(REAL TIMES MEDIA)–It’s been a pretty lousy year or so for African Sports on the global stage. First you had a heartbreaking and questionable loss last year during the world Cup. Ghana’s national team made if further than any other African country in the world cup only to lose to Uruguay in a frustrating series of penalty kicks. Then you had the case of Caster Semenya, the 19 year old South African track and field phenom who was knocked out of international competition under the most racist and questionable of circumstances. After winning the 800 meters in the 2009 World Championships Russian and Italian runners questioned whether she was ‘truly female’ and the resulting ‘gender tests’ she was subjected to cost her almost a year of competition. And now we have the case of the Ugandan Little league team where again questionable rules that seem to only apply to Africans might cost kids a chance of a lifetime.
This week history should have been made in a positive way but instead dreams and hopes have been dashed. The Ugandan national team was to be the first little league team to ever compete in the Little League World Championships from the African continent. Started eight years ago by Richard Stanley, owner of a farm team for the Yankees the team was a shining spot for a nation that has little infrastructure for children’s sports. The team should have been in competition last year but lost on a ‘technical tie’ to Kuwait last year by scoring too many runs in the last inning (explain that one to me). This year they beat Saudia Arabia outright and arrived in the United States only to be denied the visas necessary to compete. The reason? “Discrepancies” in the children’s ages.
The problem in this particular case is that it is not abundantly clear that the Ugandan Little League team has intentionally violated any rules. U.S. officials claim that they were given conflicting dates and years by parents, grandparents and the players for their ages. One report even claimed that documents appeared to have been doctored to ensure that a player was listed as young enough to compete (14 years). The real problem however, is that it is not common practice to give out birth certificates in Uganda and therefore it’s hard to tell exactly when most of these young people were born. However it strikes me as odd that this has only become a problem once they had qualified to reach the U.S. championships and no one had brought this issue up prior to this final stage of competition.
I won’t go so far as to say that this is a massive conspiracy to prevent African nations from participating in international competition (that’s what the Winter Olympics are for) but it does strike me as odd how these types of rules only seem to fall on the weaker and poorer nations of Sub-Saharan Africa. When it comes to international competition the United States, China and European nations somehow always manage to skirt the rules that catch our cousins in the motherland. There were at least half a dozen clear examples of age violations on the Chinese Olympic women’s gymnastics team during the 2008 Beijing games but nothing happened. Lance Armstrong was likely doped out to his eyeballs during at least one of his Tour de France victories yet no agency in the U.S. or abroad seems to have the wherewithal to actually rescind any of his awards. And let’s not even get into how dirty track and field has proven to be all over the world in the last decade. Yet, somehow it always seems like African nations end up taking the hit when the official rules come down.
One of the true values of youth sports is that it gives young people the opportunity to learn structure, discipline and most of all the value and importance of being a good sport. Sometimes being a good sport means realizing that everyone isn’t blessed with the same resources and accepting they’re doing the best that they can. It would be a shame if the Ugandan team was the first team since 1959 to qualify for the Little League World Series but not have a chance to compete. I know it sounds cliché, but punishing kids for living in a country without competent civil service seems unnecessary and pointless to me. Unless it can be proven that the entire program was intentionally trying to mislead the league we should Let ‘em play ball and let the scoreboard settle the rest.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)