Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 00:17 UK

Wrestling boom sweeps Senegal

By Rose Skelton
BBC Africa Business Report, Senegal


Senegal wrestlers create big business

As dusk falls on the ramshackle neighbourhood of Guediawaye, on the outskirts of Dakar, hundreds of young men and boys in loincloths and Nike shorts are being put through their paces by trainers brandishing whistles.

In their hundreds, the athletes drop to the ground and, seemingly effortlessly, run off dozens of push-ups while the trainer shouts encouragements from the sandy training ground.

Young kids sell peanuts around the edges of the patch of land, which is strewn with rocks and rubbish.

They watch eagerly as these bright young stars of the country's booming wrestling industry get ready to grapple with their opponents, hoping to throw them to the ground in an athletic display of strength, skill and style.

Only a few of the more than 200 men who belong to this school will make it on to the professional wrestling circuit.

For those that do, the stakes are high. The young men who make it up the ranks can look forward to winning up to 100 million West African CFA francs ($205,000) per game.

In one of the world's poorest countries, where the average annual income is $980 according to the World Bank's latest figures, this will make them part of the country's financial elite and national heroes to the millions of men and women who follow the game.

Humble beginnings

Senegalese wrestling began in the villages, when farmers who only worked during the fertile rainy season would pass the time with this traditional African sport that has been practised across the continent for hundreds of years.

Senegalese wrestler Mohamed Ndao, also known as Tyson
Mohamed Ndao, also known as Tyson, was a wrestling pioneer in Senegal

During the dry seasons, the farmers would come to the cities looking for work. There they found an audience of people keen to watch and bet on the matches.

As the sport gained in popularity, it began to take on elements of martial arts, incorporating boxing, judo and karate, as well as the traditional elements of African wrestling.

In the 1990s, Gaston Mbengue, a Senegalese sports promoter, started to stage matches that allowed bare-fisted fighting.

In one of the only countries in the world where this kind of fighting is legal, this modern twist revolutionised the sport and turned it into a multi-million dollar game that now attracts more fans than any other sport, including football.

With fans flocking to the stadiums - one match can attract up to 80,000 people - commercial companies are desperate to get their brands into the ring, from where the images will be beamed on television screens to millions of viewers across the country.

"The main sponsors are the telecommunications companies," says Serigne Sarr, head of marketing at the state-owned television station Radiodiffusion Television Senegalaise, which televises the matches put on by Mr Mbengue.

"It wasn't hard to sell them sponsorship rights, because they go where there is an audience. Since wrestling attracts a lot of people, they are necessarily interested by it too."

Gaston Mbengue, sports promoter
Gaston Mbengue created the Senegalese wrestling boom

While the wrestling scene bristles with rumours of how much money is earned in this famously-secretive game, RTS's Mr Sarr says that the game attracts between half and one billion CFA francs ($1m-2m) in sponsorship money a year.

While Senegal failed to qualify for both the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations in the last two years, the audiences have flocked to wrestling and left football out in the cold.

"The future of wrestling is bright," says Mr Sarr. "The whole thing is managed professionally now, like football."

Gaining respect

When wrestling first became popular as an urban sport, parents were unhappy about their children going into the game.

It was seen as the pastime of thugs who typically had very little formal education and did not speak French, the administrative language of Senegal, a former French colony.

"The first fight where someone earned a million CFA francs was like a miracle," says Pape Konate, a 31-year-old wrestler who goes by the name of Capitaine PK when in the ring and weighs in at 100kg.

Crowd at wrestling match in Senegal
Audiences in Senegal now favour wrestling over football

His body rippling as he hoists weights above his head in one of the city's gyms, he remembers how in 1995 a young wrestler called Tyson, named after the American boxer, was offered 15 million CFA for a fight.

"When we young wrestlers love wrestling, it's because of Tyson," he says between sets of exercises.

"Back then, wrestlers weren't taken notice of, but he had a good intellect, he spoke French well.

"He came on to the scene with his image and then the sponsorship started to follow him. He had a match for 15 million CFA and kept on pushing to 30 million CFA.

"That's when people started to take notice of the sport. Tyson woke things up."

Reducing crime

Nowadays the sport is considered one of the few routes to financial success in a country which is becoming increasingly poor.

Senegal dropped 10 places in the United Nations Human Development Index in 2009 to become the world's 17th poorest country.

"Wrestling has been able to reduce crime and delinquency in the suburbs," says Aboubacry Ba, one of the country's best-known sports journalists.

"Young people now train hard and they can earn money from their work. Before, they didn't have any work, they were in the suburbs getting into drugs and fighting.

"But now, with wrestling, they have a healthy occupation. It's a job which has really been able to turn the youth around, reduce unemployment and crime."

Pape Konate, set to become one of the country's wrestling stars, agrees. He gets up at 0500 and runs 20km along the beach and then trains in the gym throughout the day.

In the evening, he comes to the wrestling school to spar with the other young wrestlers, a routine which is physically gruelling and keeps him occupied in a country where half the population are unemployed.

"Wrestling is our work and it's a proper profession now," says Konate. "You have to work hard and concentrate to get to the highest level.

"Tyson is stepping down now, so it's us, the next generation. I'm working to be a big champion and to retire at 45, exceedingly rich."

Africa Business Report is a monthly programme on BBC World News. The next programme will be on Saturday, 17 April, at 0430 GMT and 1730 GMT, and on Sunday, 18 April, at 1030 GMT as well as 2330 GMT.

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