Filling in the gaps in the study of African sports

To celebrate 20 years of research on sports in Africa, the SportsAfrica network will publish a series of monthly articles on Africa Is a Country drawing on their members’ research.

Best Of IRB Sevens Rugby, Las Vegas, 2014. Image credit Mike Alvarez via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In November 2003, sports scholars Gérard Akindes, Peter Alegi, Simon Adetona Akindes, Martha Saavedra, Matthew Kirwin, and Nana Owusu-Kwarteng met in a basement meeting room during the African Studies Association (ASA) Annual Meeting in Boston to reflect on the state of African Sports Studies. The ASA is the largest annual gathering of scholars researching Africa. Given sports’ growing importance and visibility in everyday life, the group believed it was time to create a formal network of researchers and practitioners to tackle the intellectual challenges sports pose for the continent. The mission of the network, devised over time by its passionate community of practitioners and academics, is to make African sports studies an interdisciplinary, inclusive, accessible, and integral part of the global conversation and scholarship on sports.  

Twenty years on, the resultant organization, SportsAfrica, still recognizes the urgency of finding creative solutions to the immense hurdles confronting African sports, from infrastructure, training, and performance to funding, management, and broader socio-economic conditions.

Annual conferences are a pillar of SportsAfrica. In February 2004, the Institute for the African Child and the Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, hosted the first conference around “Sports, Youth and Africa.” Ohio University hosted the next nine conferences, exploring multiple sports theory and practice themes. Scholars from diverse fields, such as economics, history, anthropology, health, communication, politics, gender, sports administration, management, and physical education, among others, have attended these conferences. 

The result is that the SportsAfrica conference has become a recognized brand in African Sports Studies. It gathers a group of informed and determined scholars, practitioners from academic institutions, and representatives of professional and non-profit organizations worldwide. SportsAfrica works in four languages—English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Conference highlights include research presentations, various group discussions, keynote lectures, and workshops on teaching African sports courses at the university level. 

Establishing the study of African sports as a respectable scholarly field was our first priority because of the scarcity and near invisibility of such researchers. For example, in 2020 Louzzane Coetzee, the women’s 5,000 meters world record-holder Paralympian from South Africa, organized and led a roundtable on the Paralympian movement in Africa. Some of those on the panel included Ernesta Strydom (International Paralympic Committee, technical official, South Africa), Limpho Rakoto (National Paralympic Committee, Lesotho, president), Suren Ayadassen (National Paralympic Committee representative, Mauritius) Memory Kahlari (Team management and administration, Namibia), and Hetsie Veitch (former classifier, South Africa). Another roundtable later the same year— “African Athletics in a Time of Change: From Grassroots to the Global Stage”—that brought together Olympian athletes, coaches and officials from across the continent including: Isaac Makwala, (Botswana), Coetzee, , the late Anthony Koffi, (Côte d’Ivoire), Aziz Daouda (Morocco), Ed Neufville, (Liberia, and Frank Fredericks (Namibian Olympian). 

SportsAfrica always dreamed of taking the conference to the African continent, and in 2017 it finally happened. The Institute for Peace and Social Justice at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, organized our 11th conference on the theme of “Sporting Subalternities and Social Justice.” The following year, the University of Zambia in Lusaka hosted the conference under the theme “Pan-African Sport Studies: Beyond Physical Education.” In 2019, Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar (Sénégal) became the first host institution in a Francophone country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the 14th conference was hosted virtually by Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. The 15th conference will be held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in 2025.

Beyond conferences and with limited resources, among our many accomplishments include:

  • Impumelelo (Zulu for “success”), an electronic, open-access journal on African Sports published from 2005 to 2011 
  • A database of more than 100 sports scholars and practitioners from all over the world.
  • The publication of Sports in Africa, Past and Present, an edited book by Ohio University Press that came out of our 2017 conference. 
  • A website and a YouTube channel (SportsAfrica Network-YouTube) with more than 100 video interviews featuring a selection of presentations from our African sports conferences.
  • On our YouTube Channel, we have posted videos of talks and interviews with our participants—scholars, athletes, and sports leaders. For example, you can listen to Lee Evans (400m gold medalist at the 1968 Mexico Olympics); Manute Bol, the first NBA basketball player from South Sudan; Astou Ndiaye of Senegal, a former WNBA basketball player; the Senegalese Amadou Gallo Fall (Basketball Africa League President); and Mustapha Larfaoui, from Algeria, and a former member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The list also includes Carol Garoes, Co-Founder and Secretary General of the African Women in Sports Association (AWISA) and president of Namibia Women in Sport Association (NAWISA), and Aziz Daouda, technical and development director of the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA), Morocco).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sports Africa launched a series of live online book discussions with authors and webinars on various topics with panelists from all over the continent and beyond. These SportsAfrica Live sessions featured scholars in dialogue with an international audience on topics such as migration, gambling, masculinity, the economics of sports, entrepreneurship, the Paralympics, and athletics. The webinars and book discussions allowed African audiences to listen to and engage with practitioners, coaches, and officials who otherwise would not be present at our conference but who are important players and stakeholders in the field. 

The journey over the past two decades has been remarkable, but we are determined to increase research output and create vibrant and dynamic spaces of collaboration. We seek to forge partnerships between individuals, educational institutions, and multiple organizations to help produce a sports ecosystem informed by expert research for the benefit of administrators, athletes, and the general public in Africa and in the Diaspora.

As this network needs to expand internationally, we celebrate our 20th anniversary by partnering with AIAC to publish ten articles on sports in Africa. They will be published every 15th of the month starting in March. 

To this end, we invite interested contributors to send us 100-word abstracts. Sports Africa’s executive board will select articles covering various topics from different regions. Our platform makes room for creative propositions and projects that run against the dominant neo-liberal view of sports, focusing on the welfare of the common athlete and citizen. Please join us in the effort to propel African sports into a place where people can make a living, thrive, and feel good. 

Follow this link to learn more about and join SportsAfrica Network.

About the Author

Simon Adetona Akindes is a professor of politics in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and the director of the Center for International Studies. His research interests include civil-military relations, social and political movements, democratization, music and politics, and sports and politics in Africa and Latin America.

Gerard A. Akindes, sports researcher and consultant in sports management, adjunct faculty at Northwestern University, Qatar, and New York University.

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