A number of Africa’s finest sportsmen and women failed to make the Tokyo Olympic Games for a variety of reasons that in the most part had little to do with performance.
By Nick Said
The Tokyo Olympic Games were for some athletes the pinnacle of their career and a stage for outstanding achievements, but for others, the Japan National Stadium (the venue of the Games) will always represent a field of broken dreams.
A number of Africa’s finest sportsmen and women failed to make it to the Games, which was held from July 23 to August 8 in Tokyo, for a variety of reasons that in the most part had little to do with performance.
Amidst the ecstasy of winning a gold medal, there is always equal pain being felt elsewhere, leaving some of the continent’s top stars at a crossroads in their hugely successful careers.
The most high-profile of these is two-time former 800-metersOlympics champion Caster Semenya, who failed in her bid to qualify for the Games in the 5,000-meters, having been forced into the longer distance by World Athletics’ regulations for athletes with Differences in Sexual Development (DSD) who wish to compete in races from 400-meters to a mile.
Athletes such as Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, were forced into the sporting wilderness in their chosen distance in a ruling described by Come Damien Georges Awoumou, minister- counsellor at the Cameroon mission to the United Nations, as having the “same effect as apartheid, one of the international crimes against humanity”, which he said at a special debate on sports and human rights at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The latest to fall foul of the regulations were Namibian teenagers Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, who were in blistering form in the 400-meters ahead of the games and seen as genuine medal contenders until World Athletics barred them from competing over that distance. Semenya is taking the fight, not just for herself, but all DSD athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone, to the European Court of Human Rights, who are likely to make a ruling later this year on whether the regulations should be suspended.
She has not given up on competing at the 2024 Olympics in Paris and there will be many other athletes from the global south hoping she wins.
“The ban doesn’t make sense at all. But hey, that’s none of my business. I’ll leave it up to the right people
to handle the situation, I’ll keep fighting for my rights,” Semenya said in June to Belgian television after finishing fourth in a 5,000-meter race in Liège, Belgium.
“Of course I hope the rule changes. I’m an 800-meters runner. There’s no doubt about that. I keep hoping that I can run my preferred number (distance). But right now my focus is on being healthy. To be an inspiration for young athletes. I will continue to fight for my rights.”
Says a spokesperson at World Athletics: “For many years, World Athletics has fought for and defended equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls in our sport today and in the future. Throughout this long battle, World Athletics has always maintained that its regulations are lawful and legitimate, and that they represent a reasonable, necessary and proportionate means of ensuring the rights of all female athletes to participate on fair and equal terms. It has rejected the suggestion that they infringe any athlete’s human rights, including the right to dignity and the right to bodily integrity.”
Kenya’s David Rudisha, regarded as the greatest 800-meters runner in history and a double-Olympic champion in 2012 and 2016, missed the Tokyo Games after a succession of injury setbacks.
He was desperate to compete but had not run since 2017 following ankle, leg and back injuries, as well as a serious car accident in which his SUV was written off when he collided head-on with a bus in Nairobi.
His race to be fit and in shape to fight for a gold medal was hampered, in part, by the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant limited training and competition.
Covid-19 ruled Nigerian basketball star Michael Eric out of the Games after he admitted to battling with the after- effects of the virus.
Two of Kenya’s other current greats were also high- profile absentees as world 1,500-meters champion Timothy Cheruiyot and 2016 Olympic 3000-meters steeplechase winner Conseslus Kipruto both failed to make the team.
At the Kenyan trials, Cheruiyot, who had not finished worse than second in any race for four years, was passed down the final straight and finished fourth to drop out of contention.
Kipruto won the World Championship titles in 2017 and 2019, but soon after the second of those wins, was reportedly charged with sexual assault and has entered just three races since, without finishing any of them. Neither have commented on their futures.
South African long-jump silver medalist from the 2016 Games, Luvo Manyonga, a self-confessed former methamphetamine addict who missed the 2012 Olympics because of an 18-month drugs ban, cleaned up his act to be one of South Africa’s stars at the Games in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. But he was handed a four-year ban by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) in June after missing three scheduled drugs tests having not provided details of his whereabouts as required by the AIU.
Covid-19 ruled Nigerian basketball star Michael Eric out of the Games after he admitted to battling with the after- effects of the virus, saying “my health and physical shape went through a traumatic experience”. It shone a spotlight on the effects the virus has on athletes’ bodies, and how it is not just performance that can suffer, but confidence too.
And then there were some who were simply not released by their employers to compete – among the most high-profile of these being Liverpool and Egypt striker Mo Salah.
He was desperate to feature at the Games, but Liverpool reportedly refused to allow him to travel as it would have meant a disrupted pre-season and start to the new English Premier League campaign.