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Africa's Quest for Olympic Medals Elusive

South African rowers Sizwe Ndlovu, left, and John Smith embrace after winning the gold medal in the men's lightweight four rowing final at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, August 2, 2012.
LONDON — South Africa is the lone African gold winner so far at this year's Olympics, with three medals. But that is not surprising. More than half of sub-Saharan African countries have never won gold, and many have never won a single Olympic medal.

With a few swift strokes, a pair of rowers managed to triple South Africa's Olympic medal count by winning the nation its third gold in this year's games.

That result put South Africa in an elite, and lonely, group on its own continent.

A total of 39 African nations have never won gold at the Games. Of those, 28 have never won any medal. That list includes the small, the poor, the coup-prone and the otherwise blighted.

Egypt won its first-ever fencing medal, a silver, on Tuesday.

But the explanation for the rest of Africa's less-than-sterling performance should seem obvious to anyone familiar with the continent's appeals for aid, and its challenging politics.

Training competitors is expensive. Swaziland National Olympic Committee Chief Muriel Hofer says it takes a 14-year commitment and approximately $350,000 dollars per year to train just one person.

Ghana, which was formed from the British colony known as the Gold Coast, has never brought home Olympic gold.

Ghana team spokesman Erasmus Kwaw says this year's team was hampered in part by politics.

"It's been a long while since we last won a medal at the Olympic Games," noted Kwaw. "In our history at the Olympic Games since 1952, we won four medals, three in boxing and one in the Olympic football event, way back in 1952. I think this year, we could have brought in a whole lot of athletes from various disciplines to compete at the Games, but obviously, preparations were not that smooth. There were some problems with the leadership of the Ghana Olympic Committee that have been going on for the last two and a half years, and it certainly had a very negative effect on preparations."

For tiny Botswana, which has just two million people, the road to gold has been elusive.

Gaorekwe Gaorekwe, a representative for Botswana at the Africa Village Olympic exhibit in London's Kensington Gardens, says the entire country is united behind its biggest medal hope: 400-meter sprinter Amantle Montsho.

"We are all optimistic that for the first time in the history of the Olympics we are going to get a medal, and we are hoping not just for a medal but for a gold medal," Gaorekwe said. "And this is something that everybody back home is actually waiting for the big day when, for the first time, our national anthem is going to be sang at the Olympic Games. And that is something that we all look forward to."

Gaorekwe says Botswana's small population and lack of elite training facilities has hampered its quest.

"I think the reason why we never got a medal in the past, is because, I could say there wasn't enough willpower from our government to really support it, but now things are changing," Gaorekwe added.

But there is hope. Kenya, not a rich nation, brought home a stunning 14 medals from Beijing.

Team spokesman Peter Angwenyi says the secret is being organized, and getting young athletes involved early.

"Kenya has invested a lot in the development of the youth, right from the schools and the organizations are partnered very well with the ministry of education, and the ministry of education has a good program of tapping talent right from primary schools and secondary schools, who then graduate to senior ranks through the organization of sports organizations, assisted by the ministry of sports and youth affairs," said Angwenyi. "That is why we are tapping talent and we are able to get more medals in the Olympics or in the World Championships than any other African country."

Photo Gallery: Day 5 of Competition