Sports development: Community as the context

It’s now been three weeks since the end of the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. In case you’ve been experiencing withdrawal symptoms, fear not because the Paralympics started this week. Sporting fever and excitement is still well and truly alive!

The Olympics were a fantastic display of impressive sporting talent, commitment, teamwork and much more. They left me feeling inspired to do more sport. And I have been. Kind of. Here and there. We’ll see how long it lasts!

The Games also brought about a sense of nostalgia. They had me reminiscing back to my younger years and one of my favourite times of the school calendar in particular – sports day!

The Games really are a glorified school sports day. They bring together so much of what I remember and enjoyed about school – fun times with friends, the pride of representing your house at an event, teamwork, competition, the range of emotions felt after winning, losing or limping off as a result of injury, personal and corporate achievement, and much more.

I enjoyed taking part in the 400m, the 4x100m Relay, triple jump and long jump. I certainly wasn’t one of those athletes that’d be remembered for breaking school records – far from it! Nevertheless, I loved using my sporting ability to take part and be a part of the team. Competing for my house (Zambezi in Primary School and Ndale in Secondary) and hearing the screams of encouragement was always a proud, exciting moment. It reminded me of that fact that I was part of a unit. A team. A community. And this is why I loved sports days and as a consequence love the Olympics. They are chiefly about community.

I had high hopes for the Zambian team sent to the London Games and I respect each and every one of them for their courage, dedication and willingness to represent their country on such an important global stage. I’m actually very proud of each and every one of them for those precise reasons. But maybe their failure to perform to the standard we had hoped had much to do with the lack of community in the way we approach sports in the country.

What do I mean?

Community involves serving the other and I want to suggest that we have been guilty of not serving our athletes in ways that advance their development and subsequently their sporting achievements. Community sees the gifts and talents in the other and nurtures and encourages them. We’re failing at that.

As evidenced in this Lusaka Times article, investment in sports infrastructure has been poor over the years. Now, some will be quick to point to the Olympic Youth Development Centre opened two years ago in Lusaka as one example that stands in the way of my claim but that is one facility in the capital city. Investment in the athletes themselves needs to be more forthcoming, consistent and deliberate. As 800m runner Prince Mumba said in a recent interview,

Zambia needs to invest in athletes and not just criticise. In every country I have been to, they treat sports with respect. I see many companies involved in sports. Also athletes [in Zambia] are scared to fully be involved because they don’t know what to do after sports is done. I wrote letters to more than 20 companies in Zambia asking for sponsorship, I didn’t get any response from any. If I didn’t love track I would give up.”

So the sober question needs to be asked: are we expecting to excel at Olympic sports without actually investing in them?

Investment takes different forms. Financial investment is a hugely important part of this – into the development of sports infrastructure and into the athletes themselves. But more than that, consistent, deliberate, all-weather investment of encouragement, support, changed mindsets towards our athletes and the whole sports community is needed.

It’s worth pondering whether we consider a career in sports a legitimate career choice. Do our universities and colleges provide courses in Sports Science and Sports Management? We are blessed with an innumerable number of young and gifted sporting talents that we’re actually missing a trick by not nurturing them in a consistent, committed, proactive manner. Haphazard, reactive policies around sports development will never bring about the robust, long-term resurgence in Zambian Olympic sports that we long to see.

So athletes need to train hard. The government and sports bodies need to take the lead in showing their commitment towards financial support and infrastructure development. Businesses need to also play their part. And we the people need to give our athletes the support they need.

If a resurgence in Zambian Olympic sports is to take place, let it be built around community. Serving the other. Not just in word but deed.

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