Sporting success in Rwanda: Lessons from cycling and football teams

The reception of two sporting teams returning home from tournaments outside the country could not have been more different. One team had no one to welcome them home. The other received a hero’s welcome.

The reception of two sporting teams returning home from tournaments outside the country could not have been more different. One team had no one to welcome them home. The other received a hero’s welcome.

This difference says a lot about the fortunes of the various sports in Rwanda. Some, like football, have stagnated, and although they still have a huge following, bring frustration to their supporters when they do not perform according to expectations.

Others, like cycling, are on the up and enjoying success and massive support.

It also speaks about our attitudes to sporting success and competition in general. As long as there is success, there will be respect. When winning stops, admiration ends. We have not yet learnt to stick with our teams through thick and thin, and maybe they have not given us cause to do so.

The first of the teams was the national football team, Amavubi, that returned from the CHAN tournament in Morocco. The boys found nobody home. Nobody, not even a single FERWAFA (local football federation) official, was at the airport to receive them.

Worse, nobody said it was wrong for football officials and other Rwandans to give them the cold shoulder.

It was like they were being shunned for bringing us collective shame.

Yet, all considered, the home-based Amavubi had not done worse than other teams in the past in the three matches they played. They drew against the mighty Nigeria, no mean feat against a team that went on to reach the final.

They beat Equatorial Guinea. You might dismiss this as small victory against another small team. Still, it is victory. Their only loss was against Libya, a former champion, and even then in the final minute of additional time.

So there was nothing particularly shameful about the results. Rather, it was the manner of the loss to Libya that didn’t go down well with Rwandans. They had stopped being competitive and were playing for a draw.

That sort of attitude goes against the Rwandan spirit of competitiveness. We want to be the best we can be, achieve the greatest we can, and you cannot do that by holding back.

Football in Rwanda has not lived up to the promise it showed a decade or so ago, hence the frustration. Various reasons have been advanced to explain this failure.

One of them has to do with issues of management in the football federation.

Another is the attitude of players. When they attain a certain level of success and wealth, they stop applying themselves and their skills decline as a result. They think they have become big stars whom we owe respect, forgetting that stardom in sports lasts as long as you are turning in good performance.

The idea of sport as a profession that one must constantly work at to reach one’s goal has not taken root.

The other team that got a contrasting reception was the cycling team. They were given a heroes’ welcome by the huge crowds that came to meet them at the airport. The reason for this was the success of Rwandan cyclists in cycling events across the continent.

One of them, Joseph Areruya, had just won three titles in succession. He had won the Tour du Rwanda, the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon and the Tour de l’Espoir in Cameroon. Word has it that Areruya & co will take part in the ultimate cycling tournament, the Tour du France.

Areruya’s wins, following successes of other Rwandans, like Adrien Niyonshuti, Valens Ndayisenga and Jean Bosco Nsengimana, have announced the arrival of cycling as a national sport to rival football.

Cycling has a massive following across the country. This is perhaps because it is a free spectacle; you don’t have to pay to watch. Riding is also something most people can easily identify with. And, of course, there are the wins of the leading riders. Plus, it has not yet experienced the same management problems we see in other sports federations and the stardom syndrome.

Rwandans wish it remains this way, safe from the ills afflicting other sports. We want to guard the gains that have been made against stagnation or even decline.

This is the lesson we learn from the contrasting reception of our two teams. We love success and detest failure. We value excellence and abhor mediocrity. We urge a competitive spirit and a winning mentality.

These qualities that we hold dear are not a given. They are the product of hard work, perseverance, tenacity and discipline. Luckily, these we have in abundance, and expect our sportsmen and women to have them in even greater quantities.


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