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Friday, January 22, 2021

Feature: How May Day Sports became a Gambian Export

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It is often said that Gambians do not celebrate their heroes and heroines. This is either down to poor record keeping or outright jealousy on the part of the rest of the people.  But the emergence of the Sports Journalist Association of The Gambia, SJAG, and its glamorous awards ceremony are hoping to redress that.

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So, after listening and following most, if not all conversations, reportage and commentaries about the birth and history of the May Day sports, I have a deep feeling that either there is a conspiracy to silence all narratives crediting the pioneers of this most successful locally designed sports event, or, again the record keepers are not doing enough to dig into  its history. Yet if there is anything to be celebrated as a successful Gambian export, that is May Day sports which makes it a must-tell story.

But before reliving those days of the birth of the event though, come with me for a feel of how I came in touch with the event and its organisers. 

When, as a  cub reporter, I walked the short distance from the Daily Observer offices to the Independence Stadium to cover a sports event involving workers, on 1st May  1993, little did I know then that I was being introduced to  an event that would grow to become the biggest locally designed sports in the country.  Of course I had already attended the many briefings on the event by the then  Gambia National Olympic and Sports Committee GNOSC’s indefatigable George Gomez, and his keen-minded Secretary General Abdoulie Baks Touray, but like my readers  then,  I was equally keen to see the event  at first hand.

On arrival at the Stadium, I took my seat in the stands to take a good view of this much-talked about rare sport event. It started with the athletics, with most of the athletes being unfit and untested track runners. You can imagine the fun and laughter that accompanied every sound of the gun. 

In no time I got infected with the rising excitement and slopped down to the track side to capture arriving runners some of whom could not even talk on my tape for lack of breath. 

On the track, I noticed that the track judges and officials were perhaps the only professionals among the large crowd in the field. They comprised veteran and legendary athletics names drawn mainly from the national athletics association to help man the tracks and keep the time. They pushed, screamed and rummaged through the uninitiated and rowdy crowd to fish out runners for correct recording of timings- a menace that still exists.  

At some point in the proceedings and during a lull in the track events, I saw a policeman and few others surround a wooden pole at the corner of the pitch. The pole was being twisted and drilled into a hole before being raised amid loud cheering befitting a flag hoisting ceremony of a newly independent nation.

Not far away, some men in blue track suits labelled ‘Volunteers’ dragged a long rope towards the centre of the pitch while others mounted two metal posts connected by a long metal bar.

Not making sense of what was to follow, I scouted and spotted George Gomez for explanations and he agreed to take me round as he gave instructions to the different sets of volunteers. The Pole, he said, was the Greasy Pole. ”It is  a wooden pole that has been well trimmed almost certainly by machine and imbued in grease making  it as slippery as fish in water, thus  ungraspable. The flag that is mounted on top of the pole is the coveted prize of the game. Get that flag and you and your team win the Greasy pole,” he said enthusiastically. 

George warned that team managers must be alerted to the fact that athletes for the Greasy Pole must be fit and acquainted with climbing.  

“Training for Grease Pole must highlight the dangers of a fall so we give adequate information to the team managers beforehand,” he said.  “It is the most challenging individual event in the May Day sports.”                           

Next we walked over to some men holding a long rope. “This is the Tug of War. An equal number of men, now women, are selected and placed along the opposite end of the rope. The game starts with the blast of a whistle by the referee after which the two teams will pull the rope towards themselves. The team that pulls its opponent beyond the middle mark, often indicated by a corn, wins the game,” George said. 

Elsewhere in the field, the Volunteers who were constructing metal poles below a cross bar told us they were setting the scene for the Pillow Fight, which featured two men seated opposite each other on the cross bar mounted on two poles. Using pillows, thoroughly checked for hard or rough items, the two competitors would fight with each other issuing blows in rapid succession to strain the other’s grip on the bar, ending in a fall, or a crash to the soft mattresses spread below.

Just as I thought I was well briefed on what to expect, a group of people arrived in a Pick-up van and quickly off loaded bicycles and chairs. They headed straight to the middle of the pitch and placed the chairs in a circular form as others put the bicycles by the track side. At the same time I saw George Gomez talking to the leader of the Police Band gesticulating with his hands, while the police band leader nodded.

I sprang to my feet and reached both men as they finished discussing the details of what was called the Musical Chair. “To start the game, chairs numbering nine would be competed for by ten men riding on bicycles at the same level, the same speed around the track, while the police band plays music.

“As soon as the music stops, each man abandons his bicycle and dash to grab a chair. The one who fails to get a chair gets eliminated. The reminder of the men will go for another round but again one more chair will be removed meaning one of the competitors will go without one and so on and so forth until the last competitor, who will then be declared winner,” he said.

With all events proving to be thrillers with the crowd kept on their feet cheering the genius of the athletes or laughing at the folly of the competitors as they tried to outplay their opponents, May Day sports became a never to miss national event and I became a true fan of the event and its organisers covering every twist and turn of the then GNOSC activities. 

During those early days and even more recently, the Armed Forces, SSHFC, KMC, Senegambia Hotel and Gamtel were the big guns in the Tug of War.   The former Sunwing Hotel’s Kebba Fatty dominated the Greasy Pole while the Pillow Fight got rotating champions. Senegambia, then under the sports loving management of Dirk Dathe, swept the athletics trophies.


History of May Day Sports

Before I left the stadium on that May Day in 1993, I investigated the history of the May Day sports and here are my findings. 

The event is a brainchild of George Gomez, then executive secretary, an immensely innovative asset in the GNOSC, whose tenacity and efficiency is unrivalled.

In no time and largely because of its unique features and novelty May Day became an instant success attracting huge popularity and acceptance among companies and departments.

“It was started in 1991 and was conceived by me and approved by the  Gambia National Olympic and Sports Committee, GNOSC,  as it was then called, to help raise funds for the sports associations as well as provide an avenue for workers to socialise and make friends,” he explained.

A special organising committee was set up to organise the event headed by former GNOSC President Abou Dandeh Njie. Other members of the committee were: Julia Joiner, then head of the Women’s Bureau; Dodou Joof, Mass Axi Gai, Fatoumata Jahumpa-Ceesay, Oremi Joiner, and the trade unionist, Amadou Araba Bah. 

Mr George Gomez was the secretary to the committee, while Araba Bah was asked to convince his Workers’ Union to harmonise and inculcate sports within their usual annual march past and rallies which would be held on the morning of May Day and the Sports in the afternoon.  The first meetings of the committee were held at the Women’s’ Bureau which was then located at 2 Marina Parade, and later moved to Lasso Wharf.

In the first edition of the May Day Sports, the then Governor of the Central Bank A.A.B. Njie lobbied his fellow banks in the country to each donate D5000 towards the event generating a total of D70,000 towards the organisation of the event. 

The winner of that edition was the then Gambia Commercial and Development Bank and Ebrima Manneh, now Technical Director of the Gambia Football Federation, was named the best athlete of that edition.

The first trophy of the May Day Sports was donated by the Social Security and Housing Finance Association SSFHC under Andrew Sylva, then the Managing Director.  

“When we started it no one knew what to expect. Alhaji Dodou Joof, Mr Fred Evans and I had to help the companies to prepare for the events which were new to everyone. We had the egg and spoon, the potato race, Greasy pole and bucket and water race. The following year, the registrations jumped to 20 companies. There was no TV then and only three newspapers were here then but Radio Gambia covered the event live with Bora Mboge heading the commentary team,” explained  George Gomez.

Over the years, the event’s popularity has grown beyond the borders of the country so much so that the GNOSC was asked by the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) to introduce the concept of May Day Sports to its Secretary Generals at a meeting held in Niamey, Niger, in 1996. The GNOSC delegated George Gomez to execute that role. Not long after, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised the event as a suitable mass sports event, and sponsored it twice putting more glory and glamour on it, thus adding an international cap on the GNOSC feathers. The IOC were present when some of their staff flew in to Banjul to see this special event unfold. 

In 1998, the German NOC and the President of ANOCA came to The Gambia to see and take a cue from the GNOSC in organising a Mass Sports event such as the May Day Sports.

Thus May Day Sports became the jewel in the crown of the GNOSC, a body whose efficient running and organisational skills were so pronounced and achievements so solid that a veteran athlete once confided to me that he believed the GNOSC could run the entire Ministry of Sports with better delivery that any politician.

Twenty three years since my first May Day coverage, I will return this Friday to the Stadium or, to be exact, the July 22 Square in Banjul to see another May Day Sports.  Undoubtedly with very little changes, the event has grown bigger with the expansion of the Gambian economy and the fragmentation of some veteran participating institutions. In fact even the organisers of the event have changed. It is now run by the Ministry of Youth and Sports through the Sports Council.

One of the most touching things I know I will encounter at the Square will be the excitement of many participants who were not born when George Gomez and Co designed this innovative idea and I made my debutant May Day coverage. And  again I hope  I will  leave  Banjul on Friday  with  unforgettable memories of  yet another great  May Day Sports. 


Happy anniversary to all Gambian workers. 



By Lamin Cham; First  published in 2012.

Revised in 2015


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