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Sometime in Africa

From African Grit To Plastic Brits

From a first for South Sudan to a rower who trained in a fishing boat, Africa sprang many surprises in London.

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With just hours to go, the prevailing mood in Britain was hardly celebratory. On streets washed by rain, the number of tourists in London’s capital seemed below the average for the time of year. The last minute preparations were far from frenzied and all that anyone was certain of was that the opening ceremony involved live sheep.

But then the brutal cynicism that greets every major event in Britain was washed away by an event that left many around the world scratching their heads. The spectacular, which included dancing nurses, engineers, Shakespeare, James Bond and a cameo from the Queen, was a satisfying antidote to the blanket corporate sponsorship that had alienated many Londoners ahead of the games.

WINDSOR, ENGLAND – AUGUST 02: Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith, Matthew Brittain and James Thompson of South Africa celebrate winning the gold medal for the Lightweight Men’s Four final on on Day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on August 2, 2012 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The ceremony—which saw a celebration of the National Health Service, the industrial revolution and modern day British multiculturalism—combined wit, elegance and a theatricality. It confounded a widespread belief in the country that the event would be an expensive and embarrassing disaster.

A security fiasco, which saw G4S, the lead contractor, admit with weeks to go, that it had not hired enough staff to man the games, saw the army drafted in to run X-ray scanners and patrol the venues. Last minute problems on some of the major routes into London raised fears of transport chaos, but, though the infrastructure creaked under the weight of the additional hundreds of thousands of users, it held—just.

Even the weather, which had appeared apocalyptic, from March through to July, turned. The ceaseless rain gave way to fierce sunshine as summer smiled—although the hailstorms did return to add spice to the cycling road race.

Track & Field: 2012 Summer Olympics: Kenya Ezekiel Kemboi victorious after winning Men’s 3000M Steeplechase Final gold at Olympic Stadium.
London, United Kingdom 8/5/2012
CREDIT: John W. McDonough (Photo by John W. McDonough /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X155268 TK11 R1 F174 )

The early stages were not encouraging for African teams. Nigerian slalom kayak hopeful, Johny Akinyemi, fell at the first hurdle, accumulating too many penalties in his two runs in the K1 event and failing to reach the semi-finals.

The Nigerian basketball team, which qualified at the eleventh hour for their first appearance at an Olympic Games, showed some promise, but came up against a rampant USA ‘Dream Team’, who notched up an Olympic record winning spread of 156-73. One of the country’s two individual medalists from the Beijing Olympics in 2008—Chika Chukwumerije—had to wait until close to the end of the event to try to better his bronze in the +80kg Taekwondo.

Not that it mattered—London’s large Nigerian community has been vocal in its support of its team. A three day conference saw ministers and some of the country’s leading businesspeople gather in the Dorchester Hotel, while around town other delegations turned up to show off their country’s investment opportunities.

Juliano Máquina, Mozambique’s light-flyweight boxing hopeful, was soundly beaten by a clinical Aleksandar Aleksandrov, the Bulgarian took apart the Olympic debutant over the three rounds to win on points 22-7. Thomas Essomba, from Cameroon, the other African fancied in the weight category, put in a solid first round win, but failed to make the quarter finals, beaten by the Northern Irishman Paddy Barnes.

South Africa picked up some early successes in and on the water. The South African men’s lightweight four picked up a gold in the rowing, while Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos were the surprise winners in the 100m breaststroke and the 200m butterfly, respectively. The latter, saw le Clos beat the world’s best—the American, Michael Phelps—by a fingernail, and made a hero of his father, Burt le Clos, whose hoarse and emotional post-swim interview with BBC quickly went viral.

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 31: Chad le Clos of South Africa celebrates after winning the gold in the Men’s 200m Butterfly final on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

As the first week drew to a close, it was only South Africans who had made it to the podium.

Hopes were boosted when the Kenyans arrived. With three Olympic champions—Pamela Jelimo, Brimin Kipruto and Asbel Kiprop—and four world champions—Vivian Cheruiyot, Ezekiel Kemboi, Edna Kiplagat and captain David Rudisha—named in their squad for the London games, there was no doubt the East Africans had come to win. Rudisha, an 800m runner, was set to follow in the footsteps of his father by participating in the 4x400m relay—the team’s pedigree crossed generations. In Beijing, Kenya was the highest ranking African country in the medal tables, taking six golds and 14 medals overall.

This time, they rejected the offer of a training base in Bristol, to the west of London, preferring to remain in Kenya to train at altitude right up to the last minute.

Cheruiyot was the first in action, taking on a strong field, including the Ethiopian Olympic champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, in the 10,000m final. In the end, it was the Ethiopian’s day, kicking ahead to win gold, with Cheruiyot trailing in third behind her compatriot Sally Kipyego.

It was the Ethiopians again who denied Kenya in the women’s marathon; Tiki Gelana beat Priscah Jeptoo by five seconds to claim gold in the thrashing rain.

The highly fancied men’s team fared even worse in the 10,000m. On home turf, the British runner, Mo Farah, took gold ahead of the American Galen Rupp and Ethiopia’s Tariku Bekele, with the Kenyans trailing outside of the medal positions. It was the first time since 1984 that an African runner had not won the event—although some were quick to claim Mogadishu-born Farah for the continent. In a rather ugly series of attacks in the run-up to the games, the right-wing press had railed against Britain’s foreign-born competitors using the epithet “plastic Brits”. Farah’s response was definitive. Having taken gold, a journalist asked him whether he would have preferred to have won the medal for Somalia.

“Look, mate,” Farah replied, “This is my country.”

The Kenyans had to wait until Sunday afternoon to finally break their duck, Ezekiel Kemboi, a policeman facing an assault charge back in his home country, stormed ahead in the last lap of the 3,000m steeplechase, after his compatriot, Brimin Kipruto, had fallen. At the end of the race, Kemboi announced that he would retire from the discipline to focus on the marathon.

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 10: Meseret Defar of Ethiopia celebrates as she crosses the finish line ahead of Jepkemoi Jepkemoi Cheruiyot of Kenya and Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia celebrates winning gold in the Women’s 5000m Final on Day 14 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 10, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Amongst the running contingent was Guor Marial, whose story captured the imagination of many in the international media in the run up to the games. Marial was one of four competitors who joined the parade of athletes underneath the Olympic flag. Three—Churandy Martina, Philip Elhage and Rodion Davelaar—are previous competitors from the Netherlands Antilles, which recently became a municipality of the Netherlands.

Marial, in his first Olympics, was born in South Sudan, and turned down an offer from Khartoum to run for the north. Granted refugee status by the US when he was 16, the marathon runner lost many of his relatives in the vicious civil war that saw millions displaced. With South Sudan newly independent and lacking an organizing committee, the decision by officials to allow Marial a spot marks the first time an athlete from Africa’s 54th nation has been able to compete.

While stories like that of Marial have provided great examples of the redemptive power of sport, the event continues to raise questions about the ability of athletes from the continent to be able to make their mark. While the raw talent and commitment of African competitors has seen them dominate a few important sports in recent decades, the London games more than any other may have shown that top-level sport is becoming so clearly bifurcated between the haves and the have-nots. The dominance of the US and China in the medal tables showed that financial clout can be the difference between a victor and an also-ran.

The press fell in love with the stories of hardship and graft of willing amateurs like Hamadou Djibo Issaka, the rower from Niger who took up the sport only months before the games. He worked as a gardener and swimming pool attendant in Niamey and trained in an old fishing boat. The 35-year-old finished a distant last in the single sculls. While narratives like his provide great examples of the vaunted “Olympic Spirit”, they also highlight the vast discrepancies in resources. British rowers, who had one of their best years at home, are the product of a well-established network of training facilities, coaches, equipment and finance.

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 03: Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia celebrates winning gold in the Women’s 10,000m Final on Day 7 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 3, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

In the end, African hopes fell in the most part to domestic competitors, as British athletes, fired up by the support in London, won through in events that would normally be dominated by the continent’s finest.

Although much noise was made around the ‘Africa Village’ hospitality area about a potential bid by Durban for 2024, with no African countries on the shortlist for 2020, it will be more than a decade before anyone on the continent will be able to claim that home advantage.

Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, threw his country’s hat into the ring for a bid, reminding press that the country is not only home to some of the world’s greatest runners, elite athletes already flock to the high altitude training centres in Iten, in the Rift Valley. However, major international investment—and a change in international perceptions of the country, and the continent more broadly—would be needed for that bid to take off. It is unlikely to have been enhanced by the closure of the ‘Africa Village’ early due to unpaid debts, caused by the failure of many African Olympic committees to turn up and take out space.

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