Sports can be a national anchor to productivity, cohesion

By: Brighten Abaho

British journalist and author, John Carlin once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people… It is more powerful in governments in breaking down racial barriers.”

In a deeply polarized population with low productivity, sports like Carlin argues can be an outlet for young people to remain focused and engaged in rather productive affairs and boost their self-esteem to reduce vulnerability to harmful social influences especially with the ever-increasing rates of unemployment in the country.

Africa is littered with examples of countries like Ivory Coast and Liberia that have utilized the power of sports and its personalities to forge peace and development in their countries.

The immense potential of talented sports men and women who have despite inadequacies, been able to beat odds at the highest level of world athletic competitions cannot be overemphasized that’s why sports remains something that governments world over are investing in, because of the high rates on return.

Unfortunately, in Uganda, there is a glaring mismatch between the country’s ever growing potential as exhibited in its performance during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan and the downward financing of the sports and games subsector.

Whereas the national sports team that represented in Japan, managed to bring home two gold medals, one silver and a bronze, finishing 36 of 502 countries that took part in the games and second on the African continent, only after Kenya, its annual budget in the same financial year (2020/2021), was reduced by about Sh8b.

The Uganda Olympics team won medals in different athletics categories; Joshua Cheptegei, who is the current 5,000 Meters and I0, 000 Meters World Record Holder, won a Gold Medal in the Men’s 5,000M and a Silver Medal in the Men’s 10,000M; Peruth Chemutai won a Gold Medal in the Women’s 3,000 Meters steeplechase, and Jacob Kiplimo won a Bronze Medal in the Men’s 10,000 Meters.

Globally, the sports industry generates about $700b annually which is some 1 per cent of the global GDP. The million-dollar question; is Uganda interested in being part of the strong global capital? If yes, then the only sure way to tap in, is to cash in.

The four medals won by the Uganda Olympics team in Tokyo were the highest number of Medals Uganda has won in a single entry since 1956 when Uganda first participated in the Olympics Games but on several international fora, Ugandan athletes have more often than not, lifted the country’s flag up high.

However, since the 2019/20 financial year, Uganda’s budget allocation to the sports subsector has been decreasing for the last three years from Sh25b to Sh17b and Sh10b as of today.

Many have put the limited financing, on the failure of the Government to appreciate and facilitate the sports subsector as a significant player, but for any serious investor regardless of whether they are state or none state actors, you don’t have to be a sports fanatic to realize that its potential to absorb a number of unemployed youths into the money market, could be a silver bullet that can turn around the economy for good.

Therefore, if Uganda is to recoup a considerable share of the fruits of the sports industry, there must be a considerable and deliberate investment in the subsector but regrettably, promises to reform policy, construct facilities and increase funding have remained a lip service.

In comparison to neighboring Kenya’s Sh490b or South Africa’s Sh200b investment in sports, you quickly realize that Uganda’s Sh10b budget is just a drop in the ocean.

When the chance strikes for sport men and women to set foot outside Uganda, they don’t disappear in thin air out of sheer indiscipline, but rather because they are frustrated about their grim future in sports back home.

Commitment to groom an international athlete, takes much more than just talent, it requires immense support through training facilities, management and health nutrition but in most cases, our national representatives have often put in the hard work on an empty stomach.

For instance, boxing which by all means requires a gruesome hard work, is least facilitated yet it fetches for the country a number of international medals.

Moses Muhangi, the president of Uganda Boxing Federation has for long blamed the Government for its failure to invest in sports. He said that the Government has failed to finance the subsector by establishing better facilities that these players can use for training to improve on their skills.

The Covid19 outbreak that required a ban on mass gatherings including in sports arenas, didn’t help matters either because, it is through such suspended activity that sports men and women earn a daily living.

Ever since the Covid19 lockdown was instituted, many stakeholders have come out to ask the government to support struggling sportsmen such as boxers but all has been in vain.

Junior weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko who allegedly disappeared while in Japan after failing to qualify for the Olympics is a living testimony of the desperation sunk in the hearts of Ugandan athletes.

Ssekitoleko had indicated that he was not willing to return to Uganda because he was not sure about his livelihood survival.

Instead of criticizing Ssekitoleko for attempting to go AWOL, the Government should rather concentrate such efforts at restructuring and reforming the sports subsector to make it more robust, if we are to avoid future diplomatic embarrassments.

Increasing funding and reforming national law and policy on sports will offer a sense of security, because sports personalities will no longer have to use their small earnings to go to countries like Kenya for training with better facilities.

This will also strengthen competitions especially for games such as boxing where Ugandan players only train when a competition is coming up yet their competitors train whole year.

Many have argued that countries like South Africa which have more investment in sports than Uganda did not achieve the same success that Uganda got at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, however we need to understand that South Africa invested in establishment of facilities such as stadiums that made it possible to host World Cup in 2010.

The World Cup event contributed 0.4% to South Africa’s national economy. This was in addition to the revamping of sports infrastructure and improvement of the transport system in cities that were hosting the countries.

It is regrettable, that the government indifference to the sports subsector is tied to the National Council of Sports Act, 1964, which is thriving in an era where the best paid personalities in the world are not just athletes but also highest individual taxpayers.

The Act has kept sports in an obsolete perception that it is a leisure activity, only as good as bars and concerts. However, to say the least, sports has overtime, transcended from just leisure to become one of the most lucrative commercial ventures, paying the highest wages and bonuses to athletes.

As such the current law that regards sports as leisure, is completely detached from reality and thus making it difficult for the subsector to harness its immense potential. There are important aspects in sports such as commercial rights which are worth millions of dollars but the current law doesn’t protect creators and allow athletes benefit from such.

The law also discourages private investment in sports and as such no one wants to invest in an area where they are not sure of returns on investment. This can only be made better by putting in place a law that guarantees a return to private investors.

The limitations of the current law are affecting the economy as it loses money that would have come in a way of taxing endorsements and sponsors in the sports activities.

There is also urgent need to strengthen and enforce the Copyright law to safeguard interests of sports personalities through fighting brand piracy by companies, which is a big threat to the industry as sports personalities cannot earn from their sweat when companies use their images to market their products.

In addition to a need for a new sports law, there is also need to streamline the National Rewards and Recognition policy for sports personalities who have excelled in different categories rather than them leaving on handouts at the mercy of political leaders who only remember them when they have achieved.

The Presidential directive to pay winners of gold, silver and bronze should be guided by a clear policy which will help to solve the issues of nonpayment of people like Edwin Ekiring who have not received their stipend since 2015.

These rewards should not be at the whims and magnanimity of the President or any other individual for that matter, but should be statutory to encourage the young sports personalities to work hard.

The government should not only be remembered for just singing congratulatory messages and hosting gold medal winners returning from international games to a dinner, but should also be remembered for putting in place policies that support the sports fraternity to thrive.