Olympic Games: is it enough for Rwanda to just participate?

Before I even begin to get to the crux of my column this week, let me first of all acknowledge the hard work of this year’s Rwandan Olympic team.  Swimmers Jackson Niyomugabo, Alphonsine Agahozo, , marathon runner Jean Pierre Mvuyekure, 10,000m runners Robert Kajuga and Claudette Mukasakindi (32), judoka Yannick Uwase Sekamana and mountain bike rider (and team captain) Adrien Niyonshuti have cemented their places in our athletic folklore simply because they represented their country in the London Games. So, whatever follows must not be seen as a dig at our athletes.

A week or two back, The New Times’s sports journalist, Bonnie Mugabe, wrote that “though they won’t win medals, unlike our neighbours Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia because of reasons beyond their capacity, there at least hope they will put up a spirited fight”.

A spirited fight is what they certainly put up, but I can bet every single penny I own that none of our athletes will finish among the top ten in their categories.  The Olympic Creed, as purported by the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, states that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” To this I say, give me a break.

I don’t watch athletics to cheer on the losers and neither do most people. Winning is all that matters and barring that, at least get a good position. I can’t really fault our athletes though. It’s not their fault that they aren’t at an international level. I put the blame firmly on the doorsteps of our local Olympic Committee and the Sports Ministry.

I cannot fathom why a country such as Granada, with a population of not more than 200,000 people, can get a gold medal while Rwanda, with a population of more than 11 million, cannot even place in the top ten of any category. Throw in the fact that, historically we had quite an athletic culture (if you doubt me, travel to the National Museum in Butare and see some of the old photographs depicting high jump competitions) and this lack of medal success moves from being simply baffling to scandalously outrageous.

While travelling through the countryside last weekend, I couldn’t help but marvel at the dizzying heights some of my compatriots built their homes. A few of the houses I saw were right at the summit of extremely high hills. Now, I can only imagine just how physically fit children living in those homes are. They probably have to go all the way down into the valley, hundreds of meters away just to fetch water or go to school. If I walked half as much as they did, I would have the stamina of an ox.

Some scientists believe that the reason that Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese and Eastern Ugandans excel in middle and long distance running is because they live in high altitude climes. Well, if it was simply altitude, Rwandans athletes would be world beaters. But having high altitudes isnt nearly enough. A few months back, I read an article about an American runner, who travelled all the way to rural Ethiopia, to train with local runners. The article was eye opening for me. I learnt that the basic tools for Olympic success was simply hard work, organisation, a talent spotting system and rudimentary coaching. So, back to our sports authorities. Why is it that one never hears of district-level athletic competitions? Or provincial level ones either? How do they nurture talent? How do they spot the next Usain Bolt? So far, we’ve attended seven Olympiads so far and sent 37 athletes but still have nothing to show for it. The status quo simply isnt good enough.  Perhaps we should start wanting to WIN, instead of simply taking part. And we won’t win until we overhaul the way we scout, nurture and prepare talent.

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