rowing, fencing, and even women weight lifting. And then, as the Games progress, call it identity politics or whatever you will; I begin to consciously seek out people that look like me. Being African, I start to root for African Olympians to somehow make it to the medal stand.
But woe to me; these 2012 Games are like a sharpshooter that won’t take a moment’s rest from shooting at my fragile heart.
As of the time of this piece, of the 261 medals handed out to deserving athletes, only 4 have gone to African athletes—three gold medals to South Africans and a silver medal to an Egyptian.
Maybe it was quite reasonable that our expectations for ourselves at these games were never high anyways, so what should we care if a wave of disappointing performances meets another wave of dismal expectations?
I am hard-pressed to find any other activity in human society that’s quite as visceral in its potency to hold human thought, focus, and intensity as sports does. Alright, maybe religion is the only other competitor but nothing else comes close. It is the reason why amphitheatres like the Colosseum were so invaluable in knitting ancient Roman society together and vaunting the Roman aura of greatness. It is an entity to which both poor and rich, young and old, find parallel relation.
Now, once such a phenomenon suffers, it is no hard science that the thread of commonality, crucial in building a community, takes a vicious blow as well. It is one of the pivotal reasons why so many African states, already hamstrung by ethnic and religious tensions, find so very little to be adhesive about. A nation that finds so very little to celebrate together ultimately finds very little reason to stay together. The absence of frequent and sustained moments of national joy and pride allows seeds of differences and division to come to the forefront. Sports then become an indispensable mediator in a society forever at the brink of conflict.
Of course, a lot of reasons could be attributed to why African sports have suffered as much and for as long as they have. Even in the things we know how to do well, such as soccer, we end up being so inept and pathetic quite often that it boggles the mind. Inevitably, corruption and lack of vision by political leaders will have to take the brunt of this blame. It is not blasphemy to think political leaders set the agenda for sports in virtually all African states. After all, for training facilities to be built, sports ministries, national coaches and managers hired for the many national teams, youth development activities, etc—these politicians by their powers dictate the budget and what international resources are attracted via diplomatic circles.
Of the 205 countries competing in these 2012 Games, only 2 African states have made it to the medal stand so far. In the all-time medal count since these modern Games began in 1896, only 23 African states have medaled—of those 23, thirteen have captured gold. While it is relevant that the Olympics have never been held on African soil, some may argue this consequentially explains our futility in these Games. There might be some grain of argument to that. I will not be so quick to dismiss it.
Track and fields are coming up soon, and in all honesty, I have little hope the medal count will change much once it’s done. Maybe I should be able to point to the next African state that will take us out of this wilderness, but sadly, none comes to mind. I’m not advocating we win all Olympic sporting categories conceivable, but a respectable showing in more than half will go a long way toward bringing joy and moments of serenity to a continent that has gone through so much, and still goes through so much. We know the Winter Olympics are a bit untailored for us; but our land and skin shows the world who we are. We are sons and daughters of the sun and we have known and kissed this sun—why then can’t we own these Summer Games?