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London 2012: Ghana's Olympic athletes come second to football and corruption


Aziz Zakari of Ghana, right, finishes third behind Jamaica's Asafa Powell as he sets a world record of 9.77 sec for the 100m in 2005. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFPLondon 2012: Ghana's Olympic athletes come second to football and corruption

But poverty is the biggest hurdle talented athletes have to overcome – lack of cash broke up their Olympic training camp

Afua Hirsch, West Africa correspondent

Alongside Ghana's main athletics stadium lies the huge, broken fuselage of a Boeing 727 that crashed here in early June, killing 10 people. It ground to a halt only metres from the track. Inside the stadium, athletes try to remain composed as aircraft descend overhead to land at Accra's international airport across the road.

As a training venue it's not ideal, but that's the least of the problems facing the country's athletes. Olympic officials admit that favouritism and corruption have been rife in team selection. And a lack of international competition and vital equipment have made preparations for London 2012 particularly difficult.

Sprinter Cyril Ferguson, 26, says participating in the Olympics could change his life. "I am very focused now. I'm training now," he said. "I have a good chance. My goal is to make the final."

Despite being Ghana's third fastest sprinter, Ferguson was temporarily banned from competing in 2011 after an argument with a coach who, he says, passed him over for selection in favour of a slower runner.

Professor Francis Dodoo, chair of the Ghana Olympics Committee and a former African games gold medal winner and Olympic triple-jumper, admits there have been problems. "In the past, athletes lost faith in the system", he said. "If athletes recognise that the quality of their performance isn't the primary basis for their selection, why should they go out there?"

Dodoo says favouritism has been driven out under his leadership, but he knows other obstacles remain. Athletes sometimes go almost a year without the chance to race because of a lack of competitions. Officials say it is difficult to organise events, partly because so many of the country's best athletes – including the successful heptathlete Margaret Simpson, who trains in the US – are based overseas. The effect diminishes the chances of those left behind.

"If I had more competitions, I could improve my time," said Janet Amponsah, 19, a 100m and 200m sprinter. "You can't perform here the same way you would if you were competing regularly.

"I dream of a scholarship to the US. When those who are there come back, we really see the difference."

Dreaming of going abroad is common among Ghana's athletes. In 2006, Ferguson travelled to Spain, training with a local coach and working in a clothing shop, before being forced to return by immigration officials.

"The facilities in Ghana are really nothing to write home about," he said. "There are no more than 10 tracks in the whole country, and many of them are in bad condition."

He said athletes did not have the right equipment either. "I remember competing in the 2004 Australian Commonwealth Games, racing next to another athlete. His tracksuit, his spike shoes – I had never seen anything like that before. Instead of concentrating on my race, I was concentrating on him."

Poverty is the biggest challenge. Many struggle to pay for running shoes and rely on handouts from members of the team who live overseas. In May, the residential camp the team had been staying in since February to prepare for the Olympics was broken up because of a lack of funding. The consequences, according to Dodoo, could be devastating for Ghana's Olympic chances.

"Some of our athletes come from homes so impoverished that if they have been at camp for four months, sending them home for one week can undo everything," said Dodoo.

"But we don't have the money. We broke camp because we ran out of money to pay for accommodation and feeding. We don't even have money to put in the hands of athletes when they need something."

The $60,000 (£38,200) which the government was unable to find to pay for the training camp contrasts with the $5m spent on Ghana's football team – the Black Stars – competing in the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.

Many in Ghana acknowledge that the country enjoys similar levels of talent in both sports, but the lack of political and public interest in athletics has left it the poor relation. To date, Ghana has never won an Olympic medal in a track and field event.

"They have been helping football so much more than athletics," said Amponsah. "I want to ask them why. It's not fair, but we have to just cope with it the way it is.

"I want to say to the government: if you give us the opportunity to train, I promise we will win medals."

But the optimism of young sprinters such as Amponsah contrasts starkly with what senior members of the team and officials say is a more realistic view.

"What I'm expecting from my athletes is for them to compete to the best of their abilities," said Dodoo. "If our relay teams qualify and compete well, we have got a chance of getting into the final.

"And if one of the other teams mess up, well then we could have a chance of stealing a medal."

Source: The Guardian UK



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