Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

The African Games begin in Accra, Ghana on Friday – but even before the starting pistol is fired on the 13th edition of the Games, there are those who worry their race could be run.

A multi-sport event featuring 16 sports, they were first held in Congo-Brazzaville in 1965.

Formerly known as the All-African Games, down the years they have provided some of the continent’s biggest names with an early platform to show off their talents on an international stage.

Since 2019, the Games have also acted as a way to qualify for the Olympics – but a row between organisers could now see that particular carrot taken off the menu, while concerns about financial viability have also marred the build-up to Ghana 2023.

“It was one of the competitions where people could really see my talent in Africa,” said the continent’s fastest woman, Marie-Josee Ta Lou, recalling her 100m and 200m gold medals as a 17-year-old in DR Congo in 2015.

“It was one of the competitions where I showcased my talents and let people know: ‘hey, I’m here’.”

Ta Lou on inspiring Africans and never giving up

A year before winning Olympic gold, swimming great Chad le Clos claimed five golds for South Africa at the 2011 African Games in Mozambique.

“For someone up and coming, I’d say they’re number one,” said Le Clos, who was 19 at the time.

So why is the future of the showpiece uncertain, how might it change and what are the implications for athletes attempting to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Ta Lou and Le Clos?

Chad Le Clos raises a fist in the air and screams in delight after winning a gold medal in the pool at the London 2012 Olympics

South Africa’s Chad Le Clos went on to win Olympic gold at London 2012, less than a year after winning five gold medals at his first African Games

An Olympic-sized row
The dispute over Olympic qualification stems from a disagreement between two of the bodies involved in organising the Games – the African Union (AU) and the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (Anoca).

While the AU is a bloc designed to support political and economic integration, Anoca represents the continent’s 54 separate national Olympic committees and is responsible for setting Africa’s Olympic qualification protocols.

Anoca has said it is unhappy with a demand that nations pay $2m (£1.56m) for the right to host, arguing there should be no such charge.

It has also criticised Ghana’s preparations for hosting an event which was postponed from August 2023 because of a disagreement over marketing rights which prevented the required facilities from being completed on time.

The delay has also been blamed on upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic and escalating costs caused by high inflation during Ghana’s ongoing economic crisis.

The decision meant that some sports were unable to follow through on plans to use the Games as qualifiers for this year’s Paris Olympics.

Eight sports will now use Accra as an Olympic qualifier: athletics; badminton; cycling; swimming; table tennis; tennis; triathlon; wrestling.

Ghana prepared for ‘golden opportunity’, say organisers

‘We don’t want just a sports festival’
Anoca has not taken the unwelcome disruption lightly.

In response, it has registered a new entity, the African Anoca Games, aiming to feature every Olympic sport and provide a path to qualification in each discipline.

“The African Union decided that they wanted to terminate their agreement (to work with us),” Ahmed Hashim, Anoca’s secretary general, told Sport Africa.

Hashim says Anoca remains part of the management committee for Ghana’s Games and has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help ensure the event does not “fall apart”.

“In all cases, we don’t want the African Games just to be a sports festival,” said Hashim. “We want the African Games to maintain its dimension and to be an added value event to the African sports calendar.”

So what does all this mean for the next African Games, scheduled to be held in Egypt in 2027?

Hashim says Anoca has agreed to sit down with the African Union and all parties involved to explore “the possibility of having an agreement which is conducive for all parties”.

“We feel that the full management of the Games should be given to Anoca,” he added.

“We will not agree to anything other than that.”

Egyptian weightlifter Mohammed Ehsan grimaces mid-lift in the clean and jerk at the All-African Games in Abuja in 2003

The African Games are the continent’s biggest multi-sport festival, with 23 disciplines, including weightlifting, taking place at this year’s Games in Accra

Sam Ramsamy is an old hand in terms of sports administration – and when it comes to the African Games, the 86-year-old South African agrees with the adage that sport and politics should not mix.

“Other continental games are supervised by the national Olympic committees and there is no political interference,” said the former anti-Apartheid campaigner who had spells as both president of South Africa’s International Olympic Committee and chairman of the country’s Commonwealth Games Association.

He backs Anoca’s stance.

“It is necessary for the Olympic committees to have total control of the qualifying events.

“If there is no agreement, unfortunately Anoca will be forced to organise games with qualification that can take place under their supervision and authority.”

The AU made no comment when asked by Sport Africa about the views expressed by Anoca, but on its Sports Council’s website states that while the African Games follow Olympic ideals, they also have broader goals, including “growing the seeds of African unity and continental prosperity”.

Creating future champions – at a cost
Ghana’s minister for youth and sports, Mustapha Ussif, told BBC Sport Africa that hosting the Games will cost $242m (£189m), consisting of $195m (£152m) spent on infrastructure and facilities alongside $47m (£36.7m) in operational costs.

Four years ago, the previous Games, held in the Moroccan capital Rabat, cost a reported $46m (£35.9m).

Such an increasingly large financial commitment could deter future host nations and leave organisers in a similar predicament to the one faced by Commonwealth Games leaders, who last year saw 2026 hosts Victoria pull out due to rising costs.

But Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, believes the country’s new sporting infrastructure – which includes an aquatics centre, multi-purpose indoor arena, rugby stadium and upgraded athletics facilities – should be a source of pride and will leave a “huge legacy”.

Although he will not compete in Accra, Le Clos is keen to point out his belief that the African Games continue to play a major role in the development of the continent’s new stars.

“It was very important to get that experience of racing against some top, top-level competitors.

“It’s still massive to get experience, to get familiar with international formats,” said the 31-year-old, who like many established names now prefers to focus his efforts on swimming’s World Championships and the Olympics.

“It’d be a big shame if they had to scrap it altogether.”

Finish line photo featuring three athletes as Marie-Josee Ta Lou in Ivorian colours wins the 100m at the 2019 African Games in Rabat

Ivory Coast’s Marie-Josee Ta Lou (R) won the 100m at the 2019 African Games in Rabat

Ta Lou, one of the rare exceptions who has competed at the Games after finding success on the international stage, agrees that losing them would deprive young athletes of the chance to showcase their talents, describing the event as “a little Olympic competition for African countries”.

2027 hosts Egypt are certainly thinking along similar lines.

“We are determined that all of the Olympic sports are going to be played,” said Sharif El Erian, secretary general of the Egyptian Olympic Committee and a member of the team helping to organise Egypt’s Games.

With Anoca still part of discussions to find a compromise, he remains confident the Olympic ties can be strengthened, rather than severed.

“For the first time, hopefully, the Games will be the qualifiers for the Olympics, like the Asian Games, European Games and Pan American Games.”

With many hurdles yet to overcome, whether this bold ambition is achievable remains to be seen.

But whatever its future, it is clear many people see the Games’ value to African sport and do not wish to see its 60-year run finish anytime soon.

By Joy

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