27 January 2013

Rwanda: Local Swimming in Doldrums

When Ye Shiwen, a mere 16-year-old took the world by storm with her splendid display at the 2012 London Olympic Games, a handful of fellow competitors and their countries as well as veteran swimmers were divided in their assessment of the Chinese.

While some were confounded at the ease with which she beat other contenders to take two gold medals, others alleged that her victories were due to doping. Later, Ye attributed her success to extreme hard work and numerous preparations over the years with innumerable competitions both within and outside her native China.

Her father, Ye Qingsong, also defended her, accusing the Western media of being 'arrogant and suspicious of Chinese people and their achievements' at the Games. He said that the swimming team had gone through an especially rigorous anti-doping regime and attributed his daughter's victory to a combination of hard work and guidance from Chinese coaches.

However, for Ye, the first female swimmer to win two gold medals in her events, the numerous competitions she took part in en route to the Olympics gave her the needed exposure and cast her confidence in concrete, thereby helping her to break a world record and an Olympic record. At the end of the Olympics, China won a total of 10 medals in diving and swimming.

Rwanda on the other hand fielded two swimmers thanks to wild cards from the sport's world governing body, the International Swimming Federation (Fédération Internationale de Natation, FINA). Unsurprisingly, they were hardly more than spectators.

After training in a 22m-size swimming pool, as opposed to the standard 50m Olympic size, Alphonsine Agahozo and Jackson Niyomugabo were always going to struggle and as it turned out, they both failed miserably in their first heat. Agahozo clocked 30.72 seconds in the 50m free-style category while Niyomugabo set a personal best time of 27.38 seconds, but tellingly even that was not enough to qualify for the next heat.

Samuel Kinimba, the president of the Rwanda Swimming Federation, now fears that the poor trend will continue unless proper infrastructure is available. "The facilities in place cannot allow our swimmers to compete favorably in international competitions; at the very least, we need an Olympic-size swimming pool because that's the benchmark for our improvement," he said.

In the past, swimmers have had to forego international competitions because of lack of funding. This development, sad as it is, is a classic case of the manner in which failure to find sponsorship has continued to frustrate the lofty dreams of the swimming federation.

"Inadequate funding has been a very big problem for the development of the sport," Kinimba explains. "For a start, the sport is an expensive sport as it costs a lot of money to build and maintain the facilities. Added to that, you also have to run all-year round training programs for the swimmers to improve their skills and time, and find funds to organize competitions. The other issue plaguing the development of swimming is the fact that most of our coaches need to be trained and re-trained."

Too few competitions

With just six active clubs and five competitions planned for this year's local swimming calendar, most of which are youth tournaments, it's clear that swimmers are not getting enough competitions under their belt. "We can't afford to have more competitions because of a stringent budget," Kinimba said of his cash-strapped federation that solely survives on periodic interventions from the National Olympics Committee (RNOC) as well as the Ministry of Sports and Culture (Minispoc).

Yet like with many of the smaller sports federations in the country, it is not clear what the swimming federation itself has done to secure sponsorship. While it is true that the organization only came in existence in 2010, it seems that even after two years they haven't been able to come up with a convincing medium-term plan on how to develop the sport. Without such a concrete plan, no sponsor (private companies, for instance) will be willing to commit themselves to more than just funding a single event.

The ministry of sports and culture, too, for the time being seems not to have any specific plans for swimming. While permanent secretary Edward Kalisa, concedes that for the sport to grow, proper infrastructure has to be put in place, he is non-committal.

"We know that we need an Olympic-size swimming pool to give our swimmers a level playing field and we are already working towards that. It may not be this year or next year but we are surely aware of what needs to be done," he said rather vaguely.

So it seems that for now, swimming is dead in the water.

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