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 Tokyo Olympic. We were joined by Africa’s toughest fighting men and women, who were preparing to compete in the Africa section of the Olympic 2020 Qualification Tournament.

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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. 

Badjie – the All Africa Boxing Board of Control (AABBC) super middleweight champion – knew a good showing in Tokyo Olympic could lead to a professional contract in England and radically improved circumstances for his girlfriend and two small children. He’d carry the country’s flag in August, President Barrow had said.

Equally ambitious was the giant-handed, sunglasses-wearing heavyweight Sandy Sam, who avidly followed the weigh-in of Tyson Fury’s mega-fight with Deontay Wilder on YouTube as our bus journey to Dakar became held up by fussy Senegalese border officials.

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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 sands and parched landscapes. 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

Things hardly improved when Ghana – arguably Africa’s most beloved boxing nation, and the home of the legendary Azumah Nelson – landed to find their hotel fees hadn’t been paid. Cue urgent phone calls and a delayed check-in. 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 said; “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.”

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Unbowed by my painful induction, I started coaching in the Gambia after filming Badjie for a documentary. The 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.

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. 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.

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