Joshua Cheptegei crossed the finish line and promptly put his hands on his head, as if in awe of his own sports achievement. In a strangely ironic scene, the new 5000 meters World Record holder famed for his humility, seemed to inadvertently mock his chasing pack who had long abandoned any lingering hope of competing with him, and had to be metaphorical, raised their hands in surrender.
As adulation poured in from all across the world, with the chorus of the praises being sung of the boy from Kapchorwa, of course, led by us, his proud country mates. One could have been forgiven for thinking of Uganda as a country that is starved of sporting success, and we wouldn’t be celebrating a rare triumph.
Yet, this couldn’t be any more fictitious than it already is. Everybody remembers that glorious final day of the 2012 London Olympics when Steven Kiprotich became a global icon almost overnight after winning gold on the grandest stage of all.
To be honest, Kiprotich wasn’t he even sure he would be able to clinch a medal going into the games. In simple terms, he didn’t just exceed expectations. He absolutely decimated them.
If you had asked Ugandans who they expected to win something at those particular games, an overwhelming number would have gone for Moses Kipsiro, multiple Commonwealth Games gold medalist, and winner of Bronze in the 5000 meters at the 2007 World Championships, who had also just missed out on a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics finishing fourth in the 5000 meters behind the peerless Kenenisa Bekele and the Kenyan pair of Eliud Kipchoge and Edwin Cheruiyot.
A few might have chosen Annet Negesa in the women’s 800 meters. Or even the legendary but ultimately disappointing, and disappointed Dorcus Inzikuru, whose name prompts me to rewind further back to the 2005 Helsinki World Championship where Inzikuru was catapulted to global fame by a dominant performance on her way to the gold medal in the 3000-meter Steeplechase.
Despite Uganda’s successes in the sports arena, the government still considers sports as a mere ‘leisure industry’
Two years after that, the Rugby Cranes pulled off a monumental upset against hosts Madagascar in the final when they became continental champions, lifting the 2007 Confederation of Africa Rugby cup.
All these sporting achievements are limited to the 21st century and do not include the Olympics heroics of the likes of Davis Kamoga, John “Beast” Mugabi, Leo Rwabwogo, Eridad Mukwanga, and John Akii Bua. Or even the oft-narrated run to the final of the 1978 African Cup of Nations by the Ugandan national football team.
This is done intentionally to emphasize the regency of success for Ugandan sportsmen and sportswomen across various disciplines. Yet the official government position on sports in the country is that it is a ‘leisure industry’, with little economic upside or potential and therefore, not a priority on the road to national development.
It is true that a portion of the annual Ugandan budget is allocated to sports but the said portion is not only too small to be consequential, it is also divided inequitably. Disciplines that actually have the potential to succeed internationally get next to no support, only for the athletes to go out there and against all odds, raise the Ugandan flag high, after vanquishing better-facilitated competition.
More often than not, talented Ugandans have to establish bases in other countries in order to maximise their chances of success. Kiprotich, probably the most prominent Ugandan sportsman of this era, had to train in Kapkoros, Kenya prior to winning his Olympic gold, while Cheptegei is based in Europe.
All this is because athletes are aware that this country doesn’t invest in the facilities required to give them a chance to compete with the world’s very best. Yet, when they pull off the impossible, the inevitable plaudits roll in from all across the national spectrum, ironically including from the very same people who consider sport to be a “leisure industry”.
This article has been penned in the immediate aftermath of Cheptegei’s new World Record-setting heroics, with euphoria high and pseudo-patriotic messages coming from the powers that be.
What is utterly disturbing is that a week from now, with the mind-blowing race a part of history, the conversation about how much more seriously this country treats the sports industry will have died out.
So many empty promises towards improving the sports sector have been made to no avail
The promises about the construction of better training facilities, which always find themselves parroted every time a Ugandan athlete wins something will have long gone cold. Even the pledges for the adequate rewarding of the victorious Cheptegei will have accumulated cobwebs.
Yet, this is a hugely erroneous direction to take. With the ability and potential possessed by sportsmen and women in this country, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that with more government support, Uganda’s place in the universal sporting pyramid would be several levels higher than it currently is.
And by the way, more government support doesn’t merely involve increased funding. It also involves the holistic development of the mercurial talents that Uganda undoubtedly possesses right from childhood, presumably through an overhaul of the education system, which currently over-emphasizes curricular study over talent development.
The negative consequences of such a move are nonexistent while the benefits are overwhelming. But perhaps none of them weighs more than the free marketing and advertisement to potential tourists and investors alike, that a victorious Ugandan sportsperson brings when they raise the flag after achieving success on the global stage.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the idea of sports not being a crucial sector in the country’s development be discarded with immediate effect, and replaced with a more optimistic attitude.
Author: Timothy Ainebyoona
Timothy is a dynamic analyst passionate about news and all things sport.