Africa’s time is now: Senegal & the Youth Olympic Games

Sunny Buenos Aires was the backdrop for a piece of sporting history earlier this month, as the International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to award the 4th Youth Olympic Games in 2022 to Senegal, Africa. This will see the celebrated Grecian rings visit the world’s 2nd most populous continent for the first time in their illustrious history. Although some will say this is solely as a result of the IOC decision to actively target the continent as host for these games, such cynicism cannot be allowed to trivialise such a momentous moment. Far from being a shock, this result was in fact, long overdue. Although many citizens of so-called ‘developed nations’ have an inherent bias and mistrust of Africa - it is nearly completely unjustified. The prevalent misconception is of roaming tribes and lawless deserts. Little to no respect is afforded to the African people for the growing strength of their economies and moreover their determination to be at the forefront of global development, all the while maintaining their unique culture & tradition. Since hosting its first major sporting event, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Africa as a modern sporting host, has gone from strength to strength. The 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa was rightly celebrated, its organisers lauded and its adoring crowds applauded. Both events came off relatively hitch-free, despite the difficulties many expected. Nelson Mandela’s awarding of the Webb Ellis Trophy in 1995 has become an iconic moment, while the silky Spaniard’s victory over an ultra-aggressive Netherlands team in 2010 served to vindicate those advocates of the ‘beautiful game’. In the prelude to each tournament many pointed to the relative lateness to which South Africa had come to the world of fundamental and universal human rights; namely the apartheid crisis in the early 1990s. There were fears of further mass xenophobia, violence and kidnapping - none of which came to fruition. Indeed both were widely recognised as some of the most successful events in recent memory, with laughter, joy and a fierce appetite for sport evident throughout. Compare this to the hosts of the World Cup just gone. Although martial policing in Russia prevented widespread violence during the World Cup itself, the attitudes of Russian football fans was made perfectly clear in France in 2016. Roving gangs of ultras terrorised the streets while racism and other vitriol poured down like rain from the stands. Never have African fans occasioned fear and terror akin to that inspired by the sight of these mobs; masked men, attacking each other, throwing bottles, breaking bones and spilling blood. In fact the two groups could not be more dissimilar. One, the essence of anarchy, the other warm, welcoming, and always, always, smiling. It is true to say that South Africa has always been one of the most European of African nations. The first European to step foot on African soil landed in South Africa. South Africa was a European colony for over 300 years. It has, if not kept quite apace with European development, been the least far behind. These games mark a departure then, from a European Africa to a truly African Africa. The international world will descend therefore, on an Africa that has nary, if ever, been exposed to a spotlight as powerful as that of the Olympic movement. The security concerns are not of course, completely unwarranted. There have been notable international incidents across the continent, notably a series of attacks in neighbouring Burkina Faso earlier this year. But this itself does not serve as a damning indictment. What nation - what continent - can claim universal safety and constant peace? None. As of February this year, America had experienced 1,624 mass shootings in just 1,870 days. Africa, notwithstanding the huge population disparity, had a fraction of such incidents. Closer to home, the UK, host of the 2012 Games was ranked 5 spots lower than Senegal on the peace index of the Institute for Economics and Peace. Brazil, the 2016 hosts, were ranked 57 below Senegal. We need to overcome our inherent, unconscious bias towards Africa. It deserves better than our close mindedness. The infrastructural improvements that have swept the continent in recent decades were admired by the IOC Evaluation Commission, which had recommended the Senegal bid. Of the deadly Ebola virus, there was one single case recorded in Senegal - again less than the UK - with zero fatalities. The country successfully coordinated with the World Health Organisation to combat the spread of the disease, setting up a world renowned Institut Pasteur in the capital. Furthermore the bid includes plans to construct an entirely new city, Diamniadio, a 50,000 seat Olympic stadium and state-of-the-art transport links across the country. Indeed the bid was the keystone of the national government’s ‘Emerging Senegal’ plan, which envisions further substantial improvements in infrastructure. It was a “project based on a strong vision for youth and sport”, according to IOC President Thomas Bach. “There are many opportunities, and we will endeavour to deliver together, as part of a strong partnership, visionary, responsible and inspiring Youth Games”. Responding to concerns over the games’ budget, African IOC member and ANOCA (Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa) president candidate Lydia Nsekera commented on the collegiate nature of African hosts “in Africa, when a family organizes a party all the neighbors chip in and they help organizing the event”. Much like the World Cup in 2010, the whole continent would share the responsibility of its first Olympics, with typical African pride-in-place and congeniality. The IOC also cited Senegal’s youthful population as a key part of their decision to award the Games to Dakar. There is much hope that of the 6 million odd Senegal citizens under the age of 14, many will be inspired by the feats of incredible (and youthful) athleticism that are sure to grace the country come the summer of 2022. This proportion (41%) is double that of America (19%) and substantially more than the host of this years’ games, Argentina (25%). This increases both the likelihood of increased crowds and sustainable use of facilities after the Games, a key aim of the Olympic movement. To borrow a phrase from London 2012 the aim of the Olympics is to “Inspire a generation”. The younger generations of Dakar, of Senegal, of Africa, are ready to be inspired. In the words of Shakira: “It’s time for Africa”. She is, simply, quite right.