Updated: Jan 15
In 1988, four Jamaicans set foot in cold Alberta, Canada, to compete in a sport that was completely atypical to their tropical background, bobsledding for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Their humble financial resources, vulnerability to the biting cold and the need to keep borrowing others’ sleds if they were to keep training and participating in the competition at all did not do much help to their ‘ultimate underdog’ label. But their love for country and determination for sportsmanship became a global inspiration that elevated the spirit of what the Olympics symbolize. The Olympics are scarcely a paid occupation, yet they epitomize statesmanship of the highest caliber.
The Jamaican bobsled team did not finish the competition, mainly due to a bobsled crash in one of the rounds of the competition. But this initial footprint earned them the respect of the world as a formidable Winter Olympics team. It also motivated Hollywood to make the movie Cool Runnings, one of the most inspirational stories ever told.
The Malawian Olympians in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games were, of course, never led by a Howard Siler to claim their place at the 2016 Rio Olympics and may probably never have one. Perhaps they do not necessarily need one to be a successful Olympics team. But there needs to be something done about the team’s participation that will drive national pride beyond our knack for salsa, going past the oblivion characterizing our presence at such events. So, the rationale shared by Hon. Grace Chiumia, Minister for Youth and Sports, pointing to poor funding and poor state of sports infrastructure for our athletes, become a little far fetched in as far as the spirit of the Olympics go. We must get things right first.
It is true that the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, let alone our appropriation of budgets that currently places emphasis on a game that we have sucked at for far too long, football. Indeed, an investment in simple athletic sports could go a long way in boosting the status quo and our rankings on the global scale.
In addition, the athletes themselves would like the longer term vision of the government to bear some Olympics orientation, whatever that would entail. This is quite an agreeable position. And we can encourage them, using private sector endorsements (financial in every way here) as complements to government efforts, to provide them with a decent nurturing environment so they can feel they owe everything to their being Malawian.
Malawi flew five Olympians to Rio to participate in the Games. Two engaged in swimming and one in archery, two sporting activities not quite traditional to Malawi’s sports men and women. We did not go very far in these. But, neither did we do very well in the one sport we are most familiar with, Track and Field, except demonstrating, in a rather pleasant way, that one of our representatives in this sport succumbs to the persuasion of Brazilian rhythm. We do not recall this was because the great Usain Bolt was sprinting at the same time, which would have justified our timidity at cutting it on the track. We do not recall this can be adequate ground for being terrible at anything, actually. If it were not for the satirical playfulness of BBC’s Ikenna Azuike, Africa (we will not courageously mention the world in this part of our story) would probably have never known we were in Rio. Many factors considered, it immediately appears that the reasons given by both government and the athletes hold the answers to doing better next time.
We think that the best place to start, for a country as ours, is the more inexpensive investment in instruction on the meaning of the Olympics. We have to primarily understand that, at the Olympics, amidst the multitude of participants are individuals that represent nations, which are collections of national ideologies, landscapes and thousands of years of pride in an identity worth sharing with the world. Beyond the appetite they each have for their sports lies a true passion for the countries they represent and the ‘to-die-for’ attitude that spurs them into breaking records on the human capabilities’ scale. To us, it means medals majorly represent symbolic wins, and give way to recognition of nations as the ultimate prize. So, against all odds, this immense sense of national pride was the richest possession that today immortalizes the Jamaican bobsled team of 1988.
Every time we talk about Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or Simone Biles, we pronounce their names in the contexts of the countries they represent. We bring out fresh and refreshing ideas about the inspirations that their countries must impart on them to become so great, so infallible and so invincible.
Of course, we cannot deny the monetary motivations that follow Olympic stardom, just so our athletes do not completely despair. Excellence in Track and Field has earned Bolt a net worth of over US$32 million over his career; Phelps over $55 million; and Ms. Biles’ net worth has grown by 1000% to $2.1 million in 2016 since she scooped four gold medals for the USA in Rio. She is only just beginning. All these encompass good ground on which participation in the Olympics transcends the unpaid job of representing one’s country at the games.
The doors are wide open and the sky is the limit for our athletes. But we certainly have to meet midway as we play our part of the deal, as a country, in satisfying their needs to participate well, while they dose themselves with a full potion for true love of country.