Africa at the Olympics
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The popular perception that the Olympic symbol of five interlocking rings represents the five inhabited continents is a modern reinterpretation of its designer’s intentions.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin's true vision was rather less cosmopolitan:
“The six colours (including the flag’s white background) thus combined reproduce the colours of all the nations, with no exception. The blue and yellow of Sweden, the blue and white of Greece, the tricolours of France, England and America, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, the yellow and red of Spain next to the novelties of Brazil or Australia, with old Japan and new China. Here is truly an international symbol.”
De Coubertin’s narrow conception of the term ‘international’ was in part a reflection of the state of the world when he first presented the designs to the International Olympic Committee’s 20th anniversary congress in 1914. Europe controlled almost all of Africa, and much of South Asia and Indochina. Though colonies were permitted separate national representation, in practice there was reluctance to allow participation, or to cultivate organised sport, for fear that victory by colonial subjects and assertions of national identity would undermine European status.
The first two indigenous Africans to compete at the Olympics came to the St. Louis Games in 1904 as curiosities to feature in the Boer War Show and ‘athletic events for savages’. They managed to enter the marathon at the Olympic Games proper, finishing ninth and twelfth out of thirty-six, despite one of them being chased off course by a dog along a deserted country road. At that time, no organised marathon had ever been staged in South Africa, and it is unlikely they had much inkling of the distance ahead when they started the race. South Africa continued to send athletes to subsequent Games, but it was not until 1952 that any other Sub-Saharan African country (Ghana) participated.
From 1961, aid and technical assistance from the IOC was deployed to ‘incorporate’ newly-independent states into the Olympic movement. Some saw this as imperialism in another guise: this is partly what led to the staging by Indonesia of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1962. Supported by Soviet aid and attended by 51 countries, including all the major communist and socialist states, the Games were intended as a rival to the Olympics, and the link between politics and sport was made explicit in their constitution.
By the late 1960s, the GANEFO organisation had collapsed, and new countries were joining the IOC at a rapid rate, although even today, Africa continues to be under-represented at the Olympics relative to its population. In the 2008 Olympics, countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe far outperformed Western countries in terms of medals per athlete sent, and today it is hard to imagine a ‘world’ track event worthy of the name that does not involve African athletes.
World maps with countries sized according to number of athletes participating in the Olympics.