- There is, needless to say, a political subtext. Sports is one way formerly colonised people get to settle old scores with the coloniser. For the coloniser, still burdened by a sense of superiority, such a defeat can be stinging. If England or France had beaten Belgium, it is unlikely there would have been riots.
Not too long ago, I was in the room in a back-row seat when Nation Media Group was negotiating with a prominent African entity about coming on board as a partner on a continental project.
They did come on in a big way but said they wanted one thing in return. We sat back with bated breath, fearing they might ask to be given Mount Kenya or free advertising on NMG platforms for a decade. They didn’t.
They said that if NMG could bring the king of marathon Eliud Kipchoge to their city, it would get anything it wanted.
It was a reminder, if anyone needed it, just how the premium on sports, and to the extent to which it has become an important organising principle for modern states.
Which is why the news last week that Kenya faces the prospect of being banned from international athletics because of doping problems “crisis” levels was distressing. It’s not often that one comes across such a wilful killing of the goose that lays the golden egg.
The events at the World Cup in Qatar tell us that we have reached times where successful countries will be those that manage for sports – and pandemics, of course. Sports (and sports people) have become too important and too much of a national treasure to be left to, often corrupt, national sporting bodies to run. The challenge is to do so without getting in the crosshairs of governing bodies like FIFA and IAAF.
South Koreans, like the Japanese, have a reputation for managing excessive displays of public emotion. On Monday, during their World Cup match against Ghana, they were trailing 2-0 when they sank a goal and followed a few minutes later with a second one. These people, famous for control of public emotion, lost it and went hysterical.
The Ghanaians, who were dressed in all sorts of colourful clothes with extravagant objects on their heads and around their necks, danced throughout their moments of goal triumph. At 2-2, they froze like they had been thrown into the Arctic Ocean. Then they went 3-2 and came back to life, and the South Koreans sank into depression. It was both amazing and unsettling to watch. Some people don’t get so emotional over the death of a family member.
Still, the South Koreans managed to bottle it in. Not so the Belgians. Emotions ran out of control in Brussels
after Morocco upset Belgium, 2-0, at their Sunday World Cup.
Riots erupted, and cars were burnt. Rioters also set fire to electric scooters. The police in Brussels deployed water cannons and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Riots also broke out in the neighbouring Netherlands, in the port city of Rotterdam; the Dutch capital, Amsterdam; and The Hague. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t imagine that an African country could do anything to cause a European nation’s people to take up arms, as it were, until football came along.
There is, needless to say, a political subtext. Sports is one way formerly colonised people get to settle old scores with the coloniser. For the coloniser, still burdened by a sense of superiority, such a defeat can be stinging. If England or France had beaten Belgium, it is unlikely there would have been riots.
The idea that sports can be a national organising principle – for better or worse - is no longer idle. On the brighter side, I am persuaded that the fact that sports can so take people - be it the English Premier League football, Formula One, cricket, basketball, and lately video gaming - could be one of the reasons many nations are relatively peaceful.
What would happen if young people didn’t have sports to occupy them and fight virtual wars over all day online? Like in centuries gone by, they would be on battlefields taking out their energies in war, pillaging and plundering, and being slaughtered in their thousands.
In many African cities and towns, sports has become the largest growing new social organisation. Take the example of the Ugandan capital Kampala. There is an explosion of half-football in and around the city, and fields are mushrooming every month. Several are run on off-grid electricity, and well past midnight, there at teams rolling in to take their turns to play under the solar lights.
An off-grid owner of a club where various games are played on the edge of the city says it is common for players to still be on courts at 4 am! These kinds of sports engagements are growing faster than any political party, the economy, or social movement – except if you consider them a social movement in their own right.
Sports has also become a path for people to rise beyond the limitation imposed by country. A troubled country can find international glory in its world-beating sportsmen and women. Burundi is rarely mentioned in international headlines for a good reason, or at all, and it can’t claim world leadership in much. However, it has long-distance runner Francine Niyonsaba, who has brought home many international medals. When she is running, the world knows Burundi.