20 December 2012

Rwanda: A Sporting Revolution

From the time Rwanda got independence from the Belgian colonialists fifty years ago until 1994, the country had nothing to cheer for in terms of sports.

But when the Rwandese Patriotic Front-led government came into power, bringing to an end the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, sports is one of the areas that immediately benefited from the change of guard.

RPF Inkotanyi's commitment to sports can be traced back to the 1990-94 liberation struggle.

Towards the end of 1992, during a ceasefire, RPF and its military wing, the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) organised a soccer tournament between its battalions/brigades to promote sport within the liberation movement.

The teams that participated in the tournament included; the High Command, the Training wing, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie team, the seventh battalion, 21 battalion, 59 battalion, 101 battalion team and the 157 battalion.

The High Command Team won the tournament after beating 21 battalion in the final. In June 1993, the most outstanding players from that tournament were selected and they APR FC.

In same year, APR Volleyball and Basketball clubs were created.

In the few months that followed, these new teams would play friendly games with teams drawn from inside Rwanda.

APRC FC beat PSD (political party) team 2-0 and Inkhata 2-1 at Mulindi - the headquarters of the then rebel movement. In volleyball, APR beat PSD 3-2 in two separate encounters - also at Mulindi.

Following RPF's triumph on July 4, 1994, APR teams joined the existing clubs in the country to revive sports.

Since then, APR FC has grown into a formidable team, winning seven national league titles, three Cecafa (Council of East and Central Africa) Club cup titles, with regular continental football.

APR helped instill competition in the local league, with teams like Rayon Sports and former Atraco each winning Cecafa club title in the process.

Besides football, volleyball and basketball, the military also created teams in other disciplines, namely APR Karate Do, APR athletics club and APR Handball, often with both me and women sides.

The idea was to ensure physically and mentally healthy personnel, to promote various sporting disciplines games in all units and improve public relations.

On the national scene, post-Genocide Rwanda has registered notable successes, including winning the country's first Cecaca title when it played host to the 1999 edition.

Rwanda went on to finish runners-up in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011; and third in 2001, 2002 and 2006 in Cecafa tournaments.

In 2003, the national team, Amavubi Stars, made history by qualifying for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations (held in Tunisia) after edging out neighbours Uganda and powerhouse Ghana in the qualifying rounds.

At the tournament, Rwanda upset their giant neighbours the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 for their first African Nations Cup finals victory, but fell short of sailing through the group stages. But the team returned home heads high.

In 2004, APR Cecafa club championship, scoring with 20 goals and an unbeaten run.

The team won the regional competition again in 2007 and 2011.

Since 2001, RPF Chairman, President Paul Kagame sponsors Cecafa championship with US$75,000 in prizes and organization every year.

In Africa champions league, in 2004, APR demolished champions Zamalek of Egypt 4-1 but could not reach the money-spinning group stage round after falling to Africa Sports of Ivory Coast.

In 2004, Fifa earmarked Rwanda for the pilot project for the construction of a football academy of excellence.

The academy was the first of its kind on the continent and has since nurtured a young generation of players, including that U-17 side that stunned qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Mexico last year.

The country increased the number of stadiums meeting international standards from one to five. Besides Amahoro stadium, Mumena, Nyamirambo, Rubavu and Muhanga stadia were upgraded to international standards. Ferwafa grounds complete the list.

The country also hosted the 2009 U-20, 2011 U-17 and 2016 CHAN tournaments. The successful hosting of the U-20 Africa youth championship impressed CAF, which later awarded Rwanda rights of host CHAN tournament.

Sports for the disabled were also introduced and, in 2004, Jean de Dieu Nkundabera won a bronze medal in the T46 800m race on his debut during the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens-Greece.

Since then, the Paralympic movement in Rwanda has not looked back. They have represented the country in every continental and global competition, keeping the Rwandan flag flying high.

In 2010, the national sitting ball team sealed their status as one of the best teams in the world when they won the World Cup which was staged in Uganda. The men's team edged Germany 21-20, while their female counterparts thrashed Uganda 33-8.

In 2011, Rwanda became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for Paralympics Games after the national sitting volleyball team beat Kenya.

In 1999, cricket was also introduced in Rwanda.

A few individuals founded the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA), and in 2003 the country became an Affiliate Member of the International Cricket Council.

Today, there are regular cricket competitions in the country, including in schools. A club league, three club tournaments, a schools competition and a university competition make up the eleven-month formal cricketing calendar.

The Rwandan boys and girls teams (from U-13, U-19) compete well within the East and Central African region.

In 2008, the men's team made its debut at the Pepsi ICC Africa Division Three Championships, finishing second behind Sierra Leone and, three years later, Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation was formed, with a pledge to build the country's first dedicated cricket ground as a springboard for further growth.

Drastic improvements have also been witnessed in volleyball, tennis, athletics, karate, swimming, kung-fu, cycling, rugby, golf, women football and rally.

Rwanda's High Commissioner to Nigeria, Joseph Habineza, who served as Sports minister from 2004 to 2011, told Times Sport yesterday that RPF's vision in sports is incomparable with the past regime.

"RPF has always been very much committed to the development of sports in the country even when they were still in the liberation struggle. When RPF came to power, they committed to using sport as a tool to promote its unity and solidarity among Rwandans,"

"If we had this kind of leadership in the past, I am sure, we could be having professional players playing in top European leagues; we would be excelling in almost every sports discipline," added Habineza.

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