15 August 2016

Rio Olympics: You don’t harvest apples when you plant potatoes

Every four years around this time, many Ugandans put their wits to use. The athletes who represent us at the Olympics are the beneficiaries. The long Olympics tale interspersed with aberrations like the gold medals of the late John Akii Bua and Stephen Kiprotich has always been the same.

We have mediocre performances on the field, and other embarrassing incidences off the field. One swimmer was so slow, he got out of the pool when everyone else had toweled down and left for other business. A columnist claimed he almost drowned.

Off the field, we once had an athlete attempting to buy underwear with fake dollars.
Some years ago when I was overwhelmed by body weight, I hired a coach to take me through physical drills because the doctor said so. The guy had been a national athlete and was now surviving on people like me. We nurtured a relationship over a long period and I got to know so much about Ugandan sports and athletics in particular.
An average Ugandan athlete is financially on his own and extremely needy. He struggles to pay for his upkeep and training. Feeds and dresses poorly and has no support when he gets injured. He is rarely under the guidance of a well-trained coach.

The plus for most of them is that they are gifted by nature. Many of them rely on their raw physical attributes. This helps them to barely scrape through and beat the qualifying times, against a myriad of odds. Then it is off to the Olympics where they find the best of the best. But before they go, there are incidences where they need to financially ‘appease’ officials to get on the list of those travelling. There was a case of an injured athlete who was ‘selected’ ahead of a healthy one who had also qualified.

Expecting these sort of athletes to bring home medals is asking the farmer who planted potatoes to harvest apples. Uganda’s sports agenda at the national and the international stage will amount to nothing until we understand how things work.

The countries that do well in sports don’t opportunistically leave matters to God, chance and physical endowments of individual athletes. Sports is a science that has been increasingly influenced by good (and bad technology like drugs). That is partly why the Brazilian Men’s National football team is no longer as invincible as it used to be. They relied so much on the natural abilities of their players who are very gifted. The other countries are closing that gap by rewarding, training and motivating players to fill up for what they lack in natural talent.

Sports now involves serious financial investment and planning. The sports power houses of the world have programmes that identify talent in its infancy. They then follow the sportspeople through a deliberate process that develops their formal education and sports education simultaneously. The reason being that if you fail as a sportsperson, then you may continue with formal education.

The one who opts to go the sporting route is well catered for financially because the useful life of a sportsperson as a competitor is limited to less than 20 years. He may then either go back to where he left in the realm of formal education or remain in sport as a coach or manager.

Take the case of the reigning Fifa Men’s Football World Champions, Germany. The plans to win the cup in 2014 started way back in 2001 when most players were teenagers.
In 2008, Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling met Michael Phelps as a teenager and admired him as his idol. The system kept Schooling in training for eight years and he went on to beat Phelps to gold in the 2016 men’s butterfly swimming contest.

Players are monitored from their teens and everything about them is recorded as they develop. They have a purpose and goal supported by corporate and national institutions.
They give sport their all without worries. In Uganda, you become a full time sportsperson because you have no alternative. The likes of Philip Omondi, Judith Ayaa, Justin Arop, and many others fell on hard times after stellar sporting careers representing Uganda.

The other path is to be a part-timer; going through formal education and spending less time on sport as a by the way. Many of the children from able families do this and they usually represent Uganda in swimming, squash and other sports that require considerable capital investment. These sort of sportspeople cannot and will never win Uganda medals, let alone perform well. They will just make up the numbers.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. nicholassengoba@yahoo.com
Twitter: @nsengoba


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