In the early 1900s, the idea of a pan-African series of Olympic-style competitions became popular. The goal of uniting athletes from around the continent to compete wasn’t just about awarding medals, but sharing culture and cooperating to build new traditions.
Though the African Games, then titled The Friendship Games, wouldn’t come around until Madagascar hosted the first event in 1960, the idea had staying power. The first official competitions were held only five years later in Brazzaville, Congo as the All-Africa Games.
The tournament was a hit, drawing in 2,500 athletes from 29 different African nations. Athletes like Wilson Kiprugut Chuma (a Kenyan runner) and Mohammed Gammoudi (a Tunisian runner), who had competed in the recent 1964 Tokyo Olympics, helped garner interest in the games. It was only the beginning for African athletes.
Across the continent, leading competitors find their way to top-tier leagues in Europe, East Asia, and North America. Egypt’s Mo Salah is making waves in the Premier League along with Nigeria’s Wilfred Ndidi. Meanwhile, Cameroon’s Pascal Siakom competes in the North American NBA, while Ghana’s Ezekiel Ansah competes in the US’s NFL.
Instead of just featuring on winning rosters, African players are actively bettering their team’s chances for a championship run. For example, experts creating major league odds for competitions like the Premier League regularly discuss Mo Salah anytime there’s a Liverpool fixture.
As the team’s star player, pundits provide in-depth insight on the player’s injuries, previous performances, and even his personal life if it could affect his time on the pitch. Though Salah isn’t the only African performing well in sports leagues abroad, he comes from the continent’s premier sporting talent.
With Nigeria and South Africa in second and third place respectively, Egypt has a handed lead in medal counts from the African Games. But with so many competitive countries and talented athletes, is there a reason Egypt sits at the top?
A Commanding Lead
The 2019 African Games marked the twelfth iteration of the series, which included a new offshoot of the Pan-African Special Olympics, hosted in Egypt in January 2020. The results of the 2019 African Games saw 4,386 athletes from 53 countries compete in five different Moroccan cities.
In Rabat, Salé, Casablanca, Benslimane, and El Jadida, athletes competed in 26 sports, with weightlifting, swimming, and athletics (such as running and jumping) serving as the most varied competitions.
As we mentioned earlier, Egypt landed at the top of the medal count with a total of 273 medals (102 gold, 98 silver, and 73 bronze). Nigeria, in second place in terms of medal rankings, left the 2019 African Games with a total of 127 medals, and, just behind Nigeria, Algeria left with 126.
Egypt more than doubled the closest medal count—and it’s not the first time the country has done so. In the 2015 African Games, Egypt left with 217 medals, leaving second-place Nigeria with 144. In 2007, Egypt took home 199 medals (though they were defeated by host nation Algeria by six medals).
The only decisive defeat in the past twenty years came during the 2011 African Games when South Africa took home 156 medals versus Egypt’s 40. However, this disparity is likely due to domestic concerns in Egypt at the time.
Close Behind: Nigeria and South Africa
Each African nation has its own unique sporting identity and talents—though not all are based on athletics. One reason Egypt, along with Nigeria and South Africa, may top the continent’s medal count is that the country is exposed to more sports than central and southern nations.
Girdling the Middle East and the Mediterranean, Egyptians are exposed to a wider range of sports. Nigeria excels at basketball because of local interest, and the same for cricket in South Africa. Egypt, with interest and history in both disciplines, has functional leagues for both sports. The same goes for handball and volleyball.
Additionally, economics influence how much sporting infrastructure athletes have access to. Nigeria leads Africa in terms of GDP, with Egypt and South Africa trailing respectively. In the coming years, developmental strides in countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Kenya may see the countries take home more medals.
The next African Games is scheduled for 2023 in Accra, Ghana.