African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

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Hugues Fabrice Zango of Burkina Faso celebrates winning bronze after the Men’s Triple Jump during day three of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Doha, Qatar

Tokyo 2020 could herald the start of a new reign for Africans across multiple sports outside their usual medal-winning events like athletics, and football and swimming.

Nigeria recently became the first African nation to beat 15-time Olympic basketball champions USA.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur made history as the first North African and Arab woman to win a WTA title.

South African sprinter Akani Simbine and Burkinabe triple jumper Fabrice Hugues Zango could become exceptional continental heroes.

Here are the teams and athletes most likely to become Olympics and continental stars including the usual historic successes of East Africa’s middle- and long-distance runners expected to continue at Tokyo 2020.

1. Nigeria basketball

Two major wins in three days in pre-Olympic warmups has made the African champions Nigeria among the favourites for a medal in their third Games.

The D’Tigers, loaded with their American-born players featuring in the NBA, shocked the U.S. with a historic 90-87 victory in Las Vegas before beating world number four Argentina, 94-71.

The Americans have bagged basketball medals in all 18 of their Olympic appearances since the sport made its debut in Berlin 1936.

The recent results are a huge shift for the team that has never moved past their group phase.

Nigeria lost by a record score of 156-73 to the eventual winners, the U.S. at their debut Olympics at London 2012.

At the same Games, Nigeria managed one win against Tunisia, while their only victory at Rio 2016, was against Croatia.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

There’s renewed confidence in the team coached by Mike Brown who is part of the coaching staff at the Golden State Warriors, that they could emulate the success of their football team at Atlanta 1996. Nigeria and Cameroon (Sydney 2000) are the only two African teams to have won Olympic gold in the football tournament.

Brown told Olympics.com of his plan “to go there to try and win.”

“We are not going there just for the experience; the experience is going to be nice. But we want to go win. We have the mindset that we are going to Tokyo to win,” Brown said.

“We are looking forward to showing not just the people of Nigeria but people on the continent, African people around the world that there is a lot of Nigerian talent out there.”

Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Josh Okogie who was part of the Nigerian team that beat the U.S. says a medal in Tokyo would be a huge achievement.

“A medal? It would mean the world to me. Our whole focus is just on trying to win this medal. We know the potential we have.”

Nigeria is drawn in Group B alongside Australia, Italy and Germany.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

Nigeria’s women’s team will also feature in Tokyo and are equally thrilling to watch. It’s a star-studded team, boasting foreign-based players, returning to the Olympics after their debut in Athens.

2. Zambia football

While Nigerian football failed to qualify both teams for the Olympics, the Zambian women prospered.

Watch out for Africa’s sole women’s representative who denied continental giants Cameroon Olympic qualification and have taken their youthful enthusiasm and hunger for records to Tokyo.

“We are just not going there [Tokyo] as participants. We are going there with one aim, to reach a certain level. The teams must be ready for us. We have something in us,” the team captain Barbra Banda told Olympics.com.

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African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

“For us to qualify for the Olympics it means we are good. We will meet big teams. But those big teams like the USA and the Netherlands will also fear us,” her teammate Rachel Nachula added.

“Football is a game of chance and tables can turn around. Our Copper Bullets went to the Africa Cup where they were called underdogs. From being underdogs, they ended the tournament as champions.”

In one of the greatest shocks in African football, the unfancied Zambia men’s national team beat four-time finalists Cote d’Ivoire on penalties to win the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations finals. This epic result gives the southern Africans hope as they begin their campaign against the Netherlands, Brazil and People’s Republic of China.

Despite missing their celebrated stars Mohamed Salah and Percy Tau, Egypt and South Africa eye a strong showing for their teams in the men’s competition.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

3. South Africa rugby sevens

Since winning the bronze medal at the inaugural rugby sevens tournament at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, South Africa are now ‘going for gold’.

They are going back to the country where the Springboks won their record-equaling third Rugby World Cup in 2019 in the 15-man game.

The Blitzboks, led by their star inspirational captain Siviwe ‘Shakes’ Soyizwapi, qualified for the Olympics by finishing top of the World Rugby Sevens Series 2019, a position they want to retain at the end of play at Tokyo Stadium.

Neil Powell’s team, winners of World Series titles in 2017 and 2018, are in Pool C with USA, Kenya, and Olympic debutants Ireland.

“The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world,” Powell told AFP.

“We got a medal last time, but it was not the colour we wanted.”

4. Hugues Fabrice Zango

Hugues Fabrice Zango’s focus is on landing on the podium in Tokyo after the world bronze in 2019.

Zango, who told Olympics.com that his ‘best was yet to come’ is eager to earn Africa’s first-ever triple jump medal in the men’s Olympic competition and make history for Burkina Faso.

He became the first man to leap past the 18-metre mark when he set a new indoor triple jump world record of 18.07m in January 2021.

Since breaking the world record, he has improved his own outdoor African triple jump record four times, most recently in July 2021 with a mark of 17.82m.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

And with double Olympic champion Christian Taylor injured, Burkina Faso’s flagbearer could spring a surprise in Tokyo.

“The objective was to go to the Olympics and get a medal,” he told the BBC.

“But now the goal is to go to the Olympics and get the gold medal.”

5. Eliud Kipchoge and fellow East Africans ready to extend their reign

Still on athletics, coach Patrick Sang’s prodigies Eliud Kipchoge and Faith Kipyegon are out to become only the second athletes ever to successfully defend their Olympic titles in their respective races.

Kipchoge hopes that he can match Abebe Bikila’s feat from Tokyo 1964, where he became the first double Olympic marathon champion.

“I am still hungry for running in the Olympic Games and winning a gold medal, so I still feel fresh every time I wake up,” said the 36-year-old Kenyan.

“If I win a gold medal this will be the highest. I really value Olympic Games and I am really fighting for it and I am really training for it.”

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Tatyana Kazankina is the only woman with two Olympic 1500m titles to her name, and Kipyegon is confident of going to Tokyo and defending her title.

She has only been beaten by Dutch runner Sifan Hassan, who denied her a third world title at Doha 2019.

Also keep an eye on Uganda’s national hero Joshua Cheptegei, the world record holder over 5,000m and 10,000m, who will be seeking a distance double.

Another double record holder on the start list in Tokyo is Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey.

But she will focus on the 10,000m in which she set a world record of 29:01.03 just two days after Sifan Hassan lowered the global mark.

6. Akani Simbine leads sprinters charge

A handful of sprinters will also be chasing to boost Africa’s medal tally in Tokyo.

Africa’s fastest man over 100 metres, Akani Simbine, continues his pursuit for a medal at the Olympics.

Fifth at Rio 2016, he just missed the podium at the World Championships in Doha where he placed fourth.

The South African sprint sensation warmed up for Tokyo with a blistering 9.84 seconds at the Gyulai Istvan Memorial meet in Hungary.

“I’m really excited (with) the way I’ve started, but I’m keeping my head down and working. I have the confidence, I know what I can do, and it’s just making sure I do it in Tokyo,” he said.

Also look out for his compatriot Wayde van Niekerk, the 400m Olympic champion and world record holder from Rio 2016, looking to peak again in Tokyo after a long injury layoff.

Sprint queens Marie-Jose Ta Lou of Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare are ready to step up at the Tokyo Olympics.

In Rio, Ta Lou, the three-time world medallist lost the bronze to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in a photo finish.

The Ivorian rued another missed chance after a fourth place in the 200m at the same Games.

“I want to forget Rio,” she told Olympics.com in 2020.

“My goal is to win gold medals in both the 100m and 200m. But only one gold medal would be great as well.”

And having already finished on the podium in Beijing in the long jump, Olympic silver medallist Okagbare expects to peak on track at her fourth Games.

7. Can Nigerian wrestlers and table tennis players dazzle?

Staying with Africa’s most populous nation, Nigerians’ interest will also be on their wrestling and table tennis stars.

After their Rio 2016 experience, the wrestling pair of Blessing Oborududu and Odunayo Adekuoroye are hoping their Olympic dreams can come true.

The Commonwealth Games champions are unrivalled in Africa and believe that this is their best chance to grapple for Olympic medals.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders
After Commonwealth gold and 10 African titles, the 30-year-old wants to leave a mark at Tokyo 2020.

Adekuoroye, who reached the quarterfinals in Rio, told Olympics.com that she is “one of the top competitors to watch out for.”

“I find myself often thinking about how the gold medal will be represented to me… my dream is finally coming true. I can’t wait to experience that moment and make history as the first African woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling.”

And over at the Tokyo Metropolitan venue, Africa’s number one table tennis star Quadri Aruna who upset the form book by reaching the quarterfinals in Brazil is looking to “pull a surprise in Tokyo”.

In Rio he defeated the then fifth seed Chih-Yuan Chuang and former world number one Timo Boll.

Keep an eye on Ibrahima Diaw, the 27-year-old who beat Aruna to become Senegal’s first qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics.

Nigerian table tennis player Quadri Aruna discusses his biggest idols and his favourite food from his home country.

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Africa’s most successful female table tennis player Olufunke Oshonaike, a seven-time Olympian also wants to leave her mark in her swansong Games.

8. Cheikh Sallah Cisse leads the taekwondo takeover

After winning his nation’s first-ever Olympic title, all eyes will be on Ivorian Cheick Sallah Cisse to see if he can repeat the Rio magic.

Africa’s first taekwondo Olympic champion won gold with a last-second head kick in Rio 2016.

His compatriot Ruth Gbagbi will also be on the mat seeking to better her bronze from the same Games.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders
Olympic taekwondo champion Cheick Cisse reveals his new motivation as he looks towards defending his title in Tokyo.

Another international star is Niger’s Abdoulrazak Alfaga who trained in secret because his parents were against him practicing taekwondo.

He’s aiming to become the first Olympic champion for his country after winning silver in Rio.

Hedaya Malak, the first Egyptian woman to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo, will also be chasing further honours after bagging bronze five years ago.

9. South African pair ready for Tokyo splash

South Africa’s most decorated Olympian of all time with four medals, Chad Le Clos and teammate Tatjana Schoenmaker will lead Africa’s charge in the pool.

The Olympic champion who beat the great Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly at London 2012, is “hungrier than ever for success” as he eyes his second gold.

“It’s just the greatest moment ever for me in my life,” he said on Olympic Channel’s Time Machine episode 4.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

Schoenmaker is considered the continent’s breaststroke queen.

The 23-year-old this year posted three South African and continental records at the 2021 National Championships.

10. History makers and dream chasers: Ons Jabeur, Caitlin Rooskrantz and boxing

Ons Jabeur, returns to the Olympic court for the third time riding high after her record win in the final of the Viking Classic Birmingham in June 2021.

A month later, the Tunisian reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon after defeating major champions Venus Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza and Iga Swiatek.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

The 26-year-old, one of her country’ biggest star right now, will be looking to win Africa’s first tennis medal since former world No. 6 Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval won post-apartheid South Africa its first medal at Barcelona 1992.

Tunisia’s flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics is now ranked 23rd in the WTA rankings.

Another flag bearer and three-time Olympian to watch out for is the sprightly flyweight boxer Mohamed Flissi. The two-time world medallist who reached the quarters in Rio after his debut in London, believes Tokyo will be a rebirth Games not only for Algerian but continental boxing.

“In recent times we have been able to win every accolade apart from the Olympics and God willing Tokyo will be the moment,” he told the Olympic Channel.

Algeria’s Hocine Soltani was the last African to win Olympic boxing gold at Atlanta 1996.

There will be an African interest on Gymnastics as well.

Caitlin Rooskrantz is the first female South African artistic gymnast at the Olympics since Athens 2004.

The 18-year-old will become the first woman of colour to represent the rainbow nation in gymnastics at the Olympics.

“It was such a big goal. I never knew what was possible. I never witnessed it ever happening before. I believed that I could break barriers for my country in gymnastics,” she told the Olympic Channel on her Tokyo 2020 qualification.

African at Tokyo 2020 Olympics: The shift from competitors to Olympic medal contenders

There will be another first for Uche Eke, Nigeria’s pioneer gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.

A stellar lineup…Tokyo could just be the time for Africa!



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