London 2012 Olympics: Rwanda, An Unforgettable Olympic Country

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Rwanda —Welcome to London 2012

Sport is not a name associated with Rwanda, but by July 1996, the then war-torn nation (through the 70s, known as the “Switzerland of Africa” due to its extraordinary landscapes with lakes, rivers, and high mountains) made international headlines when it was represented by four athletes at the Atlanta Centennial Games. It was a memorable moment when Rwanda’s national contingent entered the Stadium, while behind them had a tiny country devastated by genocidal wars, killing fields, corruption, rapes, poverty, and killing of gorillas (the country’s national symbol). During the 1990-1996 civil conflict, over one million people were slaughtered.

Unlike its twin Burundi (which astonishingly won a gold medal in athletics at Atlanta’96), the Rwandan team did not win medals in Georgia, but they captured the hearts of people all around the globe through sport, becoming international heroes as occurred when the delegation of Bosnia Herzegovina came to Barcelona four years earlier. In fact, the country’s sportsmen gave a lesson of courage, determination, and Olympic spirit, after overcoming obstacles and setbacks to go to America. Without a doubt, runner Mathias Ntawulikura was one of them. With his eighth place in the men’s 10,000m (track & field), distance runner Ntawulikura had become the country’s most successful athlete on the Olympic stage (no other Rwandan athlete had ever reached the finals), followed by Marcianne Mukamurenzi, who placed 38th in the women’s marathon in Seoul in 1988.

In the Kingdom of Gorillas!

Traditionally, the country participates with distance runners and freestyle swimmers in the multi-sport event. In the meantime, it has not yet competed in team sports, such as football or basketball, in the Olympic Championships.

The Francophone nation of Rwanda, bordered by Burundi, RD of the Congo, Tanzania and Uganda, made its international debut in the event exactly in 1984 when the national delegation competed in the Games of the 23rd Olympiad in Los Angeles (CA). In the States, the landlocked nation of Rwanda -geographically it is the size of Maryland/Wales— was represented by one of the smallest athletic contingents of the Third World. It was a time when the African republic, independent since the early 1960s after being an absolutist monarchy for centuries, was ruled by Juvenal Habyarimana, a military warlord who came to power during a coup d’etat in the early 1970s.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, in many ways, the mountainous country —which has one of the world’s most delicious coffees– was a peaceful place and friendly land —unlike Uganda, Mozambique and Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) at the time- despite being one of East Africa’s poorest republics.

In other aspects, this land began to be well-known worldwide for the mountain gorillas thanks to Dian Fossey’s works and articles, which were published in the prestigious National Geographic magazine. However, who could have imagined that Rwanda would be a war-torn country in the following decades.

Rwanda At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games

Its second participation occurred in the 1988 Korea Olympiad, a year after attending the 1987 African Games. The Rwandan Olympic Committee sent a six-person team at Seoul, competing in athletics. On South Korean soil, Miss Mukamurenzi became one of the most successful national athletes at the Summer Olympics upon finishing 38th in the Second Women’s Olympian Marathon in October 1988. Historically, she was one of the two most respected runners in Africa’s Great Lakes region in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Aside from winning the 10,000 in the Regional Championships, she set two Rwandan records at that year. A year ago, she was runner-up to Leah Malot of Kenya in the women’s 10,000m in the 1987 Continental Games with a time of 33:58.55 and finished as one of the 27th best marathon runners in the World Tournament in Italy. In the early 1990s, she had her best performance when she was top ten in the Global Cup. Distance runner Mukamurenzi, on the other hand, trained in the altitude of Rwanda, a region ideal for runners and marathoners.

By 1992, four years later, in the Spaniard city of Barcelona, there were representatives in two sports: cycling and track and field, both traditional sports on Rwandan soil. With a total of 10 sportsmen and women, the 1992 national team is the largest delegation in country’s Olympic history.

In the quadrennial Olympic Games in Sydney (Australia) in 2000, there were national participants in athletics and swimming. There, the country’s sporting idol Ntawulikura made his fourth consecutive participation, leaving an important legacy for Rwanda’s Olympic system. In the next Summer Games, the nation’s sports officials sent runners and swimmers to Athens (Greece). By 2008, once again Rwanda’s athletic team competed in aquatics and track and field and was one of the smallest delegations on Earth in the multi-sport event in China mainland.

By July 2012, the Rwandan Olympic Committee plans to send a small delegation, integrated by four/five athletes, to the United Kingdom. Up to now, Jean Pierre Mvuyekure, a marathoner runner, and Adrien Niyonshuti, a cyclist, have qualified for the 2012 London Games. Rwanda’s cycling did not compete in the Games since 1992. Meanwhile, the landlocked nation could also compete in sports such as boxing, judo, and swimming. Currently, Mr. Fred Yannick Sekamana is by far the most outstanding athlete in the Francophone republic. Like most African athletes, this judoka lives and trains in France.