Tokyo 2020: Will Rwanda finally win an Olympic medal?

In about ten months, the world’s attention will be switched to Tokyo as Japan will be hosting summer Olympic Games for the first time since 1964.

Also known as Tokyo 2020, next year’s Olympics will run from July 24 through August 9.

By far, Olympics are the world’s biggest sporting event. As of September 11, athletes from over 120 countries, including one Rwandan, had qualified for the 2020 games. The 2016 Rio Olympics attracted over 11,000 athletes from 207 countries and territories. 

Felicien Muhitira is so far the only Rwandan who has secured qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The 24-year old will compete in men’s full marathon. Net.

Rwanda has been present at every Olympic Games since the 1984 debut in Los Angeles, and such will be the case next year. However, with a total representation of 54 athletes in different disciplines over the last 35 years, the country is yet to win a medal at the Olympics.

So far, only Felicien Muhitira is assured of a ticket to Tokyo 2020, as he will competing in men’s full marathon following his qualification in April this year, in Italy. But, with time, more qualifications are expected to come through, especially in individual sports since – in team sports – no Rwandan team has ever qualified for Olympics. 

Rwandan athletes’ below par performance in Olympics is largely blamed on lack of preparations and inadequate infrastructure.

To tackle the challenges, the Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee (RNOSC) last year signed a number of agreements with different partners in effort to help athletes have access to high standard facilities and enough preparations ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games.

As a result, 20 players in three different disciplines traveled to Japan in July for a three-week training camp as they prepared for the recently concluded 12th All-Africa Games in Morocco.

The camp was part of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between RNOSC and Hachimantai City signed in May 2018, which is aimed at facilitating Rwandan athletes with high level preparations, with a possibility to extend the deal beyond 2020.

Beach volleyball star Olivier Ntagengwa is one of the players who benefited from the Hachmantai camp, which, he says, helped him and his partner, Patrick Kavalo Akumuntu, to strike bronze at the All-Africa Games. 

“The training in Hachimantai was instrumental in our success at the All-Africa Games,” Ntagengwa told Saturday Sport on Friday. 

“We learned a lot from the competition, but we learned a lot more about our opponents. We now know where to improve when Tokyo 2020 qualifiers come.” 

The African continental qualifiers in beach volleyball are due early next year. The host countries are yet to be determined.

No end in sight for medal drought

The training camp in Japan instantly proved to be crucial as, apart from athletics, the beach volleyball and cycling teams managed to scoop medals in Morocco; one in beach volleyball and two bronze medals from the cycling team.

So, is Rwanda finally in position to win a medal at the Tokyo 2020?

Valens Munyabagisha, the RNOSC President, says that winning a medal at the 2020 Olympics is not impossible, but he admits it would come as a surprise to everyone. 

“It requires long-term preparations. It would be premature to promise medals right now when we are still struggling to even qualify.”

“Coaches and training facilities in Hashimantai helped our athletes a lot. There is no doubt it thanks to the camp that we managed to win three medals in All-Africa Games. 

With more of such training opportunities, we stand a better chance in Tokyo than we ever did before.” 

Munyabagisha further revealed that Rwandans who will qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Games, will have a two-month camp in Hachimantai before the event’s kick-off with hope to finally end the country’s long wait for a historic first Olympic medal. 

According to Ntagengwa, hopes to qualify for Tokyo 2020 are high but he has also refrained from making promises, at least until a ticket to the games is secured. 

“We cannot think of winning a medal in Tokyo when we have not qualified yet. And… it would be our first participation at the Olympics. But if we qualify, we will definitely do our best to bring home a medal.” 

Early preps for the 2024 Games

In the meantime, Munyabagisha underscored that the country stands a higher chance for medals at the 2024 Paris Olympics if athletes are prepared early. 

“We need to pick lessons from past failures, and change how we prepare our athletes. We need to think long-term.”

“Rather than placing high expectations on those who will represent us in Tokyo, it would be wiser if we start thinking of Paris 2024. We have ample time to prepare, success at Olympics never comes by chance.”

He urged federations to start preparing young talents for the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games, and the Dakar 2022 Youth Olympic Games, noting that how Rwandans perform in the two events will give an informed idea of what to expect at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France.

About the Tokyo 2020 Games

It has been six years since Tokyo won the bid to organise the 2020 Summer Olympics, and Japan will be hosting the games for their second time, the first since 1964. 

The Asian country also hosted the Winter Games of 1972 in Sapporo and of 1998 in Nagano.

Masa Takaya, the spokesperson of Tokyo 2020 has promised that next year’s Games will be the ‘most innovative’ ever organised.

“We are aiming to make Tokyo 2020 Games the most innovative Olympics in history, with a vision to make the idea of sustainable Olympic Games in a reality. Preparations are in closing stages, and we are confident everything will be in place by end of this year,” he said. 

There are 43 venues to both Olympic and Paralympic Games, including eight to be built newly and 25 already existing facilities, while 10 will be temporary venues. 

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