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Thursday, October 6, 2022

GAMBIA’S PROMISING JOURNEY TO THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES

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The Gambia has only won a solitary bronze medal in its Commonwealth Games history but will travel to Birmingham 2022 with Africa’s fastest woman.

Twenty-seven-year-old Gina Bass won gold in the 100 metres at the African Athletics Championships in Mauritius in June, becoming the first person from the country to win a senior continental title in track and field.

Bass clocked 11.08sec to triumph – a time which would also have seen her win gold at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

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She reached the Tokyo 2020 Olympic semi-finals in both the 100m and 200m and has only won a solitary bronze medal in its Commonwealth Games history but will travel to Birmingham 2022 with Africa’s fastest woman.

Twenty-seven-year-old Gina Bass won gold in the 100 metres at the African Athletics Championships in Mauritius in June, becoming the first person from the country to win a senior won the African Games title over the longer distance in 2019.

“We are all celebrating Gina,” said Bakary Jammeh, The Gambia’s Chef de Mission for Birmingham 2022.

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“Gina is now becoming a cult figure.

“She’s the African champion and she’s going to really be our leader at the Commonwealth Games.

“We hope we see a good performance, and get a medal.”

Bass also helped The Gambia to bronze in the 4x100m relay in Mauritius.

“It’s quite a build up to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham,” Jammeh, who will be Chef de Mission for the first time, added.

“Football is certainly the number one sport here in terms of participation and support, and wrestling is our national sport.

“But because of Gina Bass people are now looking at athletics.”

Jammeh is due to oversee a team of 16 athletes in Birmingham, including seven in track and field.

The country has also selected two judoka, two swimmers, two boxers, a beach volleyball duo and a powerlifter.

Sainey Jawo and Mbye Babou Jarra, the beach volleyball team, will travel in good form after winning the Commonwealth Games qualifier held in Ghana in March.

“Our beach volleyball team are African champions during the qualification for Birmingham 2022,” said Jammeh.

“They are also having some traction.

“Because of the good work of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and the respective associations, now we are moving away from being only a football nation, and these other sports are coming up.”

Birmingham 2022 will be The Gambia’s second Games back after the country rejoined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2018.

Former President Yahya Jammeh had taken the nation out of the organisation in 2013, after claiming it would “never be a member of any neo-colonial institution”.

However, Adama Barrow became President in 2017 and promptly applied to return.

It meant The Gambia could compete at Gold Coast 2018 but they missed the Glasgow 2014 Games.

“That was an unfortunate incident which was a political decision,” Bakary Jammeh said.

“Everyone involved in sport really felt missing the Glasgow Games.

“Losing that was really unfortunate for us, but now that’s behind us.

“We are back in, this is our second Games back. We are approaching these Games very seriously.”

Jammeh added that the Commonwealth of Nations is an important part of Gambian life.

“It is not just sport, Gambia has benefited from the Commonwealth in many ways, from cultural ties through to trading,” he said.

“The Gambia has always been part of the Commonwealth and we feel at home in the Commonwealth.

“When we gained independence in 1965, we still didn’t have complete self-governance until 1970.

“Many people, including myself, have been educated through the Commonwealth through technical cooperation at that time.

“So we have a special attachment to the Commonwealth, which is linked to our history as a nation.

“As The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, a lot of us have ties to England and the UK generally.

“The Commonwealth has a special place in our heart.”

Bass and other Gambian athletes have been training abroad due to challenges with funding and facilities.

“We have two problems, the first is infrastructure for athletes to train and compete,” said Jammeh, a vice-president of the Gambian Football Federation.

“It is nearly non-existent. In our national stadium, there is only one standard track. It lacks other facilities like a gym, an Olympic sized pool for the swimmers…

“Infrastructure is a problem that we really have to grapple with.

“Secondly, funding for sports in all aspects. Athletes having the right diet, having the right physical programme…

“Sport is underfunded. The NOC do try and the Government through the Ministry of Youth and Sports do try, but it’s a major constraint in this part of the world.

“A lot of our athletes who are going to take part in Birmingham are training outside of the country because of scholarships and other bilateral arrangements the NOC has.”

These are problems which other countries in Africa will be able to identify with.

“We are born as natural athletes,” said Jammeh. “Most Africans, including The Gambia, have the right weight and height, and the interest.

“But when it comes to the techniques and the tactics that you have to learn and develop, and develop those in controlled environments, those don’t exist.”

The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal.

It is a long and thin nation which is dominated by the River Gambia, which flows directly through the centre.

In 1970, the country debuted at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh where Sheikh Tidiane Faye marked the occasion with bronze in the men’s high jump.

They were absent when the 1986 Games returned to the Scottish capital but have competed at every other edition, with the exception of Glasgow.

The visit of the Queen’s Baton Relay for Birmingham 2022 included a cruise down the river and a stop at the Banjul Beach Coconut Project, an initiative aimed at protecting the coastline by planting coconut trees.

“Our country is the river, we got our name from the Gambia river,” said Jammeh, who studied in Birmingham in the early 1980s so knows the host city well.

“Many people develop their swimming skills in the river.

“We don’t have pools except for homes or in hotels, so you harness your skill of swimming in the river, including myself.

“The Baton Relay was an amazing event.

“It was an opportunity to show our land, our river, our people and our culture.

“The baton was received with cheers and by officials of the NOC and Government.

“There was close participation with the British High Commission.

“It left an indelible mark and experience for us as a country. Any time we have the baton is special.”

Like other nations, The Gambia’s preparations for Birmingham 2022 have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID has disrupted lives all over the world and The Gambia is no exception,” Jammeh said.

“We had a complete shutdown of all sporting activities at some stage during the pandemic.

“Until now, all the restrictions are not completely lifted.

“COVID has affected the livelihood of nearly everybody, and this has impacted negatively on competitions and preparations for these Games.

“Now that the green light has been given for people to go back and train and compete, slowly we are getting there.”

Senegal, which will host the 2026 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Dakar, has inevitable close links to The Gambia with the Atlantic coast the only part of the country which does not border its neighbour.

“Senegal and The Gambia are the same people, until the British and the French agreed to cooperate,” Jammeh said.

“The British were interested in the river and they formed a country around it, and the rest was left for the French.

“Our difference is only the official language.

“I have cousins who are Senegalese, and you will hardly see any Gambian household that has not got relatives in Senegal.

“We cooperate a lot. Because our national stadium is not certified by the Confederation of African Football, we recently had to play South Sudan in Senegal.”

Jammeh was among those to attend the Birmingham 2022 Chef de Mission meetings in March.

“The organisation is really very good,” he said.

“There’s great cooperation between Birmingham City Council, the UK Government and the organisation.

“We had the opportunity to not only sit down and discuss the Games, but visit nearly all the sites and the Villages.

“From what we have seen we are very satisfied that there is going to be a great experience for athletes and fans.

“It’s so far, so good and we are preparing to make our mark in Birmingham.

“Outside the Africa Cup of Nations, I would put the Commonwealth Games as the second biggest event because we have the biggest number of athletes going and the biggest number of sports, because of the qualification criteria when compared to the Olympics.”

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