To comprehensively talk about African Olympians, we must also talk about Olympic “exports” or athletes from around the continent who are competing for adopted countries. Kenya, for example, the best performing African country at the Rio Olympics (ranking second on the world athletics table, and 15th on the overall Olympic ranking,) has more than 30 Kenyan-born athletes competing under the banners of other countries. These include Bahrain, Turkey, Israel, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and the USA. Nigeria, which has some of the continent’s most accomplished short-distance runners, had at least four runners representing adopted countries including Bahrain, Qatar and Norway.
While African countries cumulatively brought back the most recorded medals for the continent in the recently concluded Olympics, many victories have been overshadowed by mismanagement and corruption. In both Kenya and Nigeria, bungled administration, misappropriated funds and general mistreatment of athletes have been the source of both despair and disdain. (Some Kenyan athletes are still stranded in Rio!) For many Africans, it is frustrating to think how many more athletes could have qualified, competed and medalled, if they had a supportive national infrastructure.
Last year, we wrote about how Kenyan sportsman Julius Yego burst onto the international scene after teaching himself to throw the javelin through YouTube videos, and in turn starkly highlighted the talent management gap both in Kenya and in the continent at large. The Rio Olympics drives that point home.
The representation industry fills the gaps that leave athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, and many others potentially vulnerable and disenfranchised. While agencies, brands and the private sector have stepped into that gap, there are some things that only governments can do. The national sporting context is one of them. At present efforts in national sport (with Kenya and Nigeria as key examples,) are few and far between. For now, athletes will continue to look elsewhere for the things they cant find at home – and who can blame them?