Swazi Athletes Struggle to Prepare for Olympic Games

Sprinters during practice for the Olympics in Swaziland, July 2012 (Emilie Iob/VOA)
Sprinters during practice for the Olympics in Swaziland, July 2012 (Emilie Iob/VOA)
MANZINI, Swaziland — Like others around the world, Olympic athletes in Swaziland are intensely preparing to compete in London, but in a tiny country with little infrastructure and a small budget developing their skills is a daily challenge. 

After a few seconds of rush, a practice sprint is over.

As Sibusiso Matsenjwa gets his breath back by the side of the track in the Swazi city of Manzini, the sprinter hopes his coach timed him accurately with his watch.  The stadium has no electronic timer and this young man is under pressure.  He is one of the three athletes who will be representing Swaziland at the London Olympic Games.  He will run the 200-meter race.

But the athlete, 24, says it is not easy to find motivation to train in this country. “It is very difficult," admitted Matsenjwa.  "You have to have a self-discipline.  In Swaziland, even if you are the best athlete, there is no competition.  A lot of people do not come and watch or support you in athletics.  That is the difficult part, there is no motivation.”

In the little kingdom, one of the poorest countries in the world, sports equipment is scarce.  Fellow Olympic team member, runner Phumlile Ndzinisa, agrees the challenges are many.  She says until recently they had little financial support for even the basic elements to train.

“Sometimes, when I come to the gym, I need money to join the gym," explained Ndzinisa. "Or if you have an injury, you want to be attend by a physio [trainer].  When you do not have money, you cannot go to the physio.”

Ndzinisa, 20, has been running for six years.  She comes from a small village in the mountains.  Her coach, Muzi Mabuza, says the fact the talented sprinter even got spotted is a miracle.

“Because I was in Tshwane, I would see her running around school competitions," said the coach. "But what I saw in Pretoria [South Africa], the performance there, it got me to say, 'OK, she has quite a potential, she can do better only if she can be in some kind of systematic training and a better environment.”

Mabuza says he convinced the girl's parents to let her come to Manzini, and she and Matsenjwa started to train under Mabuza's supervision.  

As their performances started to improve, the team got a bit of help from benefactors, and, later some funding from the government and the Olympic Association. It was enough to start sending the athletes to some competitions overseas.

Matenjwa remembers the first time he flew on a plane was to compete at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, Germany. “I had no shoes," he said. "Somebody borrowed me the shoes to go there and run.”

It was a small start, but a start nonetheless.  Swaziland National Olympic Committee Secretary-General Muriel Hofer says her country will need more time to properly train their athletes for the highest level of competition.

“It takes a minimum of 14 years to develop an athlete at this high level," she said. "And of course it is a very costly exercise, in the region of approximately $350,000 per year, just to train one athlete.  So it is not the facility that is really the problem.  But it is the coaching program that you have, and of course, recognizing that a sport is a platform that can empower your communities and it brings a lot to the economic stages of a country.”

But Hofer says she is hopeful.  The government now appears more willing to invest in competitive sports. “We are now moving to the right direction.  What with the imminent adoption of a sport policy for our government.  I think we are on the right track” said Hofer.

Matenjwa is also hopeful given he has a chance to compete at the highest level. “Maybe I will shine there, and get some sponsors, going overseas and promote my talent.  Maybe one day, you may never know, I will be the fastest man in the world," he said.

As the sun sets on the Manzini stadium this day, Matenjwa and Ndzinisa keep training as hard as they can under the vigilant eyes of their coach.  Soon the eyes of the world will seem them as well.

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