Ongolo Proud African

Has Africa lost interest in the Paralympics?

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
16 September 2021

Data from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics games, which were held from 24 August – 5 September 2021, indicate that less focus is being given to sports for people with disabilities in Africa. This year, over 250 million viewers from across Africa had the opportunity to watch the Paralympic Games on TV for free. This was thanks to funding by UK Aid to the Para Sport Against Stigma which seeks to promote access and adoption of assistive technology as part of the AT2030 programme. Yet, not only did viewership remain unprecedently low but the African para-athletes who took part in the games also underperformed, winning 63 medals compared to the 87 medals won at the Rio games in 2016.

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Africa won 63 medals at the recently ended Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Photo credit: ONGOLO
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Africa performed poorly at the 2020 Games compared to the 87 medals won at Rio 2016. Photo credit: ONGOLO

The Paralympic Games are important because they support the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda in world sports. From blind football to wheelchair rugby which is also called ‘murderball’, the Paralympics are one of the most enthralling games to watch and demonstrate what humans can accomplish whatever the odds. The World Bank estimates that there are 1 billion people around the world living with some form of disability and 60-80m of them live in Africa. Just as the Inviticus Games have succeed in promoting respect and an appreciation for the sacrifices made by wounded and sick servicemen and women, the Paralympics aim to break down stigmas about disability.

Granted, many African countries were unable to send representatives to Tokyo due to financial constraints, the fallout from the pandemic or other limitations. But it was disappointing to see countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt fail to win any medals in fields that they generally lead in. Tunisia performed the best in the region and was ranked 28th on the global Paralympics rankings for the year 2020, with a total of 11 medals, of which four were gold. This was still less than the 19 medals they won in Rio.

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Walid Ktila won two gold medals for Tunisia at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photo credit: Getty Images

But not all was lost. Perhaps other African countries should take cue from South Africa. The country sent the largest delegation (34 athletes) from the continent – their smallest one since the 1992 Paralympics. Yet, as many as three African records were broken by Team SA at the Tokyo Paralympic Games this month. Sprinter Sheryl James, for one, had the race of her life, finishing second in the 200m heat at 27.73 seconds. She was 0.65 seconds faster than the previous Paralympic record of 28.42 seconds, set by Australia’s Lisa Macintosh over 21 years ago.

Also amongst the top performers from team SA was swimmer Christian Sadie, who set a local and African record by qualifying as the sixth fastest overall in the men’s 200m, closing in at 2 minutes and 37 seconds. He missed out on the third spot by a mere 2.40 seconds. Last but not the least, Alani Ferreira broke a national and continental record in swimming as well, though she was not fortunate enough to score any medals.

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South Africa's Ntando Mahlangu won a gold medal in long-jump and set a new world record. Photo credit: Getty Images

This strong performance was the result of the MoU signed by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) with both the Iizuka City and Fukuoka Prefecture back in July 2021. Under this, South African para-athletes were given access to state-of-the-art training facilities in Japan to enable them to hone their skills and compete against international counterparts at various sporting events. The MoU also included a cultural exchange programme that allowed Team SA athletes and coaches to interact with the local community.

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The future of African paralympics: Husnah Kukundakwe made history as the first Ugandan swimmer to qualify for Paralympics/ Olympics swimming and the youngest athlete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games. She is only 14. Photo credit: Husnah Kukundakwe

Other countries can sign similar arrangements leading up to the Paris Paralympic Games in 2024. Given the historically strong ties between Europe and Africa, one hopes that this aid can be extended sooner rather than later.