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Culture, Leisure, Sport

Mozambique: A Sporting Chance

by Dave Durbach / 28.09.2011

Part 3

Few believed that Mozambique could pull off hosting the continent’s biggest sporting showpiece in the short space of just two years. The country was awarded the All Africa Games in April 2009 after original host Zambia withdrew, citing the international recession. Without any prompting, the Mozambicans stepped up. In less than a year, construction was well underway on an athletes’ village to house more than 6000 participants and officials, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a 45 000 seater stadium, and a brand new airport.

Sonstone Kashiba, secretary general of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, remarked at the time: “Never in the history of the All Africa Games have we witness the commitment and sacrifices of resources like we have seen here in Mozambique!”

Less than two decades ago, the country was ravaged by civil war. Now sport has taken centre stage in its reconstruction. The Chinese – ever happy to pump billions into Africa – agreed to build the new national stadium, 20km outside of town in the dusty, sparsely populated area of Zimpeto. Near the stadium still stands the Chinese workers’ hostel, while several fuchsia-clad labourers were still milling around making sure everything ran smoothly.

As one might expect of such an unprecedented event, there were small problems – perhaps more so for media covering the event than the athletes taking part. Most of the young volunteers tasked with helping visitors seemed to have a poor grasp of English. Considering only a handful of countries in Africa speak Portuguese, the organizers could’ve taken into account that English and French would be the desired medium of communication for most of the thousands of visitors. Maputo’s usually smooth-running streets came to a standstill during the days of the cycling event, which was held on the streets of the city.

The press centre at the Zimpeto Stadium left much to be desired – minimal internet, chronic shortage of printed schedules, clueless volunteers. The two ‘official’ websites of the games didn’t offer anything in terms of results, instead choosing to focus on such essentials as the lyrics to the official song and cartoons of the mascot in the various sporting codes. Press shuttles ran when the drivers felt like it, rather than according to the planned schedule, frustrating those on deadline.

The stadium itself was far too big. Unlike the impressive opening ceremony, which drew a healthy crowd, the athletics could barely buster 1000 people, many of them sportsmen and women from other disciplines supporting their countries. The dim echo of cheers and vuvuzelas amidst the cavernous stands did little to create any kind of atmosphere. Thankfully it was a very different story when 35 000 reportedly showed up to watch the SA under-23 team go down 4-2 on penalties to Ghana in the finals of the men’s soccer.

The press box inside the stadium, as in the Fifa World Cup, offered journalists the best seats in the house, as well as desks, power outlets and internet jacks. Unlike in South Africa, however, the desks were shaky at best, with more than one falling apart like a house of cards, and the internet and electricity connections not working. I never saw more than four or five journalists in the area that could accommodate several hundred. Most preferred to mill about the press centre outside, watching the other sports on TV while checking their Facebook and cashing in on the free sausage rolls. There appeared to be no press conference room, despite notices to the contrary. One’s only hope of getting interviews was therefore to accost athletes on the field immediately after their events.

Although everything at the stadium was squeaky clean, the blue plastic seats extended just enough over 90 degrees to ensure that one’s ass was constantly slipping forward – perhaps, but probably not, a cunning attempt by the Chinese architects to ensure that those few who did attend were always on the edge of their seats.

Further evidence of poor communication lay in the fact that the medal winners at times failed to show up to collect their awards. For example, SA medal winners Victor Hogan and Russel Tucker were nowhere to be found when it came to the men’s discus medal ceremony. When the announcer, standing on the field in the wind trying to pin down a pile of papers with a bottle of water, called for the SA team manager, he too had gone AWOL. Perhaps they had seen the medal ceremony programme and had taken “DISCUSS” to mean TBC.

Worst of all, prior to the anthems during every medal ceremony, the crowds were treated not to a homegrown tracks or even the official song of the games – but instead to 30 second renditions of various Celine Dion hits – most often the gag-inducing ‘Power of Love’ (“because I’m your laaaady, and you are my man…”).

But let’s give credit where it’s due. The problems were all isolated glitches rather than chronic shortcomings. When Zambia flaked, Mozambique bravely stepped up into the breach, despite lacking much of the necessary infrastructure at the time. Besides the new stadium and pool, the rest of the 20-odd venues, most of them more conveniently situated in the city, were aging and benefited from their new facelifts. By all accounts the athletes’ village was comfortable and safe – and even offered nightly entertainment in the form of DJs like Kenzhero.

One of the main reasons for the poor attendance was a positive one – the comprehensive coverage on TV and radio, beamed out to homes, restaurants and taxis throughout Maputo for those two weeks.

Despite a few hiccups, the Games have been a major success for the host country. And likewise for us – South Africa, despite sending second-string teams to the athletics and women’s soccer, for example, still managed to clean up, finishing way ahead on the medals table, bagging twice as many golds as their closest competition, Nigeria.

This event also underlined the skill with which South Africa pulled off the Fifa World Cup last year – and reiterated why Fifa insisted on maintaining such a tight grip on proceedings. One might say these Games have done much the same for Mozambique as what the World Cup did for Mzansi – proven to many doubters that a major, multi-venue event can be successfully staged despite numerous constraints. And while Mozambique deserves the credit, South Africans also did their part – many were tasked with refereeing, timekeeping and arranging the sound – and why not? Joburg is closer to Maputo than most of Mozambique.

As the Games wound down, with Maputo’s airport seeing its biggest mass exodus since terror-stricken settlers fled in the 70s, most will have put this year’s All Africa Games down as a resounding success, despite the occasional gripes.

Significantly, Mozambique’s hosting of the continental showcase signifies the country’s ongoing evolution – from (1) being occupied by European and then South African interests, to (2) reflecting on this occupation through events such as Ocupações Temporárias and to (3) ultimately hosting (a big difference to being occupied by) the rest of the continent – including its top athletes, dignitaries and journalists. It’s an ongoing process, but nevertheless a major leap ­– a sign that the country’s leaders are taking the reins of its own development, hopefully to the benefit of all its people.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

All images © Dave Durbach.

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