No part of the world has seen more tumult—and more change—in the past 10 years than the belly of Africa, that vast midsection of a continent which sweeps in a 1,500-mile-wide arc from Senegal and the Congo in the west to Kenya and Tanzania in the east, an immense area nearly twice the size of the U.S. In 1956 tropical Africa was 24 countries, 22 of which were colonies of the great powers. Now it is 29 countries, 26 of them independent nations involved in their own political growth, anguish and storms. Here, in 1966, sport has a strange place—as unique, perhaps, as it had in Athens before the first Olympics. "Civilization begins at the moment sport begins," wrote Nikos Kazantzakis, the renowned Greek author. "As long as life struggles for preservation—to protect itself from its enemies, maintain itself upon the surface of the earth—civilization cannot be born. It is born the moment that life satisfies its primary needs and begins to enjoy a little leisure."
This is an article from the Dec. 19, 1966 issue
The following pages provide the surprising evidence of the degree to which sport has become a facet of life in Africa today. It becomes apparent that Kipchoge Keino is not a freak bursting from the bush country to confound the best distance runners of the day; that there is nothing astonishing about soccer recruiters for the famed teams of Europe and South America coming to watch Ghana's Black Star play Nigeria's Green Eagles in huge stadiums filled to over-flowing. Instead, Kenya's runners turn out to be the product of a sophisticated athletic program. Ghana's soccer players, it develops, have been kicking balls since they could walk. It is merely a matter of time—which translates into coaching and money—until Africa's athletes will challenge anyone's.
It is tempting to assume that the African nations are deliberately using sport as a means to gain world recognition more quickly than they might otherwise. If anything, the contrary is true. Kenya would not give its national track team money to buy a javelin; the coach had to pay for it himself. Hogan Bassey, who not so long ago was the world featherweight champion and is now the coach of Nigeria's boxing team, had only two punching bags available when the All-Africa championships were held in the capital city of Lagos this year. "It makes you sick," he said. At a track meet in Ghana the string that marks the finish line is broken by the winner, knotted, broken and knotted again and again, until at day's end its bulbous form pulled taut across the track is an ultimate symbol of athletic economy.
"Sport is no instrument of international politics for us," says Titus J. Wambugu, a Kenya government official. "It is something that must begin at the bottom level, in the schools and villages. The feel for sport must grow upward or it will not last. The government cannot and should not put a lot of money into sport."
Yet sport is flourishing in Kenya, where a mere 10 years ago the natives did not even understand the concept of competition. "They would try to win a race if the prize was tangible," recalls Wambugu, "a blanket or a bowl. But they could see no reason to strain themselves just to be faster than someone else. Why bother? When we began to give medals to the winners they were angry—you can't sleep under a medal—but now they wear them proudly." The Masai diet is still warm cow's blood and milk, but its recreation is the 440 and the high jump.
As testimony to the stimulus of sport, and sometimes the perversity of people, Africa abounds with new stadiums. There are six alone in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. There is a major one in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a 60,000-seater in the up-country Ghana university town of Kumasi, two large ones in Nigeria (one built as a matter of tribal rivalry to outshine the other) and one that holds 75,000 at Brazzaville in the Congo Republic. Given a little time, Ghana might have outdone them all. After its dictator, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted last February, he and his destitute regime were found to have had plans for a $22,000,000 Olympic complex that the Bulgarians were going to finance and construct.
Africa's sports are, in general, those the colonialists brought in, cultivated and left behind. Some of them, such as soccer—which is played in all African countries—track and horse racing, were adopted by the natives. Others, among them golf, tennis and cricket, were popular solely with the foreigners. But that has changed. The ball boys at Ghana clubs now are playing tennis, as are leading Accra businessmen; Kenya has a few excellent native golfers, including one who won the championship of Uganda, and Nigeria has a number of good tennis players.
Promise—that is the word for sport in emerging Africa. There is a breathtaking potential in a land where a Keino trains on the side of Mount Kenya, carefully clicking off his splits as he inches his quarter-mile times lower and lower while aiming for Jim Ryun's record, and, at the same moment not many 3:51.3 miles away, nomadic natives garbed in hides move through a pattern of life that has known no essential change since their society began. Promise—and contradiction.
Sport in emerging Africa is typified by the three countries photographed on the following pages. Two are in the west, Senegal and Ghana, one in the east, Kenya. Two are former British colonies, one French. One is verdant, one is bare. One is fiscally sound (Kenya), one is uncertain (Senegal), one is bankrupt (Ghana). But, taken together, they show that there is such a thing as sport in Africa, sport as it is understood by the rest of the world, and sport in the sense that Kazantzakis had in mind.