Rarely a Gold Medal for African Nations

Poverty and politics keep many of the continent's athletes from reaching the podium at the Games.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

(The Root) — “The Star-Spangled Banner” has already played more than three dozen times at the Olympics as American athletes have taken gold medals. Britain’s “God Save the Queen” has had its own hit run at the London Games, with more than two dozen podium renditions.

But for more than half of the African nations, the sweet first chords of a national anthem have never rung out over an Olympic podium.

So far, five African nations — out of 53 competing from the continent — have won gold. South Africa and Ethiopia won three gold medals each. Kenya grabbed two gold and Tunisia and Algeria each claimed one. Thirty-nine African nations have never won gold at the Olympics. Twenty-seven of those have never won a medal, ever. That list includes, predictably, small, poor, war-torn nations that have struggled to maintain training facilities good enough for world-class athletes.

Some African runners are lucky enough to get good training conditions at home — like Ethiopian runners, who dash up the nearly vertical eucalyptus-covered slopes of Addis Ababa’s Mount Entoto, or Kenyan distance athletes, who train in the high-altitude Rift Valley.

On the other side of the spectrum, Somali athletes Mohamed Mohamed and Zamzam Mohamed Farah train on streets cratered by mortar rounds and under the watchful gaze of a powerful, menacing insurgent group that has intentionally targeted sports figures in the past and does not approve of women athletes.

But others, like runner Amantle Montsho, the first female competitor from Botswana, had to go far to get to London. She spent years training in the West African nation of Senegal — only to come in fourth in the 400-meter final. Her finishing time was .03 seconds short of third place — and less than a quarter-second behind American gold-winner Sanya Richards-Ross.

African facilities are crumbling. The famous Kinshasa stadium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that saw Muhammad Ali and George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” is now a home for families who live in decrepit conditions. The middle of the stadium, where the two greats went toe-to-toe, is now, literally, a toilet. Even Nigeria, once an African boxing powerhouse, has lost its edge because of bad facilities, no investment and corruption, said Nigerian boxer Shawn Love Rapha.

“Boxing is very ill-funded here in this country,” he told The Root. “You have outdated coaches, outdated equipment, outdated … everything.”