As I prepare to travel to South Africa to attend the 19th FIFA World Cup event, I am reminded of the incomparable power of sports. Perhaps it is because I am a politician that I am so acutely aware of the fact that through international competitive sports we as a global community have managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable political and social divides. It seems that when we look at the world through the lens of sports, we are suddenly, magically, able to place people first — regardless of race or ethnicity or religion or national origin. We are able to finally see one another without the intrusion of our own false assumptions and prejudices, the sensationalism of newspaper headlines, or the self-important posturing of politicians. Even more important, we permit ourselves to appreciate — and sometimes even applaud — what we see.
At the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada we saw the daring and the indomitable spirit of Jamaica as it introduced its national bobsled team. They were four men who were born and raised on a tropical island competing in a cold-weather sport. They were not expected to win or even place. The millions who cheered them on did so because we were simply proud of their presence at the competitions. That year the Jamaican bobsled team showed us the meaning of determination when they emerged uninjured from the crash that disqualified them and walked, heads held high, across the finish line with their sled in tow. For many, particularly individuals with a limited knowledge of the country, it is that special brand of determination which now defines Jamaica.
This year Ghana, an equatorial country, my home country, showed its daring in much the same way through skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, our representative at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. Nicknamed the “snow leopard,” Mr. Nkrumah-Acheampong placed 47th in the men’s slalom event, out of a total of 102 participants. It was the first time that we had participated in the Winter Olympics and it gave the world a chance to experience Ghana in a different context, to see the diversity of backgrounds, interests and skills that our country boasts. Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, though of no relation, shares a name with Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, whose centenary celebrations were coincidentally taking place. As a result of the competition and the attention Mr. Nkrumah-Acheampong’s presence and performance garnered, millions of individuals were given an opportunity to also learn about Dr. Nkrumah, a pan-Africanist who inspired other African leaders to help their countries follow in the footsteps of freedom that Ghana had courageously laid as the first sub-Saharan country to gain its independence.
It is my hope that in the coming days when the FIFA World Cup competitions begin and the world turns its eyes to the African continent, it will see beyond the images of war, disease, poverty, and corruption that seem to have now become synonymous with Africa. I do not — cannot — argue that those stories don’t exist; yet I can attest to the fact that they are not the only stories we here in Africa have to tell. It will be the first FIFA World Cup hosted by an African nation. This alone is a significant achievement if you consider where that nation, South Africa, was politically and socially just twenty years ago. It was in 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released from prison and 1994 that the system of apartheid which existed in South Africa came to an official end. Twenty years is a relatively brief period of time in history often warranting no more than a page, sometimes even less than a paragraph, in a textbook.
Nevertheless, South Africa is no stranger to the power that sports has to shift perceptions and build bridges. In 1995 when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, the nation was still rife with racial tensions. The Springboks, their national team, predominantly white and all but despised by the black majority, were the tournament underdogs. We all know how that story ended, with a victory for the Springboks as well as for increased racial tolerance and unity in South Africa.
These international games are always about so much more than men, or women, competing on a court or in a field, on ice or in water. Countries place themselves and the best athletes and performers they have to offer the world on display because it is an opportunity to be seen and heard — not in a closed-door political forum with heads of state, or in newsprint, or a fictionalized dramatization on film, but by people from other countries, fellow citizens of the globe.
What I hope can be seen about the African continent and its many countries through the powerful lens of sports at this year’s FIFA World Cup are the many truths that exist, the many technological strides that have been made, the many rich traditions that have been maintained, the irrefutable beauty of the landscape, and the wondrous strength of soul that, despite tremendous adversity, has sustained the residents, and the land itself. It’s the sort of strength to which William Ernest Henley was referring in his classic poem, “Invictus”: Out of the night that covers me / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.
His Excellency John Dramani Mahama is vice president of the Republic of Ghana.
Credit: The Root