Olympic Games in Africa? A door long shut could be opening
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks at a news conference prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
By Errin Haines Whack, Associated Press
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Other than Antarctica, only one continent on the planet has never hosted an Olympic Games: Africa. Finally, though, that could be about to change.
But there'll be a step to take before that happens: hosting the much smaller Youth Olympic Games in 2022.
IOC President Thomas Bach says a "mini-Olympic event" will be held on the continent, though a specific country has not been selected. The move could signal the possibility of an eventual Olympics in Africa.
Tempering the IOC's optimism, though, is the reality that the continent's not quite ready.
"This was exactly one of the reasons why we initiated this project with the Youth Olympic Games," Bach told reporters. "We did not want Africa to have to wait. This, we hope, can inspire one of the other African countries to come up with a feasible candidate for 2032 or 2036."
Eight African countries will field a handful of athletes this month at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang. They include Nigeria, which has drawn international attention with its trio of women bobsledders — the continent's first team in the sport. More than 50 African countries are IOC members, and African athletes won 45 medals at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in the biggest haul yet for the continent.
Yet Africa has never hosted a Games. Europe has hosted 30, North America 12 and Asia seven with two more on the horizon: the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.
The first hurdle may be money. Just last year, Durban, South Africa — with the continent's most developed economy and host of the 2010 World Cup — was stripped of the 2022 Commonwealth Games after its scaled-down budget was rejected.
At a meeting Wednesday of the IOC's roughly 100 members, Gambian member Beatrice Allen made the case for neighboring Senegal and the Youth Olympics. IOC officials have already visited Senegal, making the West African nation the frontrunner.
"Senegal is a highly sophisticated country," Allen said. "I am sure they can do it. They have a rich culture, and we will all be proud as members of the Olympic movement if these games are given to Senegal."
Kenyan member Paul Tergat concurred. "We have been waiting for this," he said. "The members of the IOC from Africa, we want to make sure that this can become a reality."
Talk of an African Olympics has been circulating for nearly a decade. But the Games are a far larger and more diverse undertaking than the World Cup, which was held in South Africa in 2010. Olympics require more infrastructure and coordination between dozens of sports federations and national Olympic committees.
The World Cup involves only soccer and preparing eight to 12 stadiums.
The high-priced Olympics are a deterrent for wealthy nations, let alone developing ones. Sochi is reported to have spent $50 billion to organize the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Beijing spent over $40 billon for the 2008 Summer Games.
In addition, the majority of sports on an Olympic program are low-profile in Africa, meaning there is no regional fan base and few facilities.
In South Africa's doomed Commonwealth Games hosting bid, for example, local organizers said they wouldn't build a cycling velodrome because they didn't have the money and it wouldn't be used after the Games. That was a big deal for Commonwealth Games officials, who faced having cycling cut from the program.
Like Asia and, most recently, South America, Africa could benefit from showcasing its progress in the spotlight of the international stage the Olympics provides. For some, Africa is overdue, "a continent that has been for so long on the margin of our Olympic movement," said Moroccan IOC member Nawal El Moutawakel.
With Olympics organizers eager to welcome them into the fold, Africa could change its status from competitor to host within a generation. At the IOC meeting Wednesday, after delegates from Nigeria and Ethiopia weighed in, the chorus of support prompted Bach to ask the full body if an event in Africa had its backing.
The room responded with applause. Replied Bach: "Congratulations, Africa. It's your time."
Associated Press writer Gerald Imray contributed to this report from Johannesburg.