During four millennia, Africans have sought fame and wealth through boxing. Ten centuries before the sport first appeared at the 23rd Olympiad, in 688 BC, Egyptian painters depicted boxers in the tombs of Merry-Ra and El-Minia.
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In February, when three Gambian boxers, their officials, and your correspondent – a coach with the team – traveled by bus to the dusty outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, we were following an ancient tradition: to try to get to the Summer Games. We were joined by Africa’s toughest fighting men and women, who were preparing to compete in the Africa section of the Tokyo Olympic Qualification Tournament.
In the minibus was Gambia’s team captain, 27-year old Foday Badjie. A resilient and explosive former professional, he had just rejoined the amateur ranks. His was a tough background: a number of his neighborhood friends had tried to reach Europe over the last five years, some drowning during the perilous Mediterranean crossing. Others had returned steeped in failure and debt.
His compatriot Musa Cham had just returned from the Bronx, having left Gambia as a boy. He stared out of the bus window as the lush fields of the Sine-Saloum Delta gave way to the Saharan sands and parched landscapes of Senegal. A lightweight with a snappy jab, quick footwork and the ability to pivot like a ballerina, Cham had only been boxing for three years.
We arrived at the disappointing news that South Africa’s team hadn’t made it. Nor had the Nigerians, once again. The sports ministries of Africa’s two largest economies – and proud boxing nations – had failed to find the funds to get their boxers abroad. This was the same week that Nigerian ministers welcomed Anthony Joshua to Lagos, and tried to claim him as one of their own. For Africa’s devastating young boxers, four years of blood, sweat, and tears had been wasted.
It didn’t take long to realize I wouldn’t cut it in the professional ranks. Needing balm for my bruised ego and nose, I turned to the words of another fellow amateur boxer, Nelson Mandela, who told I was never an outstanding boxer. I was in the heavyweight division, and I had neither enough power to compensate for my lack of speed, nor enough speed to make up for my lack of power. Unbowed by my painful induction, I started coaching in the Gambia after filming Badjie for a documentary.
But boxing can be an unforgiving sport, and the Tokyo Olympic Qualification Tournament brutally exposed weakness. Sandy Sam got stopped by Congo’s Maroy Sadiki in the first minute of the preliminary round as the pressure of fighting in the 15,000 capacity Dakar Arena overwhelmed his pre-fight tactics. Sam walked back to the changing rooms with the sounds of vuvuzelas – and Sadiki’s fists – ringing in his ears.
Elsewhere, the continuation of the historic rivalry between the North African nations and their sub-Saharan opponents continued unabated. The nip and tuck of Algerian and Moroccan fighters – who secured 13 of the 33 places on offer – habitually get the better of their foes from the tropics, and this year was no exception.
Perhaps the greatest story emanated from Zambia. The nation took three young boxers to Senegal, and all qualified in style in the stadium at Diamniadio, the futuristic city built to ease congestion in Dakar. Flyweight Patrick Chinyemba boxed in an unorthodox, frantic style. His hands held high and outwards, shifting rhythmically from side-to-side, he relied on youthful reactions as he joyfully boxed his way to the final.
As for Badjie, the late evenings and meal times at the hotel taught us all a lesson, as he failed to make weight one morning by 1kg. He might get one final opportunity in Paris, in May, at the World Qualifiers, if the money to get him there can be found. If it is, he’ll be joined by Senegal’s best boxer, whose pre-bout routine was interrupted by an Olympic official who refused the fighter’s bid to tuck a magical amulet inside his shorts.