Ugandan sports: A cyclic journey ready to steady up  

Kassim Ouma broke barriers, albeit tough conditions here. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

What you need to know:

What is obvious is that every federation needs more money especially to help with preparation of athletes before big games. The issue about criteria is an egg and chicken story. For example; giving the best performing federations more might only make them improve at a higher rate than the struggling ones. Wouldn’t giving the latter more money help them catch up?

Uganda marks 60 years of Independence today but sport in this country is still striving for that liberation.

Sport has been played in Uganda for more than a century and there have been just as many achievements to celebrate, right from the grassroots to the world stage, as there have been issues to frown about.

Success is relative and there is no definitive structure of what Uganda should look like as a sporting country so it is wise for us to enjoy the journey and to do that now, one has to appreciate where we came from too.

Pre-Independence organization

Right from the start, Uganda has been a football-mad country with organization in this code going as far back as 1925 when the Uganda Football Association (UFA now Fufa), according to Sports in Uganda – a book published in 1975.

But by 1911, there were mission clubs in Nsambya while Budo United is said to have travelled to Mombasa in 1922. These led to the advent of tournaments like Kabaka Cup (1923-1953) and later Bika football (since 1960) while the national team also participated in the Gossage Cup, named after an investor in the East African region named William Gossage, against Kenya as early as 1926.

This was mainly in Buganda but with UFA in place, the sport started catching like a wild fire in the other parts of the country through the regional Aspor Cup that started in 1952. This Aspro Cup later became known as Madhvani Cup after Independence and later the East Africa General Insurance Corporation Cup after President Idi Amin expelled Indians from the country.

According to veteran sports journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa, Buganda also organized rowing regattas, volleyball and wrestling events for fun at the time.

Records show that athletics, one of the country’s most successful codes, could have started here around 1926 for the men with a national team engagement against Kenya in 1938 while the women’s first engagement came in 1958.

Speaking of successful codes, the first records on boxing come from 1925 but it is likely the sport had started way earlier.

The Brothers of Christian Instruction organized bouts as early as 1938 and schools like Namilyango College took up the sport for student in 1944 producing greats like Francis Nyangweso, Tom Kawere – a Commonwealth Games (CWG) silver medallist before Independence in 1958 in Cardiff – and Alex Odhiambo among others.

The game would later go to Mengo SS and was also an instant hit in institutions like Police.

Uganda Amateur Boxing Association (UABA) was then started in 1950 by Charles Potts and they held their first championship the next year, went international in 1952 and left the continent for the first time in 1958 for the Empire Games.

Other sports that came early include rugby (1919), hockey (1920), lawn tennis (1913) and cricket, which started organizing itself around 1953, cycling, netball, swimming, motor rally, badminton, handball, volleyball, Omweso, weightlifting and table tennis among others.

Sports leadership and the law

“At the time, there was no body to regulate the running of sports so there was little or no national outlook for most codes until Independence. Every discipline was on its own and people played from wherever,” Zziwa, who has done a lot of research and writings on Ugandan sport shares.

Bringing the sports disciplines together came when Uganda Olympic Committee (UOC) was formed in 1950 under the leadership of British colonial administrator Richard Posnett as Uganda prepared to send athletes to the CWG in 1954 and later the Olympics.

Even as early as 1954, Uganda was good for a high jump silver medal courtesy of Peter Etolu at the CWG in Vancouver.

Athletics success became more wholesome across road plus track and field at junior, youth and senior levels after Independence but is currently more pronounced in the long distance events with Boniface Kiprop, Moses Kipsiro and Stephen Kiprotich passing on the torch to Stella Chesang, Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo and Victor Kiplangat over the years.

It is sacrilege not to mention Olympic gold medallists; John Akii-Bua (1972 men’s 400m hurdles), Peruth Chemutai (2020 women’s 3000m steeplechase) plus world champions like Halimah Nakaayi and Dorcus Inzikuru when talking Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF)’s success stories.

“Sport before Independence was run by the British and maybe within the institutional framework – say police. It was amateur but later Uganda benefitted from the ground that had been set before Independence.

For example, during the first few years of President Idi Amin, sport was doing well as the leadership then drove with the momentum from the 60s and late 50s. But due to political turmoil, things started getting worse with few people running the show,” Dr. Donald Rukare, currently the president of UOC, shares.

In 1964, the Sports Act was enacted establishing the National Council of Sports (NCS) as the overseer of sports in the country. But the Act has been working devoid of a policy.

“Things got more aligned after NCS was published but with no policy, there was really nothing to compel federations to align.

But it seems people just believed in the Act and chose to affiliate to put the sector together,” Zziwa says. 

Rukare, who started playing in sport in the 80s, agrees saying “federations affiliated out of goodwill but also because they had no option then while some did not know what to do as Uganda was coming from a period of turmoil.”

In some ways, this bid to be recognized by NCS and UOC was the cause of wrangling among leaders of various federations and the battle for supremacy eventually ate up the two umbrella bodies for years.

The regulations that spelled out how sports federations can be incorporated (as Trusts), registered or even receive funding from the government did not come until 2014.

These called for federations to reapply for NCS registration and even though they were initially greeted with animosity, they formed a bedrock for a good working relationship between UOC and NCS and later the latter and most federations.

Since then, 55 federations - some of which also support sport for athletes with disabilities - have been established from just about 10 in the 1960s. Rukare believes that the first success of the sector is the growth in the number of sports codes - even though some are run like family affairs and some struggle to hold activities of note - while the dedicated sports leadership courses at UOC have helped pave way for good and informed leadership.

Questions on the legal framework continue to linger in Ugandan sport especially because no one knows the criteria the government uses to fund federations among other things.

Some widely believe that the current law, established when sport was still seen as a recreational activity, cannot survive the modern times when sport is a multi-billion industry.

There have been calls for the Act to be repealed with the Fufa president Moses Magogo unsuccessfully trying to table his own proposed private member’s bill to Parliament early this year.

Over a week ago at the 11th National Sports Forum – a meeting between the Minister of State for Sports and executives of sports federation – the latter were briefed on the new Physical Activity and Sports Bill that could soon be tabled in Parliament but it has faced quick criticism for not having provisions for a Sports Tribunal at a time when sports-related issues have struggled to be resolved in Courts of Law.

Our sources say, “Government will not support any laws that put a financial implication on it. That is why issues to do with a Sports Tribunal might take time to be tabled.”

Funding

The Law, if passed, should facilitate the graduation from an amateur to a largely commercialized sports sector although there are some who believe Uganda has sufficient laws to support an income generating sports environment.

The lack of enough funding is a daily cry in the sector that it sometimes feels like a need for change is the bloodline that motivates the athletes to engage top gears for success.

Right from pre-independence, the sector survived on the good will of businessmen like Gossage, Madhvani, Aspro.

Even as far back as the 1980s, the goodwill of companies, especially beverage producers like Pepsi-Cola among others, shone through.

The corporate world has remained vital in facilitating sport, especially in the form of sponsoring teams and tournaments plus rewarding medal winners and supporting physical activities through fun tournaments and the mushrooming runs. But there are also other avenues for funding.

The President continues to reward continental and international medal winners too while NCS has on two occasions given cash prizes to Commonwealth and Olympic medallists. There are calls for a better rewards and recognition scheme and it is also enshrined in the proposed law.

Various sports federations get funds from their international bodies while participants in individual sports codes are also highly self-facilitated.

While government funding was next to unheard of before the 2000s, when it was about Shs400m, it continues to grow.

“We started seeing the government come in in a big way around 2015,” Rukare recalls.

Government funding grew to 25.5bn in 2018 but was quickly cut to Shs17bn in 2020 as the government tightened the noose at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, ahead of the current financial year, the government more than doubled the funds to Shs47bn but to add a bit of spice, funding to various federations was ring-fenced as they look to fund national teams better.

In the absence of a funding policy, the ring-fencing right from the floor of Parliament was welcomed by various federations as the criteria was never obvious previously.

Some claimed it was performance-based but with Shs10bn (now Shs15bn) ring-fenced for Fufa, at the time when other sports had had more successful stints for the nation, that argument did not hold a lot of water.

Facilities

What is obvious is that every federation needs more money especially to help with preparation of athletes before big games. The issue about criteria is an egg and chicken story. For example; giving the best performing federations more might only make them improve at a higher rate than the struggling ones.

Wouldn’t giving the latter more money help them catch up?

This is usually a debate that comes up when NCS evaluate the federations. Some propose that since they are running the various codes on behalf of Ugandans, NCS should give them offices. NCS says federations should be fully functional with secretariats as a bare minimum.

NCS general secretary Bernard Patrick Ogwel, says the sector evidently needs more money, more specifically to rehabilitate facilities.

In the past, according to Zziwa, sport in the central region was played in community fields while other regions also had their kingdom or chiefdom grounds.

“School fields were equally popular and open to the public but the central government had no fields until the abolishment of kingdoms after the promulgation of the 1967 Constitution.”

Most of the Booma Grounds and the district facilities we see today were taken over from kingdoms then but are hardly maintained although there are proposals for them to be brought under NCS for better management. However, NCS has at times overly prioritized the pressure to create funds from these facilities over sports activities.

The only known facilities built by the government are Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium, now under reconstruction through a public-private partnership, and the High Altitude Centre in Teryet that is also yet to be completed.

“It is hard to answer if there were more facilities back then than now but facilities in schools have been totally run down,” Rukare shares.

But if leadership has become better, why have they not managed the facilities better?

“The current generation of leaders came in as participants in the 80s then started developing clubs but nothing was really structured until the 2000s. The university system was also vibrant with inter-hall competitions and regional university games.

The facilities available then helped to begin some resurgence in the sector and a gradual transformation of leadership. But you also have to credit the long period of peace we have had since then.

However, the clubs and federations we created do not own the facilities so we could not directly run them. Also the emphasis on sports is not as big as it used to be in schools. So what we have now is more private facilities,” Rukare explains.

Performance

The federations have been at the heart of sports development, the challenges of funding, facilities and leadership notwithstanding. They have played as the link between coming through grassroots and playing at the top level.

Just like pre-independence, the biggest concentration of federations’ activities has been in the central region even though the regulations demand that these bodies have a “national outlook.”

With football as an example, Zziwa says that in the times just after independence to probably early 2000, “players used to join clubs for better employment opportunities.”

At the time football clubs were run by government parastatal and institutional bodies. The trend has continued to other sports like volleyball, where clubs like Sport-S promise to find players jobs.

Promises of better education and jobs continue to be a main attraction but in some circles, especially football, players have started to earn income from their talents.

Also beyond training federation leaders, there have been deliberate efforts to train coaches over the last 10-15 years across all disciplines.

“We had to teach ourselves how to swim. But swimmers like Kirabo Namutebi, who are now winning medals on the continent, are a product of a deliberate effort we took to train their coaches in Germany many years ago.

From where we are, the only way is up for our sports. Beyond athletics and boxing, where we win medals consistently, we are Africa champions in rugby (7s) and cricket, and 5th in the world in netball.

We are winning medals in swimming at continental level and Islamic Games. Our volleyball, basketball, badminton, chess, women and youth football teams are competing well on the continent. And we are hosting more events,” Rukare says.

Uganda’s sports story definitely has many success stories but the challenges in facilities and the law have to be sorted to propel the sector forward.

……………………………………….

Numbers

47- Government now injects Shs47.1 bn in sports per year

55- Number of federations recognized by NCS. Of these 33 affiliate to UOC too

1950 – Year UOC was started

1964 – Year NCS was established


Olympics

Medals: Four gold, four silver and three bronze

Years: 1956-2020. Only missed 1976 due to political turmoil


Commonwealth Games

Medals: 19 gold, 16 silver, 23 bronze

Years: 1954-2022. Missed 1978 and 1986 due to political turmoil




Our Sports Metre Over Last 60 Years - Marks out of 10

Increase in codes - 8/10

Most popular sports are also played in Uganda


Inclusion (women and para-athletes) - 6/10

Sport is largely open to all although the number of para-athletes are still low


Performance - 6/10

Athletics and boxing have lifted Uganda on medal podiums but there are countless stories of joy across other sports codes


Capacity building (administrators and technical) - 5.5/10

UOC has done exceptionally well to train sports administrators. Various federations train coaches and game officials


Activities at federation level - 5/10

Many federations still struggle to hold activities.

Also most athletes are under trained and lack exposure due to few games played


Government funding - 5/10

Hugely improved but a lot more needed


Corporate world funding - 4/10

Huge partners but many more yet to come on board


Laws - 3/10

Repealing the 1964 Act is long overdue


Facilities - 2/10

The biggest farce of our time



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