Sport, national spirit and progress in Rwanda

Rwandaas a sporting nation was unheard of barely twenty years ago. Of course, there were sports in the country. For instance, there was a football league of a few clubs.

Such clubs as Panthères Noires, Kiyovu, Mukura and Rayon Sport were household names and had fanatical following as happens elsewhere. But their fame stopped at the country’s borders.

A small elite enjoyed volleyball and basketball. That is as far as sport in Rwanda went. That has now changed. Sport has grown and developed significantly in the last two decades. In many ways the growth mirrors the rebirth and progress of the country, and the national spirit.

The first sport to break beyond national borders was football. Various clubs and the national team have become regular participants in regional and continental tournaments. Some have even won regional trophies a few times.

Amavubi (the Wasps), the name of the national team became well-known among fans and commentators across the continent. At some point, the team carried quite a sting. In recent times, however, the sting seems to have been taken out of them.

The high point of Rwandan football came in 2004 and 2011. In 2004, Amavubi represented the country in the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. It was one of the few occasions an East African country has been in the finals of the prestigious continental tourney.

Seven years later the Junior Amavubi made history when they took part in the finals of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mexico.

Other sports soon followed and also became regular participants on the international scene.

Basketball reached new heights. The players rubbed shoulders – literally - with Africa’s mightiest basketball nations and acquitted themselves very well.

Volleyball has made similar progress.

In the marathon, a number of runners took to the road here and abroad, and although they made some modest advancement, they could never really threaten the Kenyan and Ethiopian stranglehold on the sport.

In time, new sports were introduced, some of them until then never seen in these hills.

Rugby has made an appearance although it might take a while to take hold. It is not a sport for the lightweight. Plenty of time and resources will be required to develop the physique of Rwandan players before they can compete internationally without the fear of being blown off the field.

Cricket too, that most English of sports that England bequeathed the Empire, is also in the ascendancy. Rwanda was, of course, outside the Empire and so cricket was unknown here. We have now joined the successor to the Empire and with that membership has come, inevitably, cricket.

So far the sport is doing well and has bright prospects because in many ways it suits the Rwandan character.  It demands of those who play it great patience, perseverance, tenacity and staying power. These are qualities that Rwandans have in abundance, with a lot to spare.

The most recent addition to the growing list of sports played in Rwanda is cycling.

Now, cycling is not about getting on a bicycle and pedaling away. As the Tour du Rwanda has shown us, it involves planning, strategy, tactics, teamwork and, of course, individual skills. It requires stamina, perseverance and discipline, and in this sense also suits the Rwandan character.

Again as the Tour du Rwanda has shown, cycling is a great spectator sport despite being played along long distances. It is only a few years old in Rwanda but already attracts a huge following across the country.

Spectators line the route in their thousands to cheer on the riders. If the present trend continues, cycling will rival football in terms of the numbers of spectators.

Future prospects for cycling look good. Already Tour du Rwanda is a member of the professional cycling circuit and attracts elite riders from across the world. The recent edition was won by a Rwandan, Valens Ndayisenga, and that is bound to inspire other young riders. President Paul Kagame has pledged his support to the sport.

As with other national gains, those made in sports have to be guarded against stagnation or even slipping back. All too often, sport in Africa has been a victim of mismanagement, administrative wrangles, theft or outright neglect.

It has suffered from limited ambition and lack of personal or team discipline. Stardom, even if only just a possibility, has sometimes gone to the heads of players and blunted their performance.

All these must be guarded against if sport in Rwanda is to live up to its promise. Already football is going through a rough patch. It has not lived up to the potential it showed a few years ago.

Other sports should be able to learn from this experience and prevent any possible retrogression.

Valens Ndayisenga’s win and the performance of Team Rwanda in the Tour du Rwanda has shown that a competitive spirit, a winning mentality, the desire to excel and resilience exist among Rwandan sportsmen and women as they do in the rest of the population.

That is what has brought the country to where it is now and what will propel it forward – whether in sport or other spheres of national life.

jorwagatare@yahoo.co.uk