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Thursday, December 5, 2013
- Victorine Fomum is Cameroon’s 2005 African table tennis champion. She often used to “train without rackets, without balls, without appropriate clothing and without good tables.” But despite this, she won gold at the 2005 African Nations Championship. And as a reward for her achievement the government handed her a cheque – for 25 dollars.
“You can imagine what happens at local level. I used to frequently earn 10 dollars as prize money – for winning gold! If I was not also a civil servant, maybe I might have fled too,” she told IPS.
She was referring to the seven Cameroonian athletes who disappeared from the London Olympic Games on Aug. 7. Fomum understands first hand why they did so.
“Training conditions here are horrible,” she said, “The athletes certainly have a right to desire better conditions.”
The athletes – five boxers, a swimmer and a footballer – disappeared from the Olympic village, and later resurfaced requesting asylum in the United Kingdom. They said they did not wish to return to their West African home nation because of the difficult training conditions.
One of the boxers, Thomas Essomba, told the BBC that his country was not able to offer him the opportunities that the UK can. “All we demand is to become champions. England offers the best opportunities for us. The most important issue now is to find sponsors and join boxing clubs,” he said.
Even football, the country’s most popular sport – in 1990 the country became the first African team to reach a football World Cup quarterfinal – has bad infrastructure and suffers from a lack of funds.
Cameroon is currently ranked 59th in the world by the International Football Federation, FIFA – eight spots ahead of South Africa, which has significantly more resources. South Africa will host the 2013 African Nations Cup at a cost of 400 million dollars, 300 million of which will be paid for by the country’s Football Association.
But back in Cameroon, Simon Lyonga, a sports analyst with the state broadcaster Cameroon Radio Television, told IPS that local football players earn a mere 25 dollars a month.
And while other athletes do not earn salaries here, local competitions award low prize money. Gold medallists in Cameroon frequently earn as little as six dollars.
Even in a country where, according to the World Bank, 40 percent of Cameroonians live below the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day, six dollars in prize money is considered very low.
“These are not conditions that would keep any youth around,” Fondo Sikod, a professor of economics at the University of Yaounde II, told IPS.
Fomum knows all about the limited financial reward. She pointed to her display shelf of more than 50 trophies, most of them awards for winning first place.
“On the basis of all this, you may think that I am rich. But I tell you, all the training only ended with the glory of winning. It has very little to do with financial reward, which is quite frustrating.”
The president of the Cameroon Olympic Committee, Kalkaba Malboum, admitted that the country lacked good training facilities.
“We don’t have good training conditions as in other countries. As a result, our athletes will not hesitate to leave for other countries with better training conditions that can improve their performance, meet their dreams of becoming professional and earn more money to improve their living conditions as well as those of their families,” he said on state television on Aug. 10.
One example of a lack of good infrastructure is the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, which was constructed to host the African Nations Cup in 1972. It is still Cameroon’s main stadium, even though it is frequently suspended from international use by FIFA because it has not been maintained.
“The failure to build sport infrastructure in the country is just a result of the lack of political will, and not the absence of financial resources,” Lyonga said.
He said sports, particularly football, brought financial resources into the country. Part of these resources, Lyonga said, is meant to go towards the construction and maintenance of local sports infrastructure.
“In 2010, Cameroon got 800,000 dollars from its participation in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. How the money was used is anyone’s guess,” he said.
Cameroon is expected to register economic growth of 5.2 percent for 2012, up from 4.8 percent in 2011. And Malboum hopes that the government will invest more in the sports sector.
Currently, the Chinese government is co-financing the 661-million-dollar construction costs of four stadia. In addition, there are plans to construct a National Olympics Preparation Centre in Obala, on the outskirts of the country’s capital Yaoundé.
Meanwhile, athletes here hope that the mindset towards sport sponsorship will change. Currently local athletes do not receive sponsorship.
“Each athlete struggles on his or her own,” Fomum said. She added that while Cameroonians loved sports and winning, they balked at the idea of investing in it. So she had to use her own money to pursue her sporting career.
“My dad told me that achievers must always brave the odds.”