Opinion

Moses Muhangi: Uganda was an excellent sporting country in the 70s but what went wrong?

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The sports sub-sector may emerge among the most affected during and post the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. With higher chances of a likely prolonged lockdown on sports-related activities, we are also presented with an opportunity to reflect back on the times when sports was a household name in Uganda during the Idi Amin Dada regime (1971-1979).

The sports sub-sector is generally a more lucrative and recreational sector that has also been associated with creating unity and peace. It is for this reason that politicians over the years have engaged in sponsoring grass-roots tournaments in the different disciplines of sports that gather people from different political affiliations to participate as one.

Unfortunately whereas the rest of the world has graduated into seeing sport as an economically viable sector, Uganda still views sports only as a leisure and social unifying activity. However, on the other hand, the sports industry has created huge employment opportunities in first world countries, boosted taxation, been a source of entertainment, youth mobilization, and employment, tourism, PR & branding among others, an area where we as Ugandans have not paid serious attention.

These benefits come as a result of a booming sports sub-sector thus a recap of the times when we were almost there and why we didn’t, and haven’t made it till today.

The mass tyranny, bad economy, and insecurity of the ’70s would have greatly affected sports development but on the contrary, sports excelled to the peak, producing great athletes and international excellence for Uganda.

The rise of John Akii-Bua in the 1972 Olympics Gold in Munich, 1973 Gold at Lagos and Silver at Algiers all Africa Games – Uganda collected over 20 medals and emerged overall fourth at the event.

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John Akii-Bua celebrates after winning gold at the Munich Olympics in 1972 | Courtesy photo

Boxers like Mohammed Muruli, Ayub Kalule Welter Weight and Light Weight Gold at the 1974 Christ Church Common Wealth games; Uganda’s successive wins of the CECAFA Cup between 1973-1978 and three-time participation in the African Cup of Nations finals, in Egypt, Ethiopia and Ghana, and many other successes stories – reminiscing the days of sports excellence.

Here are the key points denoting where we went wrong, why we didn’t and haven’t gotten to where we are supposed to be in sports;

1 – Regular involvement of political leaders, & civil servants in sports

The President at the time, Idi Amin Dada himself participated and provided morale in sports from football, boxing, basketball, rally driving among others. The civil servants then, more so those in the Ministry of Education and Sports would involve themselves in the training, local competitions, and international engagements of these various sporting activities.

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Former Uganda President, Idi Amin Dada’s regime fronted sports in the country by encouraging active participation. He was literally involved in all sports activities and in this picture, he was trying out rallying | Courtesy photo

This kind of involvement by these leaders enabled them to learn the critical and salient aspects of these sports hence informing decision making, and better planning for the sector.

However the story is entirely different nowadays save for football. It is very unlikely that you will see government official(s) from the Ministry of Education and Sports, National Council of Sports, and any other departments sparing time to go to any training camp, local competitions among others of any of these sports.

A vivid example that I will never forget is when we recently were at the All Africa Games in Rabat, Morocco in 2019, and a senior government official on team Uganda was supporting our Bombers team but did not know any of the 8 boxers’ names.

It is my opinion that there is a need for our leaders to deliberately attend various team training sessions, local competitions, and more for them to be able to understand the opportunities and challenges of these sports and thus be able to plan from an informed point of view.

2 – Glorifying excelling athletes

In the ’70s, when an athlete perfected and excelled at his/her sport say at the world games, Olympics, commonwealth games and any other, the government would glorify them with, for example, monetary rewards and star profiling to the extent of even naming Kampala city roads after them. For instance, Akii-Bua road in Nakasero was named after the Late John Akii-Bua following his heroics in 1972.

Several sports personalities that reigned during this period boast the financial contributions and government officials visited training camps. The boxing fraternity can never forget the private chartered flight on the presidential jet to the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana in 1974, the same reiterated in 1976 when the Cranes were privately airlifted to Tripoli, Libya after their qualification for the African Cup of Nations.

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Today, our excelling athletes are less glorified that even those promised monthly stipends arising out of their excellent performance at international games do not get even the little money promised to support their assumed Star status.

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The Uganda Boxing team that has won Uganda international recognition in the different events but has not been recognized in equal measure by the current Government | Courtesy photo

Boxers like Juma Miiro commonwealth games bronze medallist 2018, Masembe Isaac and Semujju David, both All Africa games Silver medallists 2019, Baleke Hellen a bronze medallist from the All Africa games 2019, and many others have all never received their monthly stipends from the government.

My opinion is that there is a need for us to deliberately glorify our athletes, make them local stars so that young people can be inspired and motivated by them as an example to follow in the same footsteps of our excelling athletes. Let the promised monthly stipends come on time, have roads named after them as it used to be in the past.

3 – Training & competition facilities

To date, Uganda sports sector still maintains the facilities constructed in colonial and pre-Amin times, except for the soon to be renovated 1997 Namboole Stadium and various other private facilities. Back then, the Lugogo sports complex was entirely and sorely dedicated to sports activities ranging from cricket to boxing.

moses-muhangi-uganda-was-an-excellent-sporting-country-in-the-70s-but-what-went-wrong

Many of Uganda’s sports facilities such as the Lugogo Indoor Arena have been opened up to more non-sporting activities (like what appears in this picture) than the case before | Courtesy photo

It was unheard of for a non-sports related activity or event to be hosted at Lugogo similar to so many other sporting facilities. Despite limited funding from the state in the ’70s, sports facilities were always improved and optimally used for sports-related activities.

Today, it is more of a private business entity than a sports arena as it hosts weddings, church sessions, music concerts, and many other activities. The cricket playground, hockey grounds, national boxing gym, and others in Lugogo are no longer exclusive to sports.

The current government has directed funding to the sports sub-sector, however, it seems to dwindle rather than rise to the expected highs that sports facilities look more dilapidated today than they were before.

Images of the initial stages of the National High Altitude Training center construction at Teryet, Kapchorwa | Courtesy photo

The construction of the Shs. 25Bn National High Altitude Training facility at Teryet seems to be taking a snail rather than a sports pace, the construction of the Akii-Bua Stadium has taken all twists and turns of a typical relay run, the renovation of Nakivubo Stadium will more than likely not happen given it has been turned more into a shopping arcade than a sports complex, and other stadiums have totally been abandoned.

An aerial view of what remains of the Nakivubo Stadium after a shopping complex was developed around it with a promise of upgrading it to modern standards. | Courtesy photo

The annual 25.5Bn sports development funds have not produced any plausible results in terms of neither sports excellence nor sports facilities development.

It is in my opinion that there should be a deliberate effort for the sports leadership to work with the Ministry of Lands and the Uganda land commission to secure land all over the country for the future development of sports facilities. There is also a need to upgrade the existing facilities, to let sports exclusively occupy its facilities now that the government of Uganda has come in to financially support the industry. It is high time we reconsidered the hiring out of the limited sports facilities to non-sports activities.

4 – Niche against mass sports registration approach

Throughout the ’70s there were very few nationally represented sports such as boxing, football, athletics, basketball among others and there were not more than 20 disciplines largely supported by the government.

Today, we have over 50 registered sports in the country, most of which do not qualify to be called national sports due to the fact that they are not nationally represented. This idea of mass sports registration against limited resources such as training facilities, competition arenas, government funding, general administration among others has greatly reduced the excellence of sports in Uganda. This has subsequently affected our preparedness to participate in international games and register successes as in the past.

In my opinion, there is a need to rescreen all the sports federations/associations with a view of grading them. This would help the current sports leaders to come up with relevant and adequate interventions for each of the grades. It is thus very dangerous for us to manage sports on assumptions.

5 – Grassroots sports development strategies

Sports has always been a key co-curricular activity in schools, something that was maintained throughout the ’70s. The districts had social centers where the youths would gather and engage in sports activities of their choice. However, sports has greatly declined in schools that very few of them still hold competitions. The community social centers that were formerly catching points in the districts are no longer in existence and this has greatly affected the development of sports at the grassroots since the schools catered for the young scholars and the social centers appealed to the non-scholars.

It is in my opinion that there be a deliberate need to have all sports in school calendars and re-establish social centers in the districts to Parish level if possible, so as to attract young and fresh talent.

With all the current peace in Uganda as well as the funds at the disposal of the Ministry and the National Council of Sports, it is the right time to adopt a new sports development strategy that reflects on niching of sports disciplines, empowering priority sports, reconstructing sports facilities and providing equipment.

If we do the necessary, I believe we can regain the lost sports glory of the country.

The writer is the president of the Uganda Boxing Federation and AIBA ITO.


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