The Olympic games have been going on in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro for more than a week now.
But for most of us in Africa, they started in earnest only last Friday. For most of the first week of the games, few Africans featured.
The competition was in games few Africans know about let alone participate in – fencing, synchronised swimming, artistic gymnastics and so on. They may well be from another planet.
On Friday we came into our own when events on the track began. This is where Africans excel, both those at home and those abroad, our export to the rest of the world.
However, the games, whether the unusual or the more familiar sort, had one thing in common: intense competition. Sport is supposed to foster competitiveness, to urge athletes to be the best, to be at the front, not at the back.
The desire to be better than the other is a uniquely human characteristic and is the reason competitiveness goes beyond sport and extends to other aspects of human life.
Nations want to be the best and will use any means, fair or foul, to make sure of that. Nationals take immense pride in the knowledge (real or perceived) that they are unequalled.
How often have you heard Americans brag about being the most powerful and most advanced nation on earth? And then they go about as if that gives them the right to trample on everyone else as a certain Trump is so eager to do.
Even some of those whose power is waning still talk about the glory days of empire and invoke the power of yesteryear to spur them on today. History too can be a potent tool in the race to be the best.
We will not talk about the cheats who use performance enhancing drugs to gain unfair advantage in sport. Or those who exert undue influence on international sports federations because they wield more power. They all do it, even those who shout loudest to have offenders crucified. In any case, where are the drugs developed and manufactured? Not in our part of the world certainly.
Sadly, this is not limited to sport. The use of a sharp elbow or powerful arm to shove someone out of the way is all too common in international relations.
We will talk about the ideal, the spirit at the heart of the Olympics that drives athletes to excel. We see the celebration of individual achievement of athletes. But we also see that translated into national accomplishments.
In fact athletes give that little extra because they are also competing for country and carrying the collective aspirations and pride of the nation. You see this when they reach for the national flag when they win and proudly drape it around their shoulders or wave it to the crowd. It is evident on the podium in the tears welling in the eyes when the winner’s national anthem is played and their flag hoisted.
Rwandan athletes have not been on an Olympic podium yet and so we haven’t had the chance to feel our hearts flutter with the rising flag. Still we take pride in competing.
The other day our very own Salome Nyirarukundo took to the track in the 10,000 metres race. Although she was way behind, she did not give up but completed the race and came in at 27th.
Next time a young Rwandan girl she may have inspired will pick it up from there and do better. Or more likely the next Rwandan girl to compete will have been inspired by Ethiopia’s Elmaz Ayana, this year’s winner and Olympic record holder in the 10,000 metres, or Kenya’s Jemima Jelegat Sumgong, winner of the marathon in Rio.
No one showed the competitive spirit and the desire to win better than Mo Farah, the seemingly uncatchable 10,000 metres British runner of Somali origin. In the final, he fell down, but picked himself up, kept going and went on to win. That attitude resonates with Rwandans in a broad sense.
The success of the Ethiopians, Kenyans, and even Mo Farah raises questions about Rwandans. Why can’t we have similar success considering that we live at a similar high altitude which has often explained their extra-ordinary feats on the track?
Or indeed why can’t Africans match the Jamaicans and others from the Caribbean, and the United States in the sprints? At any rate West Africans should be doing this as regularly as the brothers and sisters from across the Atlantic. After all the latter originated from West Africa and probably still carry the same genes of their forefathers.
The answers perhaps lie in attitudes to sport. Sports talent does not just happen. It must be spotted and nurtured and a competitive spirit planted from an early age Traditionally that used to be done in the schools. That is what the Americans, Jamaicans and Kenyans do. They have intensive training and competition programmes in their schools and colleges.
Our schools with so much emphasis on exams and our society that equates certificates with ability have relegated other talents like sports, art and music to the back of the queue of desirable careers.
Does anyone know if the football academy that produced the famous Under-17 team that took part in that age group’s World Cup a few years ago still operates?
As we have shown so many times, Rwanda is a competitive nation. That can be done in sports as well. If we start early, in the schools, we should be able to build capacity to compete with the very best in this world.