Saturday, August 6, 2016

What Does the Olympics Mean for Rural Africa?

On his brief tour of Isimila Stone Age Site outside Iringa town, the author got in a brief conversation with his mandatory tour guide on the Olympics.  "So, have you watched the Olympics, it just started today," the author casually quipped.  The nonchalant question quickly brought excitement to the otherwise professional guide who, before this, had kept the conversation strictly focused on the history of the area, reputedly one of the earliest residences of modern man's direct ancestor, homo erectus.  "Yes, yes, I am going to watch the opening ceremony after work today!"  The guide cannot hide his enthusiasm.

"You know, I love watching the running [events] in the Olympics," the guide continued, making hand gestures of a runner as the author and he walked through the rather barren landscape of the Stone Age Site.  "The Kenyans and Ethiopians are especially very strong," he added without much hesitation.  This last statement was rather surprising.  Regional rivalries among neighboring countries are not unheard of here in East Africa, particular in the sphere of economic development.  With many local media sources using other African states for often pride-laden comparison, it is rather refreshing to see support for the same states in sports.

And within the excitable words of the tour guide, it is hard to dismiss a sense of ethnic pride.  This part is not at all surprising.  Africans will cheer for other Africans, just as the author cheers for ethnic Chinese (and to a larger extent, ethnic Asians everywhere).  After all, modern Olympics has become centered on ethnic or nationalistic prowess expressed in athletic abilities.  For a country like Tanzania, which has not won a single medal since 1980, support for the collective strength of the African people, no matter what is their country of representation, logically becomes paramount when watching the Olympics.

But unfortunately, it seems few people here in rural Tanzania shares the excitement of the tour guide for the beginning of Rio Olympics.  A quick glance at the local newspapers today show no of them covering the Olympics' opening as the frontpage headlines.  Live coverage of the Olympics here will be few and far in between, given the massive time difference with Brazil that puts competition times at wee hours of the morning.  And even when covered, the coverage will be on cable TV stations, a luxury that few of the families here can afford, and none sees any point making economic sacrifices for.

It is a reflection of competitive sports as a monopoly of rich countries.  Training professional athletes simply costs too much money: the uniforms, the facilities, and the logistic costs of sending them to faraway lands for competitions are something that only few countries can invest in at massive scale.  And "sports culture," habitual participation in organized sports of any sort, is but a lofty, unrealistic dream for a people who need to spend most of their time making ends meet.  In such an environment, even the most talented athletes will not make it to the international level.

If one understands such background, it is not surprising that few people from underdeveloped countries shows excitement for Olympics or any international sporting events (with the exception of the World Cup, of course).  Seeing all the rich countries grab all the medals become painful reminders of how those countries have structures and systems in places to turn raw talent into athletic prowess, and how the same talent in a poor country will never amount to anything.  The government knows the shortcoming as well, as illustrated by the fact that few countries on this continent assign propaganda values to sporting success.

Sure, in the recent years, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gone to great lengths to make developing countries feel included.  More developing countries (like China in 2008 and Brazil in 2016) are hosting the event, and even more are bidding to host despite failures.  Yet any positive outcomes of such efforts remain restricted to few large developing countries marked by relatively high growth in economy, political importance, or at the very least, sporting competence.  None of these criteria fit in this part of Africa, and given the status quo, unlikely to fit in the near future.

Interest in sports still exists, however, as the tour guide at Isimila shows so vividly.  There just is not enough positive outcomes to channel such excitements.  Maybe the IOC can help fund scouting and training for sporting talents in underdeveloped countries, using funds obtained from massive commercial incomes of highly spectated events like the Olympics.  But in international sports competitions, where larger audiences mean larger revenues and nationalism trumps all forms of "athletic globalism," it is hard to see anyone willing to invest in a country where few people can afford to play or watch others play.  

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