As the world celebrates Africa Day today, The New Age recognises some of the finest sporting personalities that have gone that extra mile to represent this wonderful continent with flying colours.
From Roger Mila of Cameroon, one of Africa’s first players to be a star on the international stage, to Ghana’s irreplaceable skipper Abedi Pele, Liberian humanitarian, politician and Africa’s only recipient of the Fifa World and European player of the year awards, George Weah, and Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya, Africa has many reasons to stand proud on the sporting front.
Fresh from representing the SADC when his team clinched the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations in January, Football Association of Zambia president Bwalya said Africa Day means a lot for his people.
“I remember when I started playing football in Europe and Africans were belittled. To celebrate this day, means we have come a long way,” said Bwalya.
“We are finally being recognised as one of the fastest emerging continents in the world and we deserve to celebrate in style.”
Africa Day is celebrated around the world every year on May 25. Its aim is to celebrate African diversity and success and to highlight the cultural and economic potential that exists on the African continent.
The story of African sporting success would not be complete without mention of the following sportspeople:
Even though the Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie has not made it into Team Ethiopia and might not take part in the 2012 London Olympics, he remains the greatest long distance runner in history.
The 39 year old won the 10km Bupa Great Manchester Run last Sunday in 27min 39sec – just 37 seconds slower than his personal best of 27min 02sec.
Gebrselassie, widely considered one of the greatest athletes, has run every distance – from the 800m through to the marathon.
He won the 10000m Olympic gold medal at both Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) and has won the Berlin Marathon four times consecutively, including a record-setting 2:03:59 in 2008.
He has won the Dubai Marathon on three occasions. He has broken 61 Ethiopian national records from 800m to the marathon and has set 27 world records.
Gebrselassie will continue his 10000m winning streak this weekend when he goes to Holland where his aim is to run the distance in under 27 minutes.
Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks was a 100m and 200m sprinter who won four Olympic silver medals and a gold in the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.
He is the world 200m indoor record holder with a time of 19.92sec.
The Namibian has beaten 20 seconds on 24 occasions and ran 19.68 in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics.
Fredericks is the only Namibian athlete ever to won an Olympic medal and was admired for his consistency.
He reached the finals and came second in both the 100m and 200m at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where he was beaten in the 100m by Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey who ran a time of 9.84sec.
The Namibian still holds the 200m Commonwealth Games record with a time of 19.97sec.
The Big Easy’s rise to fame in the mid-’90s not only confirmed that golf in the country is in good health, it also inspired many young golfers to follow in his footsteps.
His US Open win at Oakmont Country Club in 1994 had many enthusiasts glued to their television sets in the early hours of the morning and from that point onwards, he would represent country and continent with great distinction.
After raking-in numerous titles, Els was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2010.
He held the number one spot in the world rankings for long periods, while his record 780 weeks in the top 10 of the rankings remains unbroken.
Swimming’s golden girl won South Africa’s first Olympic medal in the post-apartheid era at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Her achievement of winning gold in both the 100m and 200m breaststroke events was a first for women and breathed new life into a sport that was in desperate need of an icon.
Heyns is regarded as one of swimmming’s all time greats and made the list of the Top 100 Great South Africans in 2004.
She is an athlete’s commission member of the International Swimming Federation (Fina).
She is an exceptional motivational speaker who takes pride in helping women achieve their goals in a male dominated world.
The former Springbok played a leading role in the moment that unified South Africans from all walks of life.
His post-match speech when his team won the Rugby World Cup in 1995,where he highlighted that the team had enjoyed they support of an entire nation, inspired Hollywood filmmakers to reproduce that moment on the silver screen.
His relationship with former President Nelson Mandela was at the heart of the 1995 triumph and brought to life the term “Madiba Magic” that is still used whenever the father of the new South Africa attends sporting events.
Pienaar’s most recent brainchild is the Varsity Cup which has, in a space of two years, produced a Springbok player.
The Maputo-born Maria Mutola is considered one of the fastest ever 800m female runners.
The Maputo Express became the one of the world’s most consistent winners on the women’s track and field in the 1990s.
Her 800m personal best of 1min 55.19sec in April 1996 was the seventh women’s fastest time in history.
Mutola’s first Olympics experience was in 1988 at the Seoul Olympics in South Korea when she was only 15.
She is the fourth track and field athlete to compete at six Olympic Games and won the 800m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The former soccer player is the world 1000m indoor record holder and African record holder at 800m and 1000m (outdoor).
Mutola presently coaches former 800m world champion Caster Semenya.
The South African 800m running sensation Caster Semenya won the 800m at the 2009 World Championships with a time of 1:55.45sec, which remains her personal best.
Semenya pulled off an amazing performance at the 2009 African Junior Championships when she won the 800m and the 1500m with the times of 1min: 56.72sec and 4min: 08.01sec respectively. She qualified for the 2012 London Olympics in April with a time of 1min 59.58sec and she remains top of the list of medal contenders.
Semenya was included in the British magazine New Statesman’s annual list of “50 People That Matter” in September 2010 for unintentionally sparking “an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism, and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world.
In October 2009 she named Mutola her coach.
By Patrick Baloyi, Michael Mentz and Kgothatso Madisa – The New Age an online publication in South Africa