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The Olympians Who Want Peace More Than Gold

South Sudan’s athletes swapped their dingy refugee camps in Kenya for the glamourous suburbs of Brazil in the hope of highlighting the war that has ravaged their country.

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In the space of four months, a small group of athletes will have gone full circle – from the tough life in refugee camps, where sometimes food is rationed, to rubbing shoulders with the world’s most celebrated names in world-class facilities.

This is the strange reality for South Sudan’s Olympic athletes.

Being at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for three weeks will be a completely new experience for these young athletes, who might never have got to the world’s largest sport event if they were not refugees.

Even their compatriots in South Sudan are stunned  how the athletes got access to an arena reserved for the crème de la crème of international sports.

Olympic Villages have world-class infrastructure, with beautiful apartments, paved roads, working sewerage systems, hospitals, and shopping centers.

For the five young men and women from South Sudan, this is a far cry from the refugee camps they come from. Here, the refugees live in tin-walled houses, with little sanitation. The camp is littered with long-drop toilets, although refugees prefer to use thickets and bushes, leading to the rampant outbreak of deadly diseases are rampant. They are conditions the majority of athletes at the Olympic Games will find unimaginable.

The civil war has destroyed South Sudan’s economy. Before the current bloodletting resumed in early July, the newly-formed Transitional Government of National Unity asked for international support to rebuild the country. The conflict has halved oil production which, coupled with the global decline in oil prices, has left the government short of cash.

Although better than living among warlords, life inside refugee camps is not for the faint-hearted. Roads are dusty and rough. Some schools within the camps have sports fields, but the lack of grass makes playing on them difficult.

These young athletes will leave these fields of dirt and be welcomed to Rio with roads lined with exotic flowers and trees. The Olympic Village’s gardens rivals those found in Buckingham Palace.

When those inside the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps heard their brothers and sisters would be at the Rio Olympics, they burst into ecstatic celebration. The five South Sudanese refugees were selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to form part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team. The other athletes making up the 10-man team are two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a marathon runner from Ethiopia and two swimmers from Syria.

The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, says the team will raise awareness of the refugee crisis, which, according to the United Nations, stands at over 59 million displaced people.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society,” says Bach.

Kenyan marathon legend Tegla Loroupe, who founded the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, identified the South Sudanese athletes that will make up the rest of the refugee team. They are Pur Biel Yiech (800m), James Nyak (400m/800m), Rose Nathike (800m), Angeline Nadai Lohalith (1,500m) and Paulo Amoton Lokoro (1,500m).

The athletes have tear-jerking stories. They fled to neighboring Kenya as civil war erupted in Africa’s youngest nation, where compatriots supporting rival leaders were tearing into one another with machetes and guns. Girls and women were raped, property vandalized and homes looted. Tens of thousands died and many more were displaced. The survivors, mostly orphans and widows, were forced to cross into Kenyan camps.

The athletes are unified in their call for peace. They say this would allow many more young South Sudanese to pursue their dreams – whether in academics, sport or business.

“I would be representing my country in the Olympics had there been peace in my country. While other athletes will be carrying their countries’ flags, which is an honor and prestige, we will be participating under the Olympic Flag. That is good, and we are grateful to the IOC for remembering refugees, but sometime in the future, I would wish to run under the South Sudanese flag,” says Lohalith, who left home in 2001 and reached Kakuma the following year.

Lohalith started running for fun while attending primary school inside the Kakuma camp. She was among those scouted by Loroupe and transferred to Nairobi for specialized coaching.

Lohalith believes the refugee team at the Olympics will inspire other displaced people, even if they don’t win medals.

“It will be the first time refugees are represented in the Olympics, which will inspire other refugees because they will realize that they are just like normal people,” she says.

Jackson Pkemoi, who is managing the team at the church-run Anita Children’s Home in Ngong, 20 kilometers south of Nairobi, says the athletes are not taking the selection for granted.

“It is never easy to make an Olympic team. These athletes appreciate that this is a godsend, an opportunity to join the rest of the world at the Olympics,” he says.

Lokoro is glad he will be able to represent the refugees he lives with in his camp.

“When the refugees, and our people at Kakuma camp, heard of this, they were proud and celebrated. They are happy for us,” says Lokoro.

Nathike, who escaped her war-ravaged country with her parents, is running to help those she left behind.

“My people are happy and praying that I perform well so that I can change their lives,” she says. “Since we have talent, this can help promote peace all over the world.”

Nyak sent a massage to warring factions.

“Fighting is not the right way for people to solve issues. The more people fight, the more young people who have talent run away from home. So those countries [that] have conflict have to sit down and see where the problem is because this affects so many countries,” he says.

While their competitors are running for gold, these athletes from South Sudan are competing for something more important – peace.

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‘The Boys Club Is Being Infiltrated Slowly’

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Women’s football in the southern African region has picked up pace in recent years, benefiting from some ground-breaking work across all spheres of the sport. Sue Destombes is a key figure driving it.

The Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) is leading the charge in women’s football, and particularly so, its Secretary General Sue Destombes, who has overseen the introduction of women’s competitions at Under-17 and Under-20 level, to go with a senior championship, in the last year.

COSAFA has 14 member nations across the region, and industry veteran Destombes is a key figure in driving an ambitious expansion of its operations that last year saw them host six international tournaments in four different countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia.

Destombes was recently recognized for her contribution to football with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2019 Hollard Sport Industry Awards.

She has been involved with the organization since the first men’s senior COSAFA Cup was played in 1997, and leads a team that has a heavy female influence, along with the head of the COSAFA media office, Lynda Greeff, and long-serving office manager, Nobuhle Masuku, among others.

Sue Destombes COSAFA General Secretary with Janine Van Wyk South Africa Team Captain and Amanda Dlamini Former South Africa Captain help conduct the Draw during the 2019 COSAFA Women Championship Draw on the 03 July 2019 COSAFA House Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

In what has been typically a male-dominated industry, Destombes has managed to leave her mark not only on COSAFA, but also the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and global governing body FIFA.

“I have never found being a women a barrier to entry in football, and cannot remember any situation where I felt excluded because I am a woman, but that does not mean there is not a ‘boys’ club’ environment,” Destombes tells FORBES AFRICA.

“It is not a problem in the business of football, but maybe on a social level, yes, there can be some exclusion. But I don’t work in football for the social gatherings, so it does not bother me.”

Sue Destombes, Cosafa General Secretary during the 2019 COSAFA U17 Boys draw at COSAFA House, Johannesburg, on 28 August 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Destombes says she is pleased that women are starting to play a greater role in football administration, but says there is a long way to go.

“In the 54 African member associations of FIFA, we only have one female president in Isha Johansen from Sierra Leone. But we are slowly starting to see a change in terms of female representation on executive committees and even within the CAF secretariat.

“FIFA, for the first time in their 116-year history, have a female Secretary General in Fatma Samoura (from Senegal), so maybe the boys’ club is being infiltrated slowly.”

Destombes has been determined to help grow the women’s game in the COSAFA region – but not just for players.

COSAFA’s mandate includes upskilling coaches, match officials and even administrators, who all gain valuable experience, not only from the tournaments that are played, but also from targeted workshops that leave behind a lasting imprint in host cities across the region.

“We don’t just pitch up, play games and say goodbye,” Destombes says. “We always leave a legacy in whichever country we are in.

“We have done incredible work to develop male and female referees across the region, many of who have gone on to make the FIFA panel. We have put aspiring male and female coaches through courses to get their D-License, which is really the first step in a coaching career.”

Women’s football has been increasing in focus, with South Africa making the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. Their coach, Desiree Ellis, has spoken multiple times of how COSAFA helped her mould her squad, and her own skills, by providing quality competition at tournaments.

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Mongameli Bobani, Sue Destombes (Cosafa General Secretary) and Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Deputy Mayor Thsonono Buyeye during the 2018 Cosafa Women’s Championship Zambia team arrival at Port Elizabeth International Airport on 9 September 2018 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

“It has long been COSAFA’s wish to grow women’s football and we have made great strides in recent times. Last year was the first in which we held three women’s competitions in the various age-groups, and we will do that again in 2020,” Destombes confirms.

“It is about providing opportunity to girls to both play the game, or be involved in another capacity such as coaching and administration.”

The senior COSAFA Women’s Championship that was held in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth last year drew bumper crowds, suggesting there is plenty of interest in the female game from fans.

But finding commercial partners is more challenging, admits Destombes.

“One of the new tournaments we want to implement is a women’s club Champions League, for teams across the region. That would truly catapult the development of the game. But it is dependent on finding commercial partners.”

That is true for much of the work done by COSAFA. While they do get funding from FIFA for tournaments, it is a finite amount and does not come close to covering the expense.

“Our number one challenge is the financial aspect,” Destombes says. “We are the biggest of the six CAF zones that make up the continent, with the most members, and we would like to include everybody.

“For example, our women’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions had eight teams competing last year, and we would love to expand that to at least 12 to provide greater opportunity.

“But that is a huge leap in the budget, so we need commercial partners and bullish broadcasters who want this type of content.

Nick Said

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Get Set Mo!

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Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.

About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.

At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.

But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

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She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.

When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.

“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.

Morongoa Mahope

Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.

Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.

“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.

Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

READ MORE: Making Up For Millions

Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.

She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.

“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.

Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.

He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.

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“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.  

However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.

Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.

She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.

Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.

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Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.

“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.

Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.

“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”

Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.

READ MORE: Linda Ikeji : Nigeria’s Queen of content raking in millions

Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.  

Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.

With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.

“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.

A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.

It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.

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Playing Two Shots Ahead

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The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.

Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.

The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.

Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.

“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.

“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.

“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”

Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.

“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.

“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.

“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”

And as for his personal role model?

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“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”

South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.

“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.

“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”

The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.

“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”

Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.

“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.

“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”

By Nick Said

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