Famous sports personalities defied the Zika virus threats to hunt for medals., Russians celebrated as though they had just landed on the moon after their doping ban was lifted and tennis star Novak Djokovic wept when he was knocked out of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
This sequence of events depicts a clear picture of the importance of the Olympic Games, where athletes from the world-over showcase their endurance and skills in athletics, basketball, judo, football, volleyball and other sports codes.
But Malawi’s Olympic Games story this year is the same brutal experience. Out of her 15 million citizens, ironically no one met the qualification requirements.
The country’s representatives namely, marathon runner Tereza Master, swimmers Aamara Pinto and Brave Lifa, athlete Kefasi Chitsala and David Areneo for archery are at the games on invitation, Solidarity and Universality programmes. In simpler terms, they failed to make the grade and have been offered a second chance.
Malawi’s failure to qualify for the Olympic Games, sports analyst Charles Ulaya argues, is due to lack of a system that can identify and nurture athletes capable of winning medals.
“Schools are supposed to be used as breeding grounds for athletes, but unfortunately there are no special programmes to identify and nurture talent,” the former Weightlifting Association of Malawi president observes.
He further indicates that other countries such as South Africa identify young athletes and develop them in the Olympic way.
“The young athletes are given financial support and are allocated modern sports facilities where they train in preparation for the global games,” Ulaya adds.
The most popular sport locally is football, but the Under-23 national team has never qualified for the Olympic Games.
Soccer expert Charles Nyirenda says the country’s football development programmes are too shambolic to inspire a team into the Olympic Games.
“If we labour to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, it is unrealistic to dream of Olympic Games which is like the World Cup. Don’t forget that we don’t even join the competition,” he explains.
Football Association of Malawi (FAM) vice-president James Mwenda, who is also head of the technical and youth subcommittee, points to lack of funds as a key factor forcing the country out of some tournaments.
Amid such outcry, Athletics Association of Malawi (AAM) president Godfrey Phiri points out that the country can win Olympic medals if it focuses on promoting individual sports rather than team events.
“Individual games are less costly because they don’t involve management of several athletes like football or basketball,” he says.
Government, through the Public Service Reforms Programme, plans to reintroduce Physical Education (PE) in primary schools.
George Jana, the executive secretary for the Malawi National Council of Sports (MNCS) which is implementing the programme, hopes that PE will inspire a sporting culture and give birth to athletes that can succeed at international competitions.
The reform project has already suffered its major setback as government, in its 2016/17 budget, has not allocated the needed funds to roll it out. It’s a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Back at the Rio Olympic Games, during the opening ceremony athlete Kefasi Chitsala, profoundly followed by a handful compatriots or fellow obvious losers, hoisted the Malawi flag—that unifying piece of cloth.
Victory, they say, has many fathers while defeat is an orphan. While other countries’ flags were sorrounded by squads of successful athletes, Malawi’s—which flies commandingly at the State House, government offices and embassies—appeared horribly orphaned.
Sports has vast potential to market a country, but the opposite can be said of Malawi. If the ill-preparations continue, the country will walk the same path of shame at the Tokyo 2020.