Rarely a Gold Medal for African Nations

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 "You have outdated coaches, outdated equipment, outdated … everything."

Even if the facilities could be fixed up, training athletes is extremely expensive. 


Swaziland National Olympic Committee chief Muriel Hofer has said that it costs upward of $350,000 per year — and about 14 years — to train an Olympian. The per-capita GDP of the mountainous Southern African kingdom is about $5,000.

And lately, another culprit affecting African athletics seems to be politics.

Kenyan officials said they would live up to their stunning 14-medal haul from Beijing. When they got edged out by other runners in key events they were expected to win, social networks went wild with theories — everything from management problems to poorly selected athletes to lack of morale. The fracas forced Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga to issue a statement in an apparent attempt to assuage the nation. He also said the East African nation would bid to host the 2024 Games.


Officials from Ghana have openly said that its poor performance this year is directly linked to poor planning and to leadership problems in the country's Olympic committee. The nation formerly known as the British colony of Gold Coast has never brought home a namesake medal.

"It's been an eye-opener for the administration," Ghana team spokesman Erasmus Kwaw told The Root. "We can only hope we can do things in a much better way." That lack of planning and funding, he said, means "we are not playing at a level playing ground. That is a major problem we are facing, and until we address that issue, we might be far away from getting another medal at the Olympic Games."


Then there is another, controversial theory for why African athletes are being edged out. American Olympic medalist Michael Johnson said in a British documentary that he believes that African descendants  have an edge because of their enslaved past.

"Difficult as it was to hear," he said in the documentary that traced his roots to West Africa, "Slavery has benefited descendants like me — I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us."


Johnson's representative did not return numerous inquiries from The Root seeking comment. But when asked what he thought of this theory, Kenyan team spokesman Peter Angwenyi laughed.

"No!" he said. "It is not all black athletes winning the races! Look at the man who won silver in the men's 10,000 meters. It doesn't matter. We're a global village now."


Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. She's in London following the games and her favorite sport, boxing. Follow her on Twitter.