AFRICA'S OLYMPICS

Nairobi, Kenya
September 1, 2000

by Dammy Oluwasanmi

The Olympic Games open in Sydney, Austrialia, on 15 September through to 1 October. Going by recent performances, this is bound to be Africa's Olympics. Dammy Oluwasanmi and our correspondents report.

If last year's Athletics World Championships are any guide, Sydney is bound to be Africa's Olympics. Apart from football, boxing and swimming, the continent's best hope of getting medals lies with athletics where since the 1960s, Africans have continued to be among the best in the world.

But that is even restricting Africa to the confines of the continent. Today, people of African descent dominate in sports - they may compete for America, Britain, Canada, Italy, France, Denmark, New Zealand, etc, and may call themselves Marion, Bailey, Williams, Greene, Johnson, Christie, Boldon, Jones, they are still part of the larger African family in the diaspora.

Since the halcyon days of Jesse Owens (in the 1936 Olympics), Team America has gradually gone black, so much so that in the recent US Olympics trials, one could have been forgiven to think that the event was happening in some African country.

Team UK is going the same route. Team France the same. Ditto Team Canada. Today, some European countries, like Denmark and Italy, have had to "import" (naturalised is the word) some African/black athletes to guarantee themselves any chance of winning medals in track and field. How very changed is the face of world sports. It was not like that even 20 years ago.

Today, the sheer preponderance of people of African descent in the elite ranks of world sports (even women tennis is being conquered), has caused people unafraid of political correctness to focus on the "anatomical advantages" that black athletes have over their white counterparts.

In 1995, Sir Roger Bannister, a British neurologist and retired Oxford don, caused a stir when he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science: "I am prepared to risk political correctness by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under-stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages."

Jon Entine, the American author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It, writes in the current issue of the London-based Index on Censorship: "There are only 800 million blacks [in the world], or one in eight of the world's population, but athletes of African origin hold every major world running record.

"In the US, blacks male up 70% of the NFL (National Football League) and 85% of professional basketball. In England, which was slow to allow foreigners into football and has a black population of less than 2%, one in five soccer players in the Premier League is black."

Entine continues: "As equality of opportunity has increased in sports over the past 30 years, equality of results - the diversity of the races of the elite players - has declined. And this is not a black and white issue. Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upperbody strength, predictably dominate weightlifting and field events such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws). Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events (hence the term `Chinese splits'). Blacks of West African ancestry are the premier sprinters and jumpers. East African blacks - Kenyans and Ethiopians in particular - are the world's best distance runners."

The records speak for themselves and no amount of political correctness can stand in the way of the facts: this is the glory age of athletes of African descent, whether anatomy helps or not is a moot point.

Continental Africa

Although, predicting potential continental African gold medallists may be difficult, but one thing is certain, new names will be added to Africa's roll call of Olympic champions if recent performances are anything to go by. The record speak for themselves: Athletes of African decent dominate world sport. Ethiopia's Gabreselassie Is untouchable; Canada's Donovan Bailey winning the 100m at the '98 Atlanta Olympics

The long distance races - starting from 800m to the marathon remain the bastion of hope for the continent. Heading the list of the potential medal winners is the Ethiopian phenomenon, Haile Gebreselassie, who is the overwhelming favourite to retain his 10,000m title. But he should be ready for a stiff challenge from the Kenyan contingent and the former world record holder, Salah Hissou of Morocco.

Gebreselassie may be adding another gold medal to his collection if he decides to run either the marathon or 5,000m as he has indicated. However, whichever race Haile opts for in addition to his 10,000m, the 5,000m will be an interesting event with the array of potential winners led by world champion, Kenya's Daniel Komen up against team mates Thomas Nyassiki, Zakayo Ngatho, Simon Maina and world championship silver medallist, Khalid Boulam of Morocco. Other strong contenders are the Ethiopian trio of Assefa, Mezgebu and Habie Jifar.

Africa is also sure of medals in the 1,500m where world champion, Moroccan Hicham ElGuerrouch holds sway. Four years ago in Atlanta, the irrepressible Moroccan tripped and fell with a lap to go in the 1,500m final, thus missing out on the medals placing. This is the time to atone for the mishap.

Older and wiser, EI-Guerrouch will be up against the world championship silver medallist, Kenyan Noah Ngeny and one of Ethiopia's rising stars, Hallu Mekonen, for the gold medal.

In the 800m, the strong African team of South Africa's Hezekeel Serpeng, a silver medallist in Atlanta, the Kenyan duo of Japhet Kimutai and Patrick Konchellah and the current African champion, Algerian Djabar Said Gilerm, must be ready to upstage the Kenyan-Danish, Wilson Kipketer's near stranglehold of the event.

The 3000m steeplechase gold medal is almost a foregone conclusion as the Kenyans are the most likely winners of the event. The men to watch for are the world record holder, Bernard Barmassai; the 1999 world champion, Christopher Koskei; the 1997 world champion, Wilson Bolt Kipketer and the outstanding Moses Kiptanui.

If the early season performances are anything to go by, a continental African should retain the marathon gold medal. The strong African squad for the gold will be led by the defending champion, Josiah Thugwane of South Africa, the Kenyan team led by the Boston Marathon champion, Moses Tanui, the Commonwealth gold medallist, Tabiso Mokwam of Lesotho, Focus Willsrod of Tanzania and the effervescent Ethiopians.

The Americans

The presence of the Americans have always denied Africa of medals in the sprint events until the arrival of the Namibian, Frankie Fredricks, who has been able to collect four bronze medals from Barcelona and Atlanta.

At 32, Fredricks appears to have passed his peak and Sydney is likely to be his last Olympics. In Francis Obikwelu of Nigeria and Ghana's Leo Myles-Mills, Fredricks has two capable replacements who are capable of raising Africa's flag in Sydney.

Obikwelu, in particular has been in stunning form recently, running 9.97 sets in 100m and 19.56 sets in 200m in the Golden League. A similar performance in Sydney will fetch him a medal. His chances in the 200m have been enhanced by the non qualification of the American favourites, the world champion, Maurice Greene and the world record holder and Olympics champion, Michael Johnson, due to injuries picked up in the American trials.

It will not be surprising if African athletes complete a clean sweep of the medals in the 400m just like Simon Ketur of Kenya and David Komoga of Uganda did in Barcelona and Atlanta. Komoga is still around and may be joined in the medal table by the surprise package, Nigeria's Clement Chukwu and Marcus La Grange of South Africa.

Africa's hope for medals in the men's sprint hurdles and 400in hurdles reside with the South African pair of Shawn Bones and Lewellyn Herbert in the 400m. They will be joined by the old war-horse, Samuel Matete (now 31) of Zambia who won silver in the 400m hurdles in Atlanta.

In the field events, Africa's medal hopefuls are South Africa's Ovket Brits (pole vault) and Marius Corbett (Javelin), while Ghana's Andrew Owusu, Nigeria's Tony Idiata and South-Africa's Jacques Frettag have outside chances in the triple jump and the high jump.

Women

There are few world class athletes among the African women competing in Sydney, but the available ones should come home with medals. Leading the pack are world championships silver medallist Glory Alozie of Nigeria in the 100 hurdles, and in the 400m Falilat Ogunkoya-Ocheku and Charity Opara, both of Nigeria.

Maria Mutola of Mozambique will be hoping to put her Atlanta Games disappointment behind her by eventually clinching the gold medal in the 800m. She could only manage a bronze in Atlanta.

The Moroccan, Nezha Bidouane; the world 400m hurdles champion, is likely to win the event again. Other African women medal prospects are Zorha Quaziz of Morocco in 3000m, Kenya's world 10,000m champion Sally Barsosio, and the Ethiopian Gete Wanu (1,000m).

African women are also to feature prominently in the marathon, with the likes of Joyce Chep Chumba and London Marathon winner, Tegla Loroupe of Ethiopia, Derartu Tulu, the current world cross country champion, and the reigning Olympics marathon champion, Fatima Roba.

Nigeria's Chioma Ajunwa, the reigning Olympic long jump women's champion, is injured and therefore unable to defend her title in Sydney, leaving South Africa's Hestrie Storbeck as Africa's main medal hope in the long jump and the high jump, while Algeria's Baya Rahouli may spring a surprise in the triple jump.

Africa should also win at least two medals in both the men and women relay races. With perfect baton exchanges, Nigeria's 4x400 team are potential medal winners. Both Nigeria's women and men teams got silver and bronze respectively at the Atlanta Olympics, and in Sydney the women quartet have even a better chance for a medal after missing the gold by a whisker in Atlanta.

Potentially, Sydney promises to be the Olympics where one could really be proud to be African (or black) - whether from the mother continent or the diaspora.

The old and the new: Nigeria's Chioma Ajunwa won the long jump gold in Atlanta; the Sierra Leonean-turned-French Eunice Barber is a medal prospect in the heptathlon in Sydney.

Copyright International Communications Sep 2000