Athletics has, for the umpteenth time, thrown down the gauntlet to the men and women in charge of sports. A critical phase for local sport lies ahead after athletics’ recent sparkling display at two world competitions, argues Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
It is argued; football is Botswana’s national sport and enjoys unparalleled mass participation across the length and breadth of the country.
However, athletics has consistently put its best foot forward, nudging sport authorities with unignorable performances. But despite best performances, athletics has failed to convince authorities to move the best performing code to the apex of the ‘pampering’ order. Football retains, well, up to the recent Olympic Games and the World Under-20 Athletics Championships, much of the financial attention.
But the pendulum is expected to swing after the recent glorious moments athletics delivered.
While football has not raised a sweat in attracting and retaining attention, athletics and other codes always carry the burden of proof. At times despite proving beyond reasonable doubt they can deliver, the financial status quo has remained. Sport authorities have been slow to accept the glaring reality that while football is the most popular sport, the interest does not match the results.
The signs have always been there of athletics’ unflagging endurance. It has been the only Botswana code ever-present at the Olympics since the country’s debut in 1980. The only two Olympic medals the country has won came through athletics.
While expectations are rising that athletics could finally overtake football in the budget allocation perking order, there is the danger the existing conditions could persist. It is not the first time athletics has made a strong case for recognition but remained in the lower rungs in terms of funding. In 2011, athletics produced a world champion in Amantle Montsho, while the following year, Nijel Amos became the first local athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games. This was sufficient to trigger a mindset shift.
The case of targeted funding has been mulled in the past but has thus far, come to nought. Under the model, funding would be tied to performance.
In this case, a popular sport like football will emerge as the loser while lesser recognised but performing codes like athletics, karate, volleyball or softball will be the winners. Some of the codes have brought joy from world competitions while football has struggled to conquer even its regional counterparts.
The new revolution will not be about demoting football but recognising performance over popularity. After the recent athletics unstinting heroics, there has been overwhelming sentiment, particularly on social media that performance should be the major determining currency in funding.
Football will not lose its status as the most popular sport, but if there is a paradigm shift, could wean off its title as the best-funded code.
The athletics’ challenge cannot be ignored as calls gain traction from across sectors. The country’s first citizen, President Mokgweetsi Masisi was equally impressed with athletics’ showing as he followed the action in Tokyo and Nairobi. The Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Tumiso Rakgare will be hard-pressed to introduce a funding model that rewards performance. Government has already set the ball rolling after rewarding the Tokyo bronze medal heroes with two-bedroom houses. This is expected to spark a domino effect. Authorities at the Botswana Athletics Association (BAA) will want the on-the-field results reflected through an improved budget. Athletics receives a grant of just above P1million every year from the BNSC, hardly enough to cover BAA’s activities.
In some instances, the success has been down to talent rather than deliberate programs, as funding has hampered some of the projects. Now BAA will want to develop a thorough model that will enhance Botswana’s teeming talent.
There are schools of excellence, which include Goodhope Senior Secondary School, but there is a feeling Botswana is now ready for a state of the art High Performance Centre. Local athletes have been shipped out to High Performance Centres in South Africa, Senegal, Morocco and the United States of America, among other countries. However, Botswana’s athletics potential will only see calls for a local centre, grow. The showing at the Olympics and World Junior Championships will accelerate conversations around how the country could further enhance its performances.
It is a golden opportunity not to be wasted as Botswana will look to push on, on the track and be counted among genuine athletics nations, and funding is central to this objective. Eyes are now on the sport leadership from the minister, through the BNSC, the Botswana National Olympic Committee, Botswana Integrated Sport Association, BAA, and all other stakeholders tasked with ensuring sport development. History will judge the administrators harshly if they fail to kick-on the success the nation has had, particularly against all odds.
Athletes like Isaac Makwala complained of a lack of training opportunities due to the constant sport bans over the last year, but against the tide, Botswana emerged victorious. The winds of change should be blowing after athletes literally ran into the ground in the last three weeks, bringing unbridled joy to a nation in the grip of a devastating pandemic.