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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Africa's Olympians face uphill struggle

By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online, Athens

Hawanatu Bangura (left) and Lamin Tucker
Many African athletes lack much-needed funds

For sprinters Lamin Tucker and Hawanatu Bangura, the fastest man and woman in Sierra Leone, just getting to the Olympic Games is a major achievement.

They have scrounged running spikes from retiring athletes, trained by themselves without stop-watches, and have not had the money to compete outside their war-torn country this year.

As the only two athletes in their team, they have no chance of a medal, but will run for pride against some of the biggest stars from the richest sporting nations.

Despite countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia coming to the fore on the track, most African athletes' experiences mirror those of Tucker and Bangura.

Great potential

Africa's performance at the Olympics often appears a microcosm of the continent's problems, with a lack of investment and infrastructure holding back great potential.

Of the first 200 medals won in Athens, just three went to the continent, and two of those went to a Zimbabwean swimmer who lives and trains in the United States.

Most African nations have never won a medal in their Olympic history.

Frankie Fredericks
Frankie Fredericks is Namibia's star athlete

Many others have relied on the exceptional performance of one star athlete, as is the case with Namibia, whose sprinter Frankie Fredericks has won all four of his country's silver medals.

Out of Kenya's 54 medals, 47 have been in distance running, most by a clutch of athletes from the same, high-altitude region.

The rest have been in boxing, another traditionally strong area for African countries.

To put these figures in perspective, Great Britain has won more than 600 medals, and the US more than 2,000.

Great expense

Namibia's eight-strong Olympic team is sponsored by a local fishing company.

The country's national director of sports, Dr Vetumbuavi Veii, said that a lack of funds meant fewer opportunities for Namibian athletes.

"Countries that have money can send their athletes to world class competitions. They get all the exposure and experience that goes with it and they get to know what their opposition can do," he told BBC News Online.

"If we play in a competition, it costs a great deal to send our athletes. If we host a match, the athletes must be put in hotels, taken to the Games and treated well. Most of the burden falls on the government - and it has other priorities," he said.

Ugandan boxer Sam Rukundo at the Athens Olympics
Uganda's boxing team trained for the Olympic heat by wearing coats

"We come to try to win medals, of course, but the most important thing is to get exposure, to put the country on the world map," Dr Veii added.

Being in the spotlight has benefited some athletes for poor countries.

Boxer Ali Nuumbembe now trains in Britain after being signed up as a professional following the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

But the exposure also has its disadvantages.

"We have just lost a sprinter [Sherman Vries] to South Africa. He has changed his nationality because they can offer so much more - money for training, prospects," said Dr Veii.

"The United States tried to poach Frankie [Fredericks] for years, but he was committed," he added.

Uganda's national boxing coach Dick Katende also highlighted the gulf in resources when he revealed secrets of his team's preparations.

While athletes from the richest nations came to Greece weeks in advance to acclimatise to the conditions - or ran in hi-tech heat chambers - Mr Katende said he ordered the Ugandan squad to run around in their coats in the sun.

Exchange programmes

The lack of competitive leagues in events such as hockey, handball, basketball or taekwondo is usually given as the reason for a lack of African medals in these sports - or anywhere else outside the boxing ring or the track.

But one of the ways that developing nations are helped to compete is through exchange programmes with other countries, who provide world-class coaches at reduced rates or offer players the chance to train in better facilities.

Our country is poor... and there is not much money to go to athletes at home
Lamin Tucker

Cameroon's football team benefited from such a programme with France. Namibia has had similar arrangements with Germany, which sent football coach Peter Uebejahn, and Cuba, which helped train the boxing team.

The International Olympic Committee also invests heavily ($100m so far in 2004) in developing sport through its Olympic solidarity programme, which is funded with television rights money.

It also pays for more than 900 athlete scholarships and aims to get the funds to "where they are most needed", from grassroots sport to the elite level, the IOC says.

But the road to international success will be very long for some.

Tucker and Bangura's only aim in Athens is a personal best.

"Sierra Leone was told, 'Bring your best man and best woman.' Everyone who wanted to compete was told to come to Freetown. I beat them all," Tucker, 22, said with pride.

Both he and Bangura were sporting the latest trainers and Olympic tops, a gift from Adidas on their arrival at the athletes' village, on the outskirts of Athens.

But he added: "Our country is poor, it is rebuilding itself after war and there is not much money to go to athletes at home.

"The lack of resources affects me greatly. I have a friend who is now running for Gambia. I was always faster than him, but Gambia has sent him to Norway to train and now he is running me off the track."



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