Lesotho sport: stagnation and decay

Lesotho sport: stagnation and decay

Teboho Kitela Molapo

Lesotho is 50 years old, a momentous milestone for the country. In those 50 years the country has made promising strides and continues to grow despite challenges and setbacks.

Lesotho is ranked high in gender equality and despite a high HIV prevalence rate primary education is now free, universal and compulsory.

However, as is the case with such a young existence, plenty of areas need to be improved upon and one of them is the state and direction of sports in Lesotho.

Like the country itself, Lesotho’s sport has made strides. Football, the country’s main sport has, for example, seen a steady if slow increase in sponsorship over the past decade.

Companies such as Vodacom Lesotho, Alliance Insurance, Metropolitan Lesotho and Standard Bank Lesotho are top contributors on the local sports scene.

Football also has a facility like the Maputsoe DiFA Stadium – a forward thinking project that should be applauded.

There have been achievements in other sports as well. Just this year, sprinter Mosito Lehata became a silver medallist in the prestigious 100 metres event at the African Championships while Phetetso Monese became the first cyclist to ever make the Olympic Games.

And even though Team Lesotho won no medals at the Rio Games, Lesotho sent an eight member team to the Olympics, an improvement on the four that went to Beijing 2008 and the five in London 2012.

However, even with these positive steps, the sad reality is they are a drop in the ocean and that sport in Lesotho, by and large, remains an after-thought and, at best, a hobby.

The result is whereas athletes around the world get multi-million deals, Lesotho’s athletes pretty much find themselves where their predecessors were 50 years ago.

Until today they are not receiving the maximum from what they love and their precious talent.

That is why Lesotho hasn’t won an international gold since Thabiso Moqhali’s marathon win at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a vivid illustration as any of the overall stagnation of sports in Lesotho.

So as the country celebrates its 50th birthday, for sports the occasion represents a crossroads.

Why? Because there is too much still to be done.

The worrying status quo and stagnation

The power of sport is always evident when Lesotho does well in the sporting arena.

Whether it was Lehata’s run to the 200 metres finals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Motlokoa Nkhabutlane winning the Two Oceans Marathon last year or Lesotho’s memorable run to the final of the 2000 COSAFA Cup, the country came to a standstill as it egged its heroes on in the hope of victory.

However, disturbingly, as soon as the events finish their feats seem to be forgotten.

Things quickly return to the status quo where there is a lack of commitment to the continuous daily improvement of sports in Lesotho.

To be sure, there is a myriad of problems facing Lesotho sports right now. Some are rooted in a history chequered with unfulfilled political promises and neglect. Without touching on the political motives of regimes past, it is clear there has been no discernable improvement in the way sport is run.

Sport administration in Lesotho is certainly as low as it has ever been and one needs to look no further than the Lesotho Football Association where the national team, Likuena, has not had a head coach for three years.

The meagre resources allocated by the main stakeholder, government, as well as petty politicking by individuals that lead the national associations don’t help. In addition, sports associations are often headed by people with little knowledge or experience in the sport-codes they manage.

The result is that athletes suffer and sport stagnates.

The athletes need more motivation because for all the extraordinary physical feats that you see, sport is actually run on softer skills. Athletes have to be nurtured, encouraged and cajoled.

There are poor facilities. For track athletes for example Setsoto Stadium offers the only training arena. This is the frustration for athletes, such as Lehata who was based in Mauritius partly for the same reasons.

The result is that too many young talented players are still leaving the game because development is so poor. Delve deep into the country’s systems and it is clear there is a disconnect from grassroots to the elite levels they are supposed to feed.

Ministry of Sport and Support

The moving of sports from the former Ministry of Tourism, Sports, Arts and Culture and bundling it together with issues of Gender Equality still rankles.

Heaps of the ministry’s budget will necessarily go towards gender equality and not sport. For the 2016/17 financial year the ministry received M108.9 million and M10 million went to sport.

South Korea established a “Ministry of Sports” in 1983. Britain has had “Sport” in the title of a government department since 1997. After those institutions were launched, each country increased its Olympic medal share.

The stretched gambit of the ministry of Gender, Youth, Sport and Recreation means it can’t focus on certain variables when it comes to sport.

What if companies such were encouraged to put more effort in sport? It could work if the government gave them concessions against infrastructure built and loaded incentives for helping world class athletes.

The government introduced the tax rebate law but it is not enough. More needs to be done.

Where to next?

The overriding feeling in the research for this was is that first and foremost the people in charge of running our sports should look at themselves and ask if they have done enough to elevate our sports?

There are several strategies that can be used such as an intrinsic plan by the government to systematically improve sports. In the 1960s and 1970s Soviet bloc countries pioneered such institutionalisation whereby they created a centralised system for identifying talented athletes, supporting them financially and providing them with first-class training facilities, coaching and scientific expertise.

The governments has to have a hands-on approach and make strategic decisions to direct the course of sports.

Two modern-day examples are the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the Norwegian Olympiatoppen (OT). The AIS and OT have such high-performance sport policies that scholars even called these agencies “medal factories.” There is no need to go to these lengths given the resources the country has, but the point is that there is no plan.

Wealth and size aren’t the only paths to Olympic victory. With the right policies, even the world’s poorest countries have thrived in the sporting arena.

For instance, Ethiopia invests in running, winning all 45 Olympic medals for the country in that sport, most of them in long-distance running. Cuba focuses on boxing, and has won 67 of its 209 summer Olympic medals in that sport.

The disconnect between sport and education should not be so. Education and sport need to go hand in hand. In the end this is the most powerful tool and avenue available to Lesotho.

The first 50 years were a foundation. Hopefully the next can be a step up for the country.

A political, social and cultural ethos that sees sporting excellence as an imperative is necessary. This requires long-term vision, meticulous planning and hard-boiled execution.

Lesotho has been found wanting in all these aspects, caused essentially by government ineffectiveness and that has been augmented by an increasing public indifference.

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