In March, the English Football Association announced the suspension of all professional football competitions given mounting concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. The capitulation of the English Premier League to the pandemic would be followed by similar tough decisions across domestic and international sporting events, including the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The pandemic has caused the most significant disruptions to the sporting world since the Second World War. While numerous pundits have examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on professional sports, the impact of the disruption on amateur sports in Africa will likely go undocumented.
Amateur sports have played an increasingly significant yet largely unquantified role in Africa. The numerous dusty fields where barefoot children play football across the continent or the high-altitude terrain in Kenya’s Rift Valley have long served as the breeding grounds for elite football players and record-breaking long-distance runners such as Eliud Kipchoge.
The numerous positive socio-economic effects of participating in sporting activities have been documented exhaustively. For instance, youth living in low-income areas such as Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slums are increasingly dependent on community, private sector and donor-funded sporting initiatives to supplement their daily sustenance. Participating in sporting competitions, mainly football tournaments, guarantees regular meals, allowances and other benefits such as travel, which could be a pathway to professional sports.
But the social distancing guidelines adopted and enforced globally coupled with restrictions on movement have pushed many amateur sportspersons to the brink of survival. Unlike professionals, amateur sportspersons do not have the luxury of contract-based wages, insurances, sponsorships or endorsements. The bulk of the funding that sustains most amateur sports teams in Africa usually flows from donors and is supplemented by private-sector funding; government support for sporting activities usually falls far short of the desired levels. In Kenya, even before the outbreak of the pandemic, sports teams have resorted to public appeals and fundraising drives to keep afloat. Cases of national team players turning to social media to highlight the plight of their training facilities, travel and accommodation arrangements while on tour or even disputes with hotels and hosting facilities over unpaid bills have become commonplace in Kenya.
In cities such as Nairobi, many amateur footballers and rugby players who were dependent on their participation in leagues and tournaments for sustenance have suddenly found themselves in limbo as amateur sporting teams do not have the financial muscle to continue providing the matchday allowances and meals. This uncertainty has forced many amateur sportspersons and technical and support staff to migrate from urban centers in search of more affordable living arrangements.
The cancellation and postponement of global events such as city marathons in Tokyo, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Boston and London is also the deferment, delay and potential devastation of the dreams of many budding long-distance runners who usually depend on such big-money events for income. For many runners who were on the brink of a breakthrough, must now decide whether to persist with their ambitions, put them on hold or abandon them altogether as the pressing business of making a living becomes more urgent.
As the sporting world begins to contemplate a return to competitions in the near future and seeks to make up for lost time, many amateur sportsmen in Africa and other developed countries will face distinctly different prospects than their professional counterparts.
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