The Greats: Historical Icons Of Africa’s Sporting Heritage

Victor Kekereekun
20% Complete
 09-Jan-2019

Africa houses a large number of individuals who over the years have epitomised dedication and by this have delivered to the continent truly outstanding achievements.

These greats’ blazed a trail for many others to follow.

You will agree with me that exceptional performances and achievements in sports have been an avenue through which great nations of the world exhibit their supremacy over others. A nation like South Africa can never be compared with China on sporting par. The African nation is outrightly superior. Why? The successes and achievements are on the wall to see! Hence, it is reasonable to say sports, especially in this socially ravened era, have, in a way, proven to be a force to reckon with when weighing a nation’s significance.

It is no lie that before you can acknowledge a nation’s success on continental soil or global, you may find it necessary to associate such success to an individual’s efforts foremost. Some people do not necessarily go to battlefield with ammunition before they make themselves national treasures. Right there on the field, track as well as inside the ring, they make themselves one.

A look into some of iconic historical figures

It is impossible to feature all African iconic sporting figures who took national and international scenes by storm in this piece – as there is an ocean of them. Hence, permit me to be reasonably picky.

Roger Milla

Roger Milla was identified by IFFHS as the second-greatest African footballer of the last 100 years. Many praise Milla on account of his longevity, but he is one of the few Africans to make a major, obvious impact at a World Cup (like Omam-Biyik and Papa Bouba Diop) whose numbers and honours can back up his immense reputation. He remains the oldest player (42) to score at a World Cup (1994).

The Cameroonian was twice African Footballer of the Year and made the podium a further three times. He made the FIFA 100 and voted by CAF as the African Player of the Century.

He represented Cameroon at three World Cups and won the Cup of Nations twice. He was top scorer at the tournament twice and was also Player of the Tournament in 1986. No player can claim to have dominated the continent’s football in the 80s like Milla.

Milla plied his trade around a number of clubs in Cameroon and France, bagging some marvellous scoring records at Saint-Etienne, Montpellier, Leopard, Pelita Jaya and Tonnerre. He won several honours, including a handful of French Cups.

Azumah Nelson

A three-time world champion, Nelson is often described as the best boxer to come out of the African continent.

In his fighting days during the 1980s and 1990s, the Ghanaian boxing legend’s thudding jabs and powerful overhands earned him the moniker “The Professor,” named for the lessons he’d teach opponents inside the ring.

His daring feats inside the four corners of the ring made him a national hero in the West African country, while in 2004 “The Professor” became the first African to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Azumah Nelson picked up gold in the featherweight division at the Edmonton games in 1978. After this success he turned professional and within 10 fights he was the holder of the Ghanaian, African and Commonwealth belts. He went 13-0 to start his pro-career. In his 14th fight as a pro he showed the stuff that spawn legends as he stepped up against the legendary WBC featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez.

Dikembe Mutombo

NBA Legend Dikembe Mutombo was born in the capital city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and was one of the best defenders in National Basketball Association (NBA) history and was also noted for his philanthropic efforts.

Mutombo has been named ABC’s Person of the Week, Essence Magazine’s 2001 Achiever, and Sporting News’ No. 1 Good Guy. Mutombo has been featured in Europe’s TIME magazine, Sports Illustrated for Kids, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Houston Chronicle just to name a few.

He retired after the 2008–09 season with 3,289 career blocks (second most in NBA history) and eight total All-Star honours. Mutombo was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Off the court, Mutombo was noted as one of the most-charitable players to have ever played the game. He established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in 1997, which focused on building hospitals and providing health care in central Africa. In 2007 the foundation opened the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital (named for his mother), which was the first new hospital established in Kinshasa in 40 years.

In 2009, NBA Commissioner David Stern appointed Mutombo to the newly created position of Global Ambassador. In this new role, he travels throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa to grow and celebrate the game of basketball through numerous international NBA events and take part in charitable events.

Vivian Cheruiyot

Vivian Cheruiyot is a Kenyan long-distance runner who specialises in track and cross country running,

Her explosive performance at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where she claimed both the 5,000m and 10,000m titles, launched Vivian “Pocket Rocket” Cheruiyot to stardom.

Queen of the track, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot claimed her a major marathon triumph when she won London Marathon in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 31 seconds last year.

She holds the Kenyan record and Commonwealth record for the 5000 m with her best time of 14:20.89, which was set at the DN Galan in 2011. Here are some of her feats;

  • 2018 London Marathon CHAMPION
  • 2017 Frankfurt Marathon CHAMPION
  • 2016 Olympic Games, 5000m GOLD, 10,000m SILVER
  • 2015 IAAF World T&F Championships, 10,000m CHAMPION
  • 2012 Olympic Games, 5000m SILVER
  • 2012 Olympic Games, 10,000m BRONZE
  • 2012 Laureus World Female Athlete of the Year
  • 2011 IAAF World T&F 5000m & 10,000m, CHAMPION
  • 2011 World Cross Country CHAMPION
  • 2010 Commonwealth Games, 5000m, CHAMPION
  • 2010 IAAF Diamond League 5000m Winner
  • 2010 African Championships, 5000m, CHAMPION
  • 2010 IAAF World Indoor T&F Championships, 3000m, SILVER
  • 2009 IAAF World T&F Championships, 5000m, CHAMPION
  • 2008 Olympic Games, 5000m, 5th
  • 2007 IAAF World T&F Championships, 5000m, SILVER
  • 2002 IAAF World Junior T&F Championships, 5000m, BRONZE
  • 2000 IAAF World Junior Cross Country CHAMPION

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Jacob Matlala

Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala was born in 1962 in Meadowlands, Johannesburg. At the age of 10 he started going to the gymnasium with his father who was an aspiring boxer. Matlala was so passionate about boxing that he decided to turn professional in 1979. At a height of 1.47 meters, or 4-foot-10, Matlala was the shortest boxing world champion ever.

Matlala began his boxing career in1980 with a fourth-round victory over Fraser Plaatjie in Port Elizabeth under the guidance of Theo Mthembu. It only took him four contests to become South African Junior Flyweight Champion

On 19 July 1997 against all odds, Matlala defeated Michael Carbajal in Las Vegas, USA for the International Boxing Association (IBA) flyweight title.

Matlala ended his 30-year boxing career at Carnival City, Brakpan by stopping Colombian Juan Herrera for the WBU junior flyweight title in the seventh round. In so doing Matlala became the only South African boxer to have won four world titles in a career of 27 stoppages, 54 wins, 12 losses and 2 draws. The ultimate honour bestowed on the boxer was the arrival of Nelson Mandela and Will Smith (American Actor) at ringside mid-way through his farewell fight.

Following his career in the ring and before he gave up the ghost in 2013, Matlala worked as a businessman and motivational speaker and often took part in charity events to raise funds for the needy.

Jay-Jay Okocha

Okocha’s sublime technical ability and flair was recognised by the BBC as he twice won their African Footballer of the Year award—one of a few players to be honoured more than once.

He never claimed the CAF award, but was runner-up on two occasions. He was named among the 125 greatest players in history by Pele.

Okocha won Olympic gold as part of the talented Nigerian side of the early 90s and the African title in 1994 alongside Yekini, Amuneke and Co. He excelled at the 2004 edition of the tournament as well, where he was joint top scorer and the competition’s outstanding individual.

He represented the Super Eagles at three World Cups.

Okocha picked up an obscure collection of silverware from France, Germany and Turkey, but never won a championship title.

Apologists will say that he was simply too aesthetic- however, too beautiful a player to genuinely play a responsible role at the elite, which is the demanding end of football.

Wilson Kipsang

Wilson is carving a legacy as perhaps the most consistently fast marathoner of all-time. Since making his debut at the distance in Paris in 2010, Kipsang has completed half of his 12 marathons in under two hours and five minutes, including the former world record of 2:03:23 set in Berlin in 2013.

In 2007, Wilson got his first chance to compete outside of Kenya. Originally he competed in 10K and 20K races. But his moment of fame came when he started running marathons. In 2010, Wilson ran the Paris Marathon and finished in third place. Six months later he won the Frankfurt marathon in a course record time — it was only his second marathon.

At the London 2012 Olympics, he was given the opportunity to represent Kenya in the men’s marathon. He had an early lead and pushed the pace, breaking away from the pack after 12 kilometers, but struggled to maintain this pace to the end. He finished third, earning a bronze medal. Perhaps the greatest performance of Wilson’s career happened at the Berlin Marathon in 2013.

Wilson felt that the best way to use his gift of running was in building up his home community in Iten, where he’d competed as a child. Using his winnings, Wilson built a hotel, the Keellu Resort, which has created jobs for more than 25 people. He also contributed to the construction of a new church building in Iten, and helped to finance a new school, where he serves as the director.

Paul Tergat

Tergat is the first Kenyan to win IAAF world cross country championship titles in fve consecutive years, from 1995-1999

He was the first male Kenyan athlete to be awarded Abebe Bakila Award by New York Road Runners in 2010. This was in recognition to his achievements in athletics.

Target won his first title in Durham in 1995 on another tough, muddy and hilly course, that day beating an impressive trio to the gold medal: double track World champion Ismael Kirui, Hissou and Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian rival who on four occasions on the track – at two World Championships and two Olympic Games – would come between Tergat and a 10,000m gold medal.

Five World Cross titles, four global silver medals at 10,000m and the fastest marathon of all-time, at 2:04:55 set in Berlin in September 2003, Tergat is rightly regarded as one of the outstanding distance runners of all-time, a master of track, road and cross-country.

He founded and established the Baringo Half Marathon in 2001. The marathon aims to unearth and nurture young talents from the region.

John Mugabi

John Mugabi was one of the most exciting fighters of the 1980s. He was known for his all-action, seek-and-destroy style and bone-breaking power.

Mugabi came from a humble beginning. He was born on March 1960, in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Life was difficult after Dictator Idi Amin seized power in 1971.

It was at the Junior World Championships that, as a 16-year-old, Mugabi first caught the eye of the boxing world, taking silver after losing to Herol Graham in the final.

Two years later at the Moscow Olympics, Mugabi knocked out three of his four opponents en route to the final, where he met Andrés Aldama, a supremely gifted Cuban who, four years earlier, had lost in the final to Sugar Ray Leonard. This time Aldama would claim gold, besting Mugabi at welterweight.

Named The Ring magazine Progress of the Year fighter for 1983, Mugabi held the WBC Light Middleweight Champion; from 1989 Jul 8 – 1990 Mar 31.

Florence Kiplagat

Born in Kapkitony, Kenya, Florence first made her mark internationally by winning World U20 5000m silver in 2006 before the following year – aged just 20 – placing an impressive fifth in the senior race at the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa.

She enjoyed an outstanding campaign in 2009, striking gold at the World Cross Country Championships in Jordan to defeat Linet Masai by three seconds and later that year set a Kenyan 10,000m record of 30:11.53 in Utrecht.

In 2010 she focused on road running, winning her debut half-marathon in 67:40 in Lille before securing gold – in only her second ever 21.1km outing – at the World Half-Marathon Championships in Nanning.

Since then Florence has gone on to develop a formidable reputation on the road.  In 2011 she claimed victory in her first completed marathon in Berlin, recording an imperious 2:19:44 – just as she added further sheen to her outstanding marathon pedigree by retaining her Chicago Marathon title by an impressive victory margin of almost two minutes in 2016.

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Vestiges to linger on

Without these aforementioned iconic sporting figures and many more, there is no heritage to talk about in African sporting scene. These persons have defined an era with their dexterousness and athletism. They gave us a reason to look out for more delight and enthusiasm in in this generation of African sporting crops. We sure have many present crops who are eager to meet, sustain and surpass the legacy of these greats, yet as long as their achievements remain bold on the wall, they flutter the Africa’s sporting legacy. We linger on the great memories they bestowed unto us – nothing more, nothing less.

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