Friday, December 3, 2021

CASH-STRAPPED BUT STILL DELIVERING MEDALS: A Narrative into How Gambia Athletics Survived Without Government’s Support for Over Two Decades


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By Sulayman Bah

The day was a shining Saturday afternoon. The ceiling fan hummed to live inside the tiny headquarters of the Gambia Athletics Association at the Independence Stadium.

Photo:Athlete Gina Bass and their Association feel ostracized by government

A national athlete in sheer frustration, paced up and down upon learning the stadium’s entrance venue is under lock and key. Hopping on his scooter, he sped to the other side of the facility and scaled the iron-gate to enter the complex for his routine work-out. On enquiry, it turned out the stadium keepers are nowhere to be found and have carried along with them the keys.

‘This is what they do to us here almost all the time, we can’t train sometimes unless you jump in,’ the athlete said, as he went about his drills.

Arthur Jackson, the country’s athletics association’s secretary general cannot agree more. Patched on a seat and wedging through pile of papers feverishly, for Jackson, this is one of many troubles the athletics family deals with aside from what he calls other forms of inequalities and show of low consideration to national athletes and its association despite a consistency in delivering medals at international level.

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From the time former head of state Yahya Jammeh occupied the nation’s hot-seat, it marks to note athletics has been one of few disciplines registering strides up until now. Dozens trophies and tons of medals raging from bronze, silver including gold at all youth and regional levels is symbolic of a run of successes. The most remarkable moment came during course of the 2012 London Olympics where Gambia, for the first time, reached the semis of a senior competition in the 100m men’s category with Suwaibou Sanneh the architect.

A first senior gold medal was delivered in the summer of 2017 –Gambia’s first ever –when Gina Bass stormed to a first place finish in the Women’s 100 metres in the Islamic Solidarity Games in Azerbaijan.

Despite all these feats, it is heart-wrenching to learn that athletes and their association have been offered little to no support by government for a time spanning over two decades.

‘Now we are talking about the Barrow administration. We have not received a thing during the 22 years of the Jammeh’s administration directly or indirectly to support athletics,’ Arthur says.

He added: ‘We still keep our fingers crossed. It’s over a year since Barrow came to power. Like I mentioned (since Barrow came to office,), we were lucky even though we didn’t have all that we requested, we were able to secure seven tickets to the African Junior championships in Algeria last year (from the government).We are still very hopeful this Barrow administration will do more to support athletics. We have been achieving so much for the Gambia despite all the challenges we encounter.’

Government’s cold-shoulder treatment toward athletes, for Jackson, is all too familiar. The biggest snub for the athletics association was when president Barrow decided fete the Wafu Nations Cup winning Gambia U-20 team.

Prior this, star athletes like Gina Bass, the most outstanding performer for Gambia in recent years had craved for such a recognition without success. Few days before the U-20s’ meeting with the presidency, the athletics national team were left disenchanted and irked at not being given their allowances fresh from the Commonwealth Games in Australia where half of the delegation absconded.

Photo: Arthur Jackson says GAA were nearly shamed at time of hosting the Ecowas championship due to funding issues

Understandably, the athletes were appalled at news of President Barrow’s D200, 000 gift to the U-20s.  For Gina and the GAA, the players’ audience with the head of state was glaring testament of preferential treatment and confirmation of their long harboured fears that they take a back-seat in the nation’s sport priority list.

‘The granting of the football teams audience with the presidency and then benefitting from cash donations. We (Athletics) have been achieving, we have been winning titles, countless medals in various categories.

‘The athletes feel disappointed when they see footballers being honoured and given those privileges and for them making such achievements they’re not accorded the same privilege; they feel demotivated and have the feeling that athletics is not given that recognition that it deserves. So this is a great concern to us. They’re times the administration (Gambia Athletics Association) is blamed by the athletes.

‘They blame us for not doing the right moves. But we make moves when we report of our achievements to the ministry of Youth and Sports and it is in the media. So it’s no news to anyone in the Gambia that we are achieving, there is still more to be done.’

Being cash-strapped is an unpleasant circle to be caught up in. But for GAA, dynamism has been the key in these torrid moments. With an annual budget that has now risen to over a million dalasis, it provokes the question over how they have been pulling through all the while.

‘It has never been easy considering the annual subvention we get from International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which is designated. There is a prescription on how to spend these things. In fact we don’t receive all of this $15,000 (from their international affiliate body IAAF). Before receiving it (the sum), the annual affiliation fees are deducted. They pay $200 to the African Confederation of Athletics, $200 also to the IAAF also as membership contribution. The remaining balance… it is projected that you must organise your annual national championships and you must attend IAAF championships and also a regional championship and a continental championship.’

Athlete Gina Bass

He continued: ‘These are prescribed and then for the running of your office administration. When you consider all of these things, you realise that not much is left to honour your international commitments to attend these competitions. But then I always say that we are honoured to have an indefatigable president in Alagie Dodou Joof. He goes all out. In as much as the GAA don’t have much funds, he’s blessed with international connections and recognition and he goes all out to muster every support that he can; to mobilise funds from his international connections to support the GAA. As a bureau member of African confederation of athletics as the treasurer he attends meetings, competitions and then the allowance he is paid he directly pumps to GAA. At times, he gives them out personally to the athletes directly especially when he travels with them to competition and they perform well in competitions to encourage them.’

Trying to secure sponsorship is as good as not getting it with brands support to sport minimal. Recalling how a monumental embarrassment almost befell the association in a quest to host the Ecowas Games, Jackson said, they’d tried all ventures to secure funds for the event before a late intervention saved the day.

‘The worst experience was when Gambia hosted the ECOWAS championship. Our entire executives, we went on a vigorous campaign led by our marketing team to get a sponsor. We wrote to cooperate institutions and we made follow-ups on telephones but not a single response came from these peoples. The banks, the parastatals. Absolute none responded and we were heading for a disaster until our president (Capi Joof) had to make maneuvers to salvage the situation.’

The world youth and the African games amongst other competitions top the body’s agenda and the GAA now hope the Youth and Sports ministry and National Sports Council will finally now come to their aid.

The Nationals Sports Council or Youth and Sports (NSC), two government technical arm institutions, were not immediately available for comments.

Numerous efforts to reach the NSC’s chairman Borri Darboe yesterday also proved vain.

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