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It's Greek To Me


Excuse me for saying so, but it seems a wee bit strange to be writing about the just-completed 28th Olympiad in Greece from an island in the St. Lawrence Seaway that separates Canada and the United States. But like billions and billions of others around the globe here I sat day after day totally absorbed in many sports that only cross my radar screen once every four years when the Olympic Games roll around.

To make things even more interesting, my Olympic experience came courtesy of a Canadian television station which, in all candor, had a much more egalitarian approach than NBC's coverage to the U.S.

Before I launch into my overview of how Africa fared or didn't fare during the 19 days of competition, let me congratulate Greece on a job very well done. Let's hope one act of moronic lunacy towards the end of the marathon is not allowed to detract from the Greeks pulling the Olympic rabbit out of the hat when all the so-called experts were predicting doom and gloom for the 28th Olympiad.

I'm sure there will be those who will attempt to disparage the lovely job the Greeks did in the end. Let's get real, folks. There's virtually no way to prevent such a boorish, totally self absorbed act from being perpetrated when some jerk is bound and determined to make his point, whatever that is.

Now down to the real world and my promised overview of Africa's participation in the Greek games. Once again, it became all too painfully obvious that Africa continues strong mainly in those events not requiring a full measure of technical expertise. Before you start bellowing abuse at me, by that remark I'm in no way attempting to demean or otherwise denigrate the continent's usual preponderance of victories in track events of 1,500 meters on up. But while those longer races undoubtedly require tactical skills and brute endurance they do not place equal emphasis on the technical expertise evident in the shorter track events.

A case in point. For years, sprinter Francis Obikwelu labored in relative obscurity in Nigeria. Then, frustrated with what he saw as the low standard of coaching and facilities in that West African nation, Obikwelu packed his bags and moved to Portugal, eventually gaining citizenship and, with it, the right to represent that country in the Olympics. My point is this. In Portugal, Obikwelu was able to gain access to the technical training, the physical accoutrements and logistical support so vital to honing his God-given skills.

And the rest, as they say, is history with only a whisker separating him from attaining the prestigious title of reigning Olympic champion in arguably the track world's premier event. But on a purely emotional, gut, level, it just doesn't somehow seem right to Da Ole Sports Emperor that Obikwelu's marvelous silver medal achievement goes in Portugal's medal column, rather than Nigeria's. Rather ominously, I see this, in future, probably proving the rule rather than the exception.

This migration was begun by the mighty 800-meters ace, Wilson Kipkitur of Denmark. Excuse me, maybe it's this baldhead, but I'll never get used to saying Wilson Kipkitur of Denmark. Hey, no one should ever fault Wilson for wanting a more secure life for he and his family. But Kipkitur is as Kenyan as Nairobi! What I'm lamenting here is what I predict will be the forthcoming tsunami of Obikwelus and Kipkiturs winning glory for adopted countries rather than the ones of their birth.

As much as we would like to deny it, the cold hard fact of the matter is that most Olympic disciplines are becoming increasingly technical, with hundredths of a second often separating medal winners from also rans. And unfortunately those micro seconds are only gained through the highest quality of coaching, facilities and training techniques, found, by and large, in the so-called first world countries.

Africa, however, need not be permanently relegated to its usual dominance in predictable events. The neighboring countries of South Africa and Zimbabwe won a total of six medals, including two gold, in the Olympic swimming pool.

I know our VOA listeners in Harare and Bulawayo and throughout Zimbabwe celebrated the wonderful Olympic performances of swimmer Kirsty Coventry. Kirsty, who attends Auburn University in the southern U.S. state of Alabama, won gold, silver and bronze medals in Athens. They were the first Olympic medals Zimbabwe had won since the country's women's field hockey team was the surprise gold medalist at Moscow '80.

South Africa, thanks to Hestrie Cloete, also secured silver in the highly technical women's high jump, while Mbulaeni Mulaudzi won another silver for South Africa in the men's 800-meters, the track event that has been called the most technically demanding after the 100-meters dash. So, that only goes to prove my point -- where natural talent and good solid technical training come together Olympic medals stand an excellent chance of resulting.

That leads me to my next point regarding whether African countries can or should invest the precious financial resources in producing the John Akii-Buas of this world. You've certainly heard me pontificate about sports being one of the essential corner stones of nation building. I still fervently believe that. However, increasingly, I've come to conclude that maybe, just maybe, winning 35 medals -- as Africa has done at the past two Olympics -- may be all most African nations can afford to win given the outlandishly high cost of achieving such glory. This is not to say that African countries should stop striving to win as many medals as possible. Of course they should and they will. All I'm saying is that that fervor for national glory has to be tempered with the cold hard economic realities at home.

I'm only saddened when top-flight African athletes, such as Francis Obikwelu, have to become sporting mercenaries of a sort, selling their talents to the highest bidder, in order to achieve their dreams. A much preferred system, to my mind, is the one long pioneered by American track legend and diplomat, Mal Whitfield. Mal has long championed bringing emerging African talent to the United States to hone their skills while getting a college education in the process.

This represents the best of all worlds, hopefully leaving the athlete with the academic tools for a vastly improved life even when, inevitably, the athletic skills erode. One just has to look at the Olympic successes of the Jamaican and Bahamian sprinters, many of whom have starred on American college campuses before donning the colors of their home countries. And that to me symbolizes the true Olympic spirit.

Many African athletes have also taken full advantage of this excellent American system of coaching and facilities. The athlete that comes most readily to mind is Frank "Da Flash" Fredericks of Namibia. Frank starred at Brigham Young University under the tutelage of renowned coach, Willard Hirshi. Before ending his on-track career in Athens, Fredericks captured four Olympic silver medals, two each in Barcelona and Atlanta in his specialties, the 100 and 200-meter races.

But when you talk to Willard about Frank it's not so much his Olympic medal performances that are remembered most. What stands out in Willard's mind is Frank Fredericks the quality person, not the record-breaking athlete. And this assessment was recently borne out when the Namibian sprinter was one of eight athletes named to a four-year appointment on the IOC's Athletic Advisory Committee.

Having said all the above, I must confess I still get a chill up my spine when the national anthem of a particular African nation is played. And I'll run down the continent's Olympic highlights and lowlights when next we meet. But for now, it's time for another siesta after all this hard work!

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