Africa at the Olympic Games — a century of drama

Friday July 20 2012

This year will mark 104 years since Africa first participated in the Games in 1908.

This year will mark 104 years since Africa first participated in the Games in 1908.  


The 30th Olympic Games will kick off in London on July 27, bringing together an estimated 10,500 athletes from over 200 countries.

Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria are touted as the countries likely to bring home the most medals, mainly in athletics.

But that doesn’t mean that Africa is only going to have a chance to shine in track and field — Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Swaziland and the DRC are all participating in boxing; Angola, as continental champions in both men and women’s basketball, are expected to give countries like the US a serious run for their money; while Egypt, apart from going for gold in its established sports such as weightlifting and wrestling, has also qualified for an unlikely event — synchronised swimming.

This year, Eritrea and Rwanda are sending one cyclist each to the games, and while Somalia has managed to send two athletes despite having to train in a bullet-riddled stadium in Mogadishu, the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, will not be represented in London as it failed to put together a team in time for the Games.

This year will mark 104 years since Africa first participated in the Games in 1908, when South Africa was the continent’s lone representative; the majority of African countries gained their Independence in the 1960s, allowing them to participate under their own flags.

Before Independence, Africans participated under the flags of their respective colonial powers. Africa is now a long time member of the modern Olympic Games.

Here are 10 of the continent’s unforgettable Olympic moments.


Reggie Walker’s 100 metres gold in London was Africa’s first ever Olympic gold medal. Walker was not among the favourites for the 100 metres; indeed, he nearly missed the Games altogether as he couldn’t put together the money needed to travel to London. Luckily, a South African sports writer from Natal came to his rescue. Walker qualified easily in the first round at 11.0 seconds, and in the second round, clocking 10.8 seconds.

He won gold in the final maintaining the same time of 10.8 seconds, and he remains the first and only South African, and African, ever to have won the Olympic 100 metres title. He is also still the youngest athlete to win the Olympic 100 metres, at 19 years and 128 days.


Just 24 years after Italy’s Benito Mussolini stormed into Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila, a soldier in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Bodyguard, lined up at the start of the marathon in Rome, barefoot, as he was not comfortable in the running shoes that had been offered to him.

Two hours later, he became the first black African to win Olympic gold, breaking the world record as he passed the finish line in two hours 15 minutes and 16.2 seconds. Four years later, and this time in shoes, he won gold again in Tokyo and reduced the record to two hours 12 minutes and 11.2 seconds.


Kipchoge Keino won Kenya’s first Olympic gold, for the 1,500 metres, in Mexico City in 1968, finishing 20 metres clear of the favourite and then world record holder, American Jim Ryun, the largest winning margin in the history of the event. Despite having a gall bladder infection, he soldiered on in Mexico City, clinching the silver medal for the 5,000 metres, although stomach cramps forced him out of the 10,000 metres with only two laps to go.

Four years later in Munich, he won gold in the 3,000 metres steeplechase and silver in the 1,500 metres, ushering in Kenya’s dominance in the middle and long distance races. Today, the 71-year-old is the president of his country’s National Olympic Committee.


John Stephen Akhwari represented Tanzania in the marathon in Mexico City in 1968. About midway through the race, he fell as runners jockeyed for position, badly injuring his knee. Akhwari’s coach urged him to withdraw, but he insisted on pressing on. By the time he reached the stadium, the winner had finished an hour earlier, and the medals had even been awarded.

But word came in that there was still one marathoner coming in, and the small crowd was astonished to see the lone runner limping to the finish line, bloody and bandaged. When Akhwari was asked why he had persevered, he famously replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.” It was called “the greatest last place finish ever.”


Police officer John Akii-Bua only managed to finish fourth in the 400 metres hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in 1970, so was not a favourite in Munich. Nevertheless, he managed to win gold in the final there, leaping past reigning Olympic Champion David Hemery and setting a world record time of 47.82 seconds.

He was also the first man to break the 48 seconds barrier in the 400 metres hurdles, an event so gruelling its nickname is “The Mankiller.” It was Uganda’s first gold on the Olympic stage, and he became a national celebrity — then president Idi Amin promoted him and gave him a house as a reward for his victory. But being as a member of the Langi ethnic group, targeted by Amin’s murderous regime, his national popularity could only protect him for so long. In 1979, Akii-Bua fled for his life to Kenya, eventually returning to Uganda after Amin’s fall and became an athletics coach. He died in 1997.


Nawal el Moutawakel won Olympic gold in the 400 metres hurdles in Los Angeles in 1984, becoming the first African woman and the first Muslim woman to win a gold medal at the Games. King Hassan II, then the King of Morocco, was so pleased that he declared all girls born on the day of her victory were to be named in her honour.

Until then, athletics in Morocco was the preserve of men, and her victory helped usher in a generation of Moroccan women which has performed well in track events, as well as inspiring other Muslim women in Africa, the Maghreb and the Middle East. In 1993, she started Courir Pour le Plaisir (Running for Pleasure) a five-kilometre race run for women in Casablanca that has become one of the biggest women’s races held in a Muslim country, with up to 30,000 entrants. She is now a member of the International Olympic Committee, the first Muslim woman to serve on the committee, and is also the secretary of state for sport in Morocco.


Derartu Tulu became the first black African woman to clinch Olympic gold when she claimed the women’s 10,000 metres title. She kept pace with South African Elana Meyer until the final lap, when she broke free and sprinted to the finish in a personal best of 31:06:02. She then invited Meyer to join her on her lap of victory — a deeply poignant gesture, since South Africa had just been readmitted to the Olympic Games as the apartheid era came to an end.

Her second Olympic gold at 10,000 metres in Sydney 2000 was a breathtaking race in which the first six women all broke the Olympic record. In Athens four years later, she won bronze in the same event, losing out to China’s Xing Huina and her fellow Ethiopian Ejegayehu Dibaba.

As recently as 2009, Tulu was still a force to reckon with as most of her contemporaries were retired, when she won the 2009 New York Marathon aged 37. Her victories have made her a celebrated icon in Ethiopia, alongside other legendary greats like Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Miruts Yifter and Haile Gebrselassie.


Although he has won gold in the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships and the All Africa Games, Frankie Fredericks has been called Africa’s finest sprinter never to win an Olympic gold — he came in second place in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in Barcelona 1992, making him Namibia’s first, and so far, only Olympic medallist.

In Atlanta, he was among the title favourites for the 100m and 200m, reaching both finals, but again gold eluded him as he finished second in both events. In the 100m, he was beaten by Canadian Donovan Bailey, who set a new world record, and in the 200m he was beaten by American Michael Johnson, who also set a new world record.

At the time, Fredericks’s 1996 second place run was the third fastest in history, beaten only by on two occasions by Johnson. He is now an IOC committee member, tasked with representing the interests of athletes.

Nigeria made Olympic football history by becoming the first African team, and the first outside Europe and South America to win the gold medal. It was a very unlikely win, as Nigeria beat teams considered far superior, including clinching a 4-3 semi-final victory against a formidable Brazilian side that boasted the talents of Bebeto, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. Nigeria went on to meet Argentina in the final, where substitute Emmanuel Amuneke scored in the dying seconds of the game at the 90th minute in a 3-2 victory.

Captained by Nwankwo Kanu, Nigeria’s Dream Team of 1996, with players like Babayaro, Amokachi, Amuneke, Victor Ikpeba, Jay-Jay Okocha and Taribo West, became superstars and household names on the continent.


Equatorial Guinea’s 100m freestyle entry in Sydney 2000 was the most improbable competitor — Eric Moussambani had only learned to swim only eight months before the Games and had never seen a 50 metre pool before arriving in Australia. To make matters worse, Moussambani had been mistakenly informed that he would be swimming only 50 metres and had trained accordingly, only to find out that he had entered a race twice that distance.

Only in the competition thanks to a wildcard entry, he finished his heat in 1 min 52:72 seconds. It was the slowest time that the Games had ever seen, but Moussambani garnered worldwide fame as he persevered to the finish, veering diagonally across his lane as he flailed in desperation on the return lap as the amused but supportive Australian crowd cheered their encouragement for the hapless underdog.