Will African indigenous sports ever find their way to the Olympics?

ABUJA, October 3, 2019 – A total of 33 sports are set to feature in Tokyo 2020 Olympics, out of which five would be making their debut in the Games.

Of these sporting activities, arguably 19 originated from Europe, three are asserted to hold ties with Asia, while six can trace back their history to North America. The continent of Oceania has one of the sports to her name while the history of four appears sketchy.

Africa, the continent with the most number of countries (54), is once again at the back foot. None to her credit.

From the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1986, till at least Tokyo 2020, it’s saddening to say that no African nation has been considered good enough to host the global showpiece.

To put it in a better perspective, no African country has considered itself good enough to host the world biggest sporting activity – where they contribute a significant number of participating member states. For whatever reason, arguably though, Africa has been a ‘gullible’ member in the sports world.

The trend, however, needs to be radically changed, and now.

Africa, nonetheless, is home to a number of exciting sports with great potential to make it to the Olympics. Some can even be incorporated as a discipline in an existing sport.

From ‘Dambe’, an ancient form of Nigerian boxing which has ties with the Hausa People of Northern Nigeria, to ‘Donkey Racing’ in Kenyan Island called Lamu, to a Senegalese wrestling called ‘Laamb’, and ‘Ayo’ which has roots in Western Nigeria, amongst others.

Africa is home to varieties of rich indigenous sports that can attract good viewership if the right mechanism is in place. These sports are embodiments of our history, culture and values as much as those of other continents.

It is, therefore, disheartening that Africa is yet to explore extensively her arrays of sporting activities as these indigenous sports are yet to attract huge audience in the continent let alone a global reach.

To begin, the African Games (AG) would be our first port of call. The just concluded edition in Rabat, Morocco did not feature any sports indigenous to Africa out of the 26 Games that graced it.

Africa’s sports men and women have had a good run and could challenge others in terms of competing favourably in these ‘borrowed’ sports.

Their participation and performance in the Olympics, FIFA World Cup tournaments and different Athletics championships, to say the least, are testament to that fact.

To be more specific, in men’s football, African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon and the likes have brought back gold medals in the Olympics as well as the ultimate trophies in the underage FIFA events. Albeit, the trophies of the senior FIFA mundial have been eluding them, the continent has shown the world that they are no pushovers in the game of football.

In table tennis, Aruna Quadri of Nigeria and his Egyptian counterpart Omar Assar and others have held their own in the world of ping-pong, having been once ranked 18th and 29th respectively in the ITTF world ranking. Just for the mention, table tennis was invented in England.

It is also pertinent to state that African sports men and women have even taken a step further to feature in sports where facilities are naturally not available in their locality. What comes readily to mind is the Nigerian trio, who became the first bobsled team from Africa at the 2018 Winter Olympics, defying all odds.

If Africa can adapt to these ‘foreign’ non indigenous sports, why can’t she export hers or avail other continents the opportunity of learning and enjoying her own traditional games.


The biggest stage to market a sport is at the Olympics. Continents have been able to see their sports feature in the Games, so why not Africa? It’s definitely a journey of a thousand miles but then we must take the first step now if we must make any headway.

To begin the process of becoming an Olympic sport, the sport must first gain recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

As part of the Olympic requirements, the activity must be under the administration of an international non-governmental organization which oversees one or more sports at the global level.

Once a certain sport gains recognition thereafter, it then assumes the International Sports Federation (IF) status.

To become a part of the Games, thesport’s IF must apply for admittance by filing a petition establishing its criteria of eligibility to the IOC. The IOC may then admit an activity into the Olympic program in one of three different ways: as a sport; as a discipline, which is a branch of a sport; or as an event, which is a
competition within a discipline.

As a matter of clarification, the IOC perceives a sport as that which is governed by an IF. A discipline on the other hand is a branch of a sport comprising one or more events while an event is a competition in a sport or discipline that gives rise to a ranking. For instance, swimming is a sport; women’s swimming is a
discipline while freestyle and backstroke are events.

However, rules for admitting a new sport, a discipline or an event into the IOC program may vary slightly. From the foregoing, a sport like Dambe can qualify as an event in boxing. Originating from the butcher caste of the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria, Dambe is considered an ancient form of boxing where gloves are replaced with ropes wrapped around the hitting arm of a fighter while the other hand acts as shield.

Dambe has its opponents aiming to suppress each other into total submission mostly within three rounds and competed on sand without a headgear.

Dambe featured in Nigeria’s 2018 National Sports Festival – an event considered as the country’s Olympics – and had an amazing viewership, youths in particular.

With the African Games and the Olympics in view, Nigeria can begin to lobby for the inclusion and participation of this sport in various countries across the continent. All it takes is a stern political will, provision of facilities and sponsorship. It’s not as easy as it sounds though, but it is a way to go.

If countries in Africa can welcome this sport, then it may no longer
be a herculean task to market them to continents of Asia, Europe and America. This would definitely get the sport recognized by the International Boxing Federation (AIBA).

With a possible vast popularity across the globe, Africa could influence AIBA to file a petition to the IOC establishing the eligibility criteria of the discipline. The Olympic body however, had earlier suspended the recognition of the world boxing governing body.

The rest would therefore, be left to the prerogative of the IOC for a decision on Dambe. More interestingly, Dambe can also be admitted into the Olympic program if Africa seizes an opportunity to host the Games.

The new flexibility provided by Olympic Agenda 2020 permits organizing committees to propose new sports for their edition of the Games, with Tokyo 2020 taking the advantage via the inclusion of five sports in the program.


The inclusion of Africa’s indigenous sports in a platform like the Olympics would arguably be the continent’s greatest achievement and contribution to the world of sports. But this does not come cheap.

Political Will

First, the continent needs the required political will by her leaders to be able to implement any program. At the Sobo Sowemimo Pavillion Abeokuta, Nigeria in 2012, Afe Babalola, a Nigerian lawyer delivered a lecture titled “bad leadership: bane of development”, where he opined, and rightly too, “that inadequate plan to retain positive policies of a previous government by the present one is also a bane of development in Africa.”

With Nigeria as a case study, the present administration might saddle itself with the responsibility of projecting and promoting Dambe but could have its efforts in the trashcan with the emergence of another government who do not think the idea was worth the while.

Arguably, African leaders concentrate more on short-term goals, plans that would yield immediate results and have their praise on the lips of all, rather than policies that take years and decades to build.

Sadly, this could be the case of Dambe. But if Africa can draw a developmental road map and stick to it no matter who is boss, then we are sure of getting most of the hurdle out of the way.


Aside Antarctica, a continent that is almost inhabitable for humans, Africa is the only continent yet to host the Olympics, and her greatest challenge is ‘funds’ they say. However, a window has been created for the continent with Senegal winning the right to host 2022 Youth Olympics. Such avenues would be the best site to promote ‘Dambe’ and other indigenous games.

If South Africa is able to host arguably, the most watched sporting event (the Men’s FIFA World Cup) in 2010, then we can certainly break the duck for the Olympics. All that’s needed is proper planning.


About 80% of the sports federations in Nigeria bemoan lack of corporate sponsorships. This is due to various reasons, however. But this would likely not to be the case of Dambe, if the government steps in to develop the sport.

With the intent to ensure a wide participation of the sport across the continent, corporate sponsors would love to associate with the brand if made attractive as well as incurring the cost of hosting the Olympics as well.

A lot has been said but more needs to be done. Africa needs to stand up and be counted. With an African driving the helm in FIBA, the continent has certainly risen to the position of `earning’ mandates and not `merely given’ to.

The time to start is now!

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