By Elyse Wurm
For two weeks every four years, athletes of every culture, colour and creed descend on a single city to battle for sporting glory. Carrying the hope of their home nations on their shoulders, they attempt to run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the furthest and achieve other superhuman feats to mark their place in history.
The Olympic Games were originally started by the Ancient Greeks in 776 BC as a religious and sporting festival, and have since transformed into a global sporting phenomenon that unites countries and celebrates cultures. But out in the arena, nothing matters but skill.
Ethiopia first competed in the Olympic Games in 1956 and has since attended all but three. Fifty three medals have made their way back to the homeland, with Ethiopian athletes consistently making jaws drop with their incredible athletic abilities.
Three years stand between us and the next Olympic and Paralympic Games, being held in 2020 in Japan’s capital city of Tokyo.
But for Ethiopia and many other developing countries, the Games have already begun.
Sporting activities and development programs are underway throughout the country as part of the Sport for Tomorrow program, an initiative being run by the Japanese Government in the lead up to the 2020 Games.
The program aims promote sport to over 10 million people in more than 100 countries, including developing countries, between 2014 and 2020. A bevvy of Japanese volunteers are supporting the program in Ethiopia, working alongside sporting federations to enrich the sporting environment, exchange multicultural ideas and help build a bright future for the world through the power of sport.
“I believe that sports can bring people together, has [the] power to bring people together despite their cultures, language, faith, color of their skin, disabilities and stuff, everything,” Yoko Inoue, one of the volunteers participating in the Sport for Tomorrow program, says. “Sport can go over those kinds of things easily. So I believe there’s a big power to connecting people together through sports.”
Back in Japan, Inoue is a physical education teacher with a degree in sport science, but she has been working as a basketball volunteer with the Ethiopian Basketball Federation for the past six months. Most of her time has been spent at the Ethiopian Youth Sports Academy working as the Assistant Coach of the girls’ basketball team.
Players are selected for the team from different regions around Ethiopia but most of them have very limited experience with ball sports before entering the Academy.
“They are beginners actually, but they are already aged 17 and 16 and so on but they are beginners. I ask others, “How long have you been playing basketball, like experience?” They said maybe two, three years. So that’s the problem, they’re new. But actually, in two or three years their skill is quite good,” Inoue says.
By helping plan training schedules and assisting in practical sessions, Inoue has been helping to develop the players’ skills and share her experience.
“She’s a really good coach,” Lidia Tulu, captain of the girls’ basketball team, says. “She tells [us] about lay ups, shooting, delivering, passing. She tells [us] about all things.”
Inoue has also organized friendly matches with international schools in Addis Ababa to give the girls some extra practical experience.
“It’s a good opportunity for Ethiopians to play basketball with girls or boys who have different colour of skins or different cultures. It’s a good experience I think,” says Inoue.
The Sport for Tomorrow program has already created many new opportunities for community sport involvement in countries around the world including Mongolia, Thailand, Laos and El Salvador. Assistance ranges from the provision of equipment and supply of instructors to the development of future sport leaders and promotion of anti-doping efforts.
African nations have been heavily involved in the program. Among other projects, 100 judo uniforms have been supplied to the National Federation of Judo and Martial Arts in Cote d’Ivoire, and a Paralympic track and field training session was held for athletes and coaches in Zimbabwe.
The first Olympic and Africa Day Celebrations Event was also held in Malawi in July 2015, arranged by the Organizing Committee from Malawi with assistance from the Embassy of Japan and support from Japanese sponsors.
There are currently eight specialized sport volunteers participating in the Sport for Tomorrow program in Ethiopia, spread out across Addis Ababa, Abra Minch and Mekele. A number of sporting codes are involved including volleyball, football, athletics, badminton, table tennis, basketball and swimming.
The volunteers are supplied by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a steering committee member of Sport for Tomorrow, who a providing support in a variety of ways including through sporting competitions, seminars, equipment and human resources.
According to Noriaki Nakamoto, coordinator for the JICA Volunteer Program, the volunteers are promoting both the skills and values associated with sport.
“To cooperate strength skill and technic [sic] for each sports, to improve social manner and common sense, to cooperate building youth with sound and wholesome [values],” he says.
When the volunteers first arrive in Ethiopia, they undergo one month of training to get up to speed with the Amharic language, cultural norms, security situation and other aspects of Ethiopian life. They live in the country for two years, working towards the objectives of Sport for Tomorrow by sharing their knowledge, assisting with events and establishing relationships.
Working alongside local sporting federations, they determine where their attention and skills will be best spent.
Inoue attends training at the Youth Academy six days a week, but she has also been spending time at primary schools promoting sport activities. Concerned about the very limited practical classes in physical education conducted in schools, she wants to help develop kids’ skills during their crucial period of development.
“There’s a golden age, [the] golden age is around age 9. So all the nerves are completed at the end of age nine, 90 percent of the nerves are completed,” Inoue says. “They have no experience using balls in young childhood so it’s very hard for them or hard for Ethiopia to develop the skills.”
Devoting time to skill development reaps great rewards, as Inoue has already seen a marked improvement in the capabilities of the girls at the Youth Academy.
“I saw a lot of progress in these 6 months, especially the beginners from Gambella. They didn’t know how to hold the ball actually but now they can score,” Inoue says. “When I hold this friendly game with Bingham School [sic], the Canadian school, we won. The boys and girls won. Actually Bingham School [sic] is champion in international schools competition league, they were the champion, but we beat them.”
With only two coaches managing the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams respectively, having an extra pair of hands has been a great help to the Youth Academy.
“She’s a big advantage for us,” Belay Aychiluhm, main coach of the girls’ basketball team, says. “Helping in different ways, giving feedback on how we can do good…She knows the recent global basketball level and can share that with us.”
Achieving sporting success like the recent friendly match victory may earn the Youth Academy bragging rights, but what’s arguably even more important is the effect that sporting success can have on the emotional health of players.
“They are now proud of themselves. Having the courage and having pride is very important in sports, you know, confidence,” Inoue says.
These kind of intangible benefits have become a major focus for Inoue, alongside skills development, as she has identified a significant need for stronger relationships between international sporting organizations.
“During these six months I thought their needs is maybe more connecting with other [people], connecting people together,” she says. “I’m very interested in being a bridge between Japan and Ethiopia. I want to bring people together.”
Currently in talks with the Japan Paralympic Committee, she hopes to receive resources to help support wheelchair basketball in Ethiopia. But the cross-border relationships that are being facilitated by Sport for Tomorrow not only benefit developing countries, they also leave a lasting impression on the Japanese participants.
“When you stay in Japan or your home country you never get experience to play sports or do something together with Ethiopians,” Inoue says. “I can feel; I [can] just experience this power of sports.”
The Sport for Tomorrow program will continue to run for the next three years, right up to the main event in Tokyo 2020. With international cooperation and productive cultural exchanges already making great progress for sport around the world, the upcoming Games could provide the hottest competition yet.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.