The distribution of sporting talent in the African continent is almost perfect. If a hypothetical United States of Africa were to put together one Olympic team, by natural selection, the footballers would come from North and West Africa, the athletes from East Africa, and rugby players from South Africa.
Sportsmen and women from all the other disciplines would find their place in it from everywhere within the four shores of the continent. There are interfaces, of course; Zambia in the south, for instance, produces some very good footballers.
Over the past 60 years, many changes have affected the evolution of African sport. They have been mostly incremental, such as the steady rise in the number competitors taking part in the Olympic Games and increase in the number of African teams taking part in the Fifa World Cup from one to five.
Some changes have been earth-shaking—like the collapse of apartheid and the subsequent readmission of South Africa into the international community.
Others have been catastrophic—like the continent’s worst sporting tragedy in 1993, when an air crash killed the entire Zambian national football team in Gabon. All pundits agreed that it was a team destined for greatness.
From Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila in 1960, through Cameroon’s Roger Milla in the 1980s to Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in 2019, Africa’s sporting journey is an engaging one. As individuals and as teams, here are some of the continent’s headline figures.
Rabah Madjer, Lakhdar Belloumi, and The Desert Foxes
The Algerian national football team is the current African champion. After the 1982 Fifa World Cup, it forced the enactment of one of the most important rules in football: that all final group games be henceforth played simultaneously to pre-empt match-fixing. In a clear case of collusion, Germany defeated Austria 1-0, a result that qualified both teams and denied Algeria, which had defeated Germany 2-1, passage to the next round. Madjer and Belloumi are the two most prominent legends of that era.
Roger Milla, Samuel Eto’o, and The Indomitable Lions
The Cameroon national football team has qualified seven times for the Fifa World Cup – an African record. It was also the first African team to reach the tournament’s quarter-finals, which it did in 1990. The team has won five Africa Cup of Nations titles and was the Olympic gold medallist in 2000.
Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o are its most prominent legends. Eto’o, a four-time African Footballer of the Year, all-time leading goal scorer in the Africa Cup of Nations and Olympic gold medallist, is Africa’s most decorated footballer.
Roger Milla, who at 38 in 1994 became the oldest player to score in a Fifa World Cup match, was in 2007 named by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) as the best African player of the previous 50 years. In 2004 he had been named by Pelé in the Fifa 100 list of the world's greatest living players. He played in three World Cups for the Indomitable Lions.
Mahmoud el Khatib, Mohamed Salah, and The Pharaohs
Egypt’s national team has won the Africa Cup of Nations more times than any other – seven in all. It was the inaugural winner in 1957. In 1934, Egypt became the first African team to appear in the Fifa World Cup. The country’s legendary goalkeeper, Essam el Hadary, surpassed Roger Milla’s age record when, at 45, he played for The Pharaohs at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.
The best known names from Egyptian football are Mahmoud El Khatib and Mohamed Salah. El Khatib, a Fifa Fair Play Award winner for going 450 competitive games with just one yellow card and the 1983 African Player of the Year, made France Football’s 30-man list of the best African players of all time.
Salah is currently one of the hottest names in world football. The Liverpool forward justified his 2012 Caf Most Promising African Talent of the Year award by winning the 2018 Caf African Footballer of the Year, the BBC African Footballer of the Year as well as selection to the Caf Team of the Year.
He was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2019.
He started East Africa’s dominance of the marathon in the world when he won the race barefoot during the 1960 Olympics. Few African athletes have put their names in popular culture as Bikila. He has been the subject of books and documentary films in addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles.
The Abebe Bikila Award for contributions by an individual to long-distance running has been won by two of his compatriots, Mamo Wolde and Haile Gabrselassie, Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa, and Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Tegla Loroupe.
One of the greatest distance runners of all time, Gabrselassie won two Olympic gold medals over 10,000 metres and four World Championship titles in the same event.
He is a back-to-back four-time winner of the Berlin Marathon, which in 2008 he won at the age of 35.
Dibaba is a product of the rich tradition of Ethiopian distance runners. She has won three Olympic and five World Championship gold medals as well as four individual World Cross Country adult titles and one individual junior title. She is also the only athlete to have achieved a double in 5,000m and 10,000m in the same edition, which she did during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. She won back-to-back 10,000m gold medals in the Olympics of 2008 and 2012.
By winning the women’s 10,000m race in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Tulu became the first African female athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. She proceeded to also become the first to win two Olympic titles over the same distance when she took the gold medal in Sydney in 2000. She has also won the London Marathon once and is a three-time World Cross Country champion.
The Ayew family and the Black Stars
The Ghana Black Stars are consistently one of Africa’s best football teams. They have won the Africa Cup of Nations four times and been runners-up five times. In 2010, they missed a Fifa World Cup semi-final qualification by a hair’s breadth and, with Cameroon and Senegal, remain the only three African teams to reach the tournament’s quarter-final stage. They were bronze medallists in the 1992 Olympics.
Abedi Ayew Pele, and his three sons – Ibrahim, Andre, and Jordan – are Africa’s most famous footballing family. Abedi is regarded as one of Africa’s best players of all time. Ibrahim and André made the Black Stars team for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, while André and Jordan played at the 2014 World Cup. Andre and Jordan are regular players and, like their father, have captained the Black Stars.
The first human to run the marathon in under two hours—though not recognised officially as a world record—can stake his claim to being the greatest athlete of all time. For officially-recognised races, his CV includes Olympic champion (2016), 5000m World champion (2003), Cross Country World junior champion (2003), 5000m Olympic silver medallist (2008), 5000m World Championships silver medallist (2007), 5000m Olympic bronze medallist (2004), 3000m World Indoor bronze medallist (2006), alongside several big city marathons including London, Berlin, and Chicago. He has been decorated with Kenya’s second highest civilian award, the Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart of Kenya.
Kipchoge Keino is the original world athletics superstar from Kenya. He won gold and silver medals in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics in the 1500m, 5000m and 3000m steeplechase. From 1965 to his retirement in 1973, he won gold and silver medals in the All-Africa and Commonwealth Games as well as numerous other international competitions. In 2012, he was one of 24 athletes inducted as inaugural members of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) Hall of Fame. He was made the first Olympic Laureate in 2016.
He holds the distinction of being the only boxer from sub-Sahara Africa to ever win an Olympic gold medal, which he bagged at the 1988 Games in Seoul. A hard punching welterweight, Wangila died after a professional bout in the United States in 1994.
Kenya’s best amateur boxer of all time. He became World Amateur Boxing champion in 1978, improving on his silver medal performance four years earlier. He was also the Commonwealth champion in 1974 and 1978. He missed the 1976 and 1980 Olympics due to politically-instigated boycotts.
Probably the world’s greatest athlete never to win an Olympic medal. It was his misfortune to be at the top of his form between 1976 and 1980, when Kenya boycotted both the Montreal and Moscow Olympics. In one of sporting history’s most remarkable epochs, he smashed four world records – the 3000m, the 5000m, the 10,000m, and the 3000m steeplechase – in a space of only 81 days.
She is a two-time World champion in the women’s marathon and won silver medals in the distance during the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. She is a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon.
She broke the world record during the Chicago Marathon in 2001 to cement her place as one of the great women marathon runners of all time.
Liberia’s current president has been hailed by many as the greatest footballer to come out of Africa. In 1995, he was named Fifa World Player of the Year and also won the Ballon d'Or, becoming the first and only African player to win these awards so far.
He was voted African Footballer of the Year in 1989, 1994, and 1995. Fifa once described him as “the precursor of the multi-functional strikers of today”, while Pele included him in Fifa’s list of the world’s greatest living players. He was, of course, easily the greatest African player never to play in the Fifa World Cup.
Nawal El Moutawakel
The current vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Athletics Federations is a woman of many firsts. She became the first Moroccan, Arab, African, and Muslim to win the women’s 400m hurdles when the race was first included in the Olympic programme during the 1984 Olympics. She was Morocco’s minister for sports from 2007 to 2009. A symbol of the modern Moroccan woman and a past secretary of state for youth and sports in Morocco, El Moutawakel joined the IAAF board in 1995 and the IOC in 1998.
Endearingly dubbed the “Maputo Express”, Mutola is the only Mozambican athlete so far, both men and women, to win a World or Olympic gold medal. She is also the only athlete in history to have won four World or Olympic titles over the 800m distance. She had great longevity, competing for almost 20 years.
In all, she won the 2000 Olympic gold, three World titles as well as chalking up seven victories at the World Indoor Championships. Her dominance of the 800 metres saw her win gold medals in the African Championships, and the African and Commonwealth Games.
Frank "Frankie" Fredericks
Fredericks is the face of Namibian sport. He was a lone performer in a space dominated by American and Caribbean stars. In 1992 and 1996, he won four Olympic sprint medals, making him the country’s sole Olympic winner. He also won gold medals in the World, World Indoor, All-Africa, and Commonwealth Games. He is also the oldest man to have broken 20 seconds in the 200 metres, having done that in 2002 at the age of 34. He covered the distance in a time of 19.99 seconds.
The Super Eagles
The Nigerian national football team has won the Africa Cup of Nations three times – a great underachievement given the country’s depth of talent. In 1994, it was ranked fifth by Fifa, the highest an African country has ever been rated. The Super Eagles have qualified for the Fifa World Cup six times. Though behind Egypt and Cameroon in African titles and World Cup appearances, Nigeria is one of the continent’s giants.
The Springboks are the world’s most successful Rugby World Cup team, having won three out of seven tournaments ahead of New Zealand, whose All Blacks have won three out of nine. They were named 2008 World Team of the Year at the Laureus World Sports Awards.
Though a leading light and founder country of the Rugby World Cup, South Africa missed the first two editions of the tournament in 1987 and 1991 because of the international boycott of apartheid. It won the trophy in its debut appearance in 1995.
Luol Ajou Deng
He is the most famous South Sudanese sportsman although he is also a British citizen. Born in South Sudan, he and his family fled the country when he was a child and settled in Britain, where he would eventually play for the British national team. He was a two-time NBA All-Star and was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012. As a 19 year-old in the US in 2005, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. He retired in October this year with the Chicago Bulls.
Zimbabwe’s current minister of youth, sport, arts and recreation is also Africa’s most decorated Olympian. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee and heads its Athlete’s Commission. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Coventry won three Olympic medals: gold, silver, and bronze. In Beijing four years later, she won one gold and three silvers. Described as “a national treasure”, Coventry retired from swimming after her fifth Olympics, having won the joint most individual medals in women's swimming in Olympic history.