When travelling anywhere these days I am highly attuned to the indicators of a healthy ‘women’s sport’ culture, i.e.: media coverage, visible role models and priority given to national women’s teams. Having the opportunity to spend three weeks in Namibia fully immersed in sport (specifically cycling) has given me a good starting insight to the status quo for women’s sport in this southern African country.
Initial impressions on the media coverage front were fairly promising, although a thorough ‘audit’ was beyond me. Namibia hosted the African Women’s Football Championships at the end of 2014, and this garnered front page coverage in NamSports, the quarterly sporting newspaper. I was particularly struck by the Windhoek Observer informing its readership that the tennis player holding the most Grand Slam doubles titles (without ever winning a singles title) was indeed a woman – Elizabeth ‘Bunny’ Ryan – as part of related coverage for the Australian Open. I was also lucky during my time in Windhoek to have access to events and conversations with a range of senior people in the world of sport, including the Namibia Sports Commission and the Namibian National Olympic Commission. While I do not have statistics on the participation rates of girls and women in sport, it was evident that discussion on the need to engage and promote women’s sport on a level with men was important and welcome.
These conversations were evident in women’s cycling specifically and there are a number of similarities between the scene in Namibia and the UK. On the race circuit, in both road and mountain bike, the numbers of women racing are considerably smaller than men; there is an increasing volume of women cycling, but maybe just as in the UK women are not as likely to turn that to competition. The Cycling Federation has been active in promoting equal prize money for races of equal length (in Namibia prize money is significantly higher than on the UK race circuit). The Federation’s ambitions for international competition concern the fielding of full men’s and women’s teams, and there is recognition of the lack of an adequate race circuit for women on the African continent, the African Tour for men having undergone major growth in recent years.
There are though, individual women working hard to blaze the trail at an elite level. Elite women fields in both the National Time Trial and Road Championships at the end of January may have been small, but by all accounts were bigger and more competitive than previous years. Four women contested the Road title, and three the Individual Time Trial title, (comparative figures for the men’s elite races were in the late teens). Vera Adrian triumphed in both of these events to secure the national jerseys. A young cyclist of 22, Vera was part of the Namibian Commonwealth team in Glasgow 2014 where she rode in the Time Trial, Road Race and Mountain Bike. Subsequently last week Vera went on with her team mates to claim Team Time Trial silver at the African Champs, despite having only three riders. Vera then came 5th in the Individual Time Trial and 9th in the Road Race.
Another member of the Namibian national women’s team is 17 year-old Sofia Simon. And this is where it becomes clear that there is another level to the development of women’s sport, and sport more broadly in this large but sparsely populated African country than there is in the UK. While classed as an ‘upper middle income’ country, much sport and definitely cycling, remains an elite pursuit in Namibia. Sofia started cycling only in the last couple of years, through her engagement with Physically Active Youth (P.A.Y.), an after-school project focusing on academic achievement coupled with sports participation. Initially starting with boys, P.A.Y. has over the last three years supported the development of the potential of cyclists, working with amongst others the Namibian Cycling Federation.
The children accessing P.A.Y. – from the age of 4 upwards – live in Katatura, originally a township established with the forced movement and segregation of language groups under the Apartheid regime, when Namibia was a province of South Africa. 60% of the population of the Namibian capital Windhoek live here and while increasing numbers of residents are achieving economic success there is a significant population still struggling to get by on a day to day basis. This is in a country where the pass rate for secondary education is only 50%, 1/3 of people live in poverty and the official figure of HIV infection is 1/3 of the population. Although P.A.Y.s local research suggest rates as high as 50% amongst the families of those accessing the project and while HIV medication is on the whole available achieving the required levels of nutrition for these to be effective is often lacking.
In this context, it is evident that engaging in sport is a massive challenge for children and young people – families are likely to see it as a luxury, available facilities are often poorly maintained, the necessary equipment is lacking, there are few trained coaches and for those enthusiastic to provide sport there are issues of available time and support. Sofia only began cycling in the last couple of years and initially travelled 25 kilometres each way to pick up her bike to train. Now, Sofia has spent recent months at the African Cycling Centre, the UCI training centre in Africa before being selected for the national team for the African Champs. At 17 it is difficult to predict what Sofia’s cycling career may hold for her, although she is clearly showing promise, coming 6th in the Junior Ladies Individual Time Trial at the African Champs on 10th February.
My trip to Namibia has reinforced my belief that sport has the power to transform lives, and the importance of the dedication and commitment of those supporting young people in pursuing sporting activities. While there I had the privilege to work with PJ, a newly qualified UCI Level 1 Cycling Coach to set up a new girls cycling group at P.A.Y. that will operate alongside the coaching with boys and an Early Rider Development Programme designed to work with 5 to 9 year olds.
The 8 or so girls we engaged in the start of the group had not largely been on a bicycle before, after three sessions the majority of them were able to pedal in a reasonably straight line and some of them may already be aiming at pedalling in Sofia’s tyre treads. But even for those girls who are unlikely to ever make the elite national team it was clear that cycling quickly ignited a sense of independence and control and will open up new opportunities in the form of sport for fun, cycling as transport and learning new skills that will help them with leadership, team work and the rewards that come from practice.
It is clear though that this work comes with significant challenges. For PJ and the girls there will be all too similar issues of peer pressure during adolescence, family and community attitudes to girls sport and balancing sport with achieving academically that will risk continuing participation. This alongside less familiar hurdles such as having the right foot wear, providing maintained bicycles that are the right size in the face of equipment and funding shortages and not actually having any purpose built cycling facilities to train on. For Namibia, the Cycling Federation and its partners these challenges are replicated at a higher level – securing investment in programmes that reach Namibia’s disadvantaged communities, building local leaders with the capacity to open up opportunities, delivering facilities for training and supporting those with real potential and talent to navigate the difficult journey to elite success. But it is a journey I feel positive about having met and worked alongside the many dedicated individuals involved in cycling in Namibia. And it is one I will watch with interest, raise awareness of and provide support where I can as a now hopefully honorary member of the Namibian cycling fraternity.