It would be unthinkable for Kenya to go to the Olympics without a steeplechase trio, or for Ethiopia not to field a marathoner. Can you imagine the US without a basketball team, Brazil with no football squad or Australia without swimmers?
Yet Uganda has pulled off the unthinkable by not having a boxing team at the on-going 30th Olympiad in London. Since 1960 we have had pugilists each Games. Four of Uganda’s six medals are in boxing (Leo Rwabwogo and Eridadi Mukwanga in 1968, Rwabwogo in 1972, and John Mugabi in 1980), the athletes John Akii-Bua (1972) and Davis Kamoga (1996) being the exception.
The medal count would be even higher had we, alongside other African countries, not boycotted Montreal 1976, as the ‘Bombers’ squad that year is probably our best ever. It had Cornelius Bbosa, James Odwori, Muhammad Muruli, Mustapha Wasajja and Vitalis Bbege, who all won many other honours.
In disappointment, Bbosa would go on to turn professional and, fighting as Cornelius Boza-Edwards, become a world champion, one of four (with Ayub Kalule, ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, and Kassim ‘The Dream’ Ouma) professional world champions from Uganda.
Kalule is also the biggest-achieving amateur we have had, taking World Amateur Championship gold in 1974, but he alongside others – Godfrey Nyakaana, Justin Jjuuko, George Oywelo, Benson Masanda, Muruli, Odwori – also won Commonwealth Games gold.
But the three traditional ills – in-fighting and lack of structures by administrators, corruption, and Government neglect – have conspired to undermine this legacy and deny Uganda a presence in London.
Presidential lustre can boost a country’s sports – US basketball gets a fillip when President Obama shoots a few hoops and kisses Michelle courtside, as he did at an Olympic warm-up game.
Russian judo gained when their judoka President Vladimir Putin went to the judo events when he visited the British Prime Minister last week. I do not see President Museveni doing a mock sparring session or jabbing at a punching bag, let alone kissing Janet ringside. So let us leave him out of this – he is only human, and cannot be interested in everything. In any case politicians come and go. Idi Amin, the former national heavyweight champion (pictured), went, and Obama could lose November’s election. But a country’s sporting excellence needs, and can, continue in perpetuity.
Government’s limitations present an opportunity to the corporate world to take over and make real impact. Often, we hear of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts going into painting a zebra crossing here and donating a few books there. That’s good, but surely it can be bigger and longer-lasting.
Boxing in Uganda has traditionally been for the under-privileged. It thrived in the poorer parts of urban centres – the Naguru and Nakawa housing estates, teeming with youthful energy, and the legendary Kampala Boxing Club at Nakivubo that drew a lot of talent from Katwe, Kisenyi and Makerere Kivulu. The Walukuba housing estate in Jinja, and Kilembe Mines in Kasese also produced a lot of exceptional boxers when young chaps used the sport as a way to seize opportunity in life. Most of these places had boxing gyms, and so too would the armed forces and schools like Namilyango College, Kako, St Henry’s Kitovu, Namasagali College, Kololo High and Kololo SS.
Parastatals like Nytil, Uganda Breweries, UEB, Rayon, Uganda Plastics, KCC, and Foods & Beverages used to support boxing, but are now either extinct or in remission. In the national economy and in the public’s consciousness, they have been replaced by the new private concerns, the so-called corporates of today. I say, let these corporates also take over sports sponsorship. Ugandan boxing which has a long and glorious legacy would be a great place to make real change.
In South Africa, the pay television company DStv, through their sports arm, SuperSport, has an excellent CSR programme called Let’s Play, which has brought sports opportunity to otherwise sedentary children and, little mentioned, to less privileged people. While there is no correlation yet to South Africa’s current sporting achievements – Ernie Els winning golf’s British Open, the cricket team heading to world number 1 status, Olympic swimming success, Semenya & Pistorius – such CSR will inevitably feed into a legacy that has good foundations.
Alongside laying a foundation, or rebuilding the foundation for certain future glory, it would also give Uganda’s corporates an opening to positively impact lives that otherwise have limited opportunity. Let corporates put their money where their mouth is.