Over the past few days, the tiny nation of Botswana has been gripped with the Letsile Tebogo fever.
They have watched in awe as the soon to be 18-year-old ever smiling athlete easily sprinted to a gold medal at the ongoing World Athletics U20 Championships in Kenya.
Easy on the eye, ever smiling and with a speed and stride not so common in the local arena, Tebogo’s performances has already drawn comparisons with the best in the business, both present and past.
He is better than Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin were at his age. His time of 10.11 is equal to that of Yohan Blake at his age and is bested only by the legendary Usain Bolt who was doing 10.03 at the age of 18.
As the first local to win short sprints in the world stage, the young athlete’s performances have elicited front- and back-page headlines. In a country that has over the years produced world beaters in 400m and 800m but failed to have a star in the sprints, Tebogo is seen as a breath of fresh air.
With his Bolt’esque performances, no pun intended, there are already high hopes that the teenage sprint sensation will one day grow to dominate the world stage and perhaps one day win Botswana an Olympic medal.
But this is an expectation tinged with fear. A fear that like many promising starlets before him, Tebogo will not get enough support for him to blossom into the athlete he promises to morph into.
This is mainly because the country has over the years failed to commit necessary resources to help athletes to develop, but has been keen to throw them at the deep end with high expectations.
After winning gold and silver at the World Athletics U20 championships and the London Olympics respectively, Nijel Amos never got all the support he needed to be a world beater. As a result, the now 27-year-old failed to add to his Olympic medal or even beat the personal best time he set as a teenager in London in 2012.
The same can be said of the talented duo of Baboloki Thebe and Karabo Sibanda, who, after a lot of promise they showed at the World Athletics U20 Championships and the Rio 2016 Olympics, never got the support they needed to develop but were rather thrown at the deep end.
At the time of his going to the world athletics jumior championships, Thebe was on the verge of superstardom, having qualified for the Olympics with a time of 44.22 seconds. Since then, he has not matched this personal best time and has struggled. The same with Sibanda who is now struggling to replicate the form that made him an Olympic finalist while still a teenager.
Contrast this to India’s first ever track and field gold medallist at the just ended Tokyo Olympics Neeraj Chopra. After the young Chopra won gold at the World Athletics U20 Championships in 2016, the Sports Authority of India took a deliberate decision to prepare him for the Tokyo Olympics.
Over a course of four years leading to the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Sports Authority of India spent over INR100 000 000 (+/-P15 000 000) on the athlete’s preparation. According to The News, Sports Authority of India indicated that ‘the government spent INR48,539,638 (+/-P7 298 000. 00) on Neeraj for his training and overseas competitions for the 450 days leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.
This huge investment on one athlete brought India the first ever track and field gold medal it had craved over more than 100 years. It allowed Chopra access to the best coaches and best training.
In contrast, Botswana only started putting money in athletes’ preparations in 2019. Even then, the funds were not easily accessed by the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) as the Botswana National Sports Commission (BNSC) assumed control and disbursed the initial P12 million for preparations. The country then put another P15 000 000 towards preparations early this year.
While Botswana cannot have the resources equivalent to those of India to focus on an individual athlete, the country can however start investing in preparations for the Paris 2024 Olympics now.
As expectations start rising on the young Tebogo to qualify for the World Championships and the Paris 2024 Olympics, the onus will be on the powers that be to invest on the athlete’s potential to see him and others like him reach their potential and be medal contenders.