Sports in Africa traces its origins far back in history, and the continent is now widely recognized globally for its excellence in various sporting fields. Africa has become a bedrock of vibrant sporting talent that cuts across various disciplines. Sports is widely respected across the continent because it brings people together irrespective of their culture and social affiliation.
Today, the sporting industry continues to positively contribute to the African economy. Africa now enjoys an equal opportunity to host high-profile global sporting events that have put Africa on the international sports map. Notable African sports personalities have raised the profile of the continent by excelling in various sporting disciplines and are now global sports personalities.
Africa has various different sports, but what are the popular sports in Africa?
From North to South, East to West Africa, football is, no doubt, Africa’s most popular and favourite sport. Football is an incredibly exciting game with origins tracing back to the 1800s when the British, French and Portuguese colonialists introduced the sport to Africa. Unlike other sports, football requires minimal resources, and for this reason, it has penetrated every part of Africa. It’s common to find youngsters across the continent, including rural areas, enjoying playing football. Football talent in Africa mostly begins at the grassroots level, and for this reason, many football stars began their careers on local football pitches.
The proliferation of African football clubs began more than 50 years ago, and since then, the number of professional football clubs and leagues have been on the rise. Today, there are many local, as well as regional and continental football leagues across Africa. Many football clubs in Africa receive sponsorship from the private sector and government, which has increased the popularity of the game.
Today, over 100 players drawn from various African teams on the continent play in the first division league in Europe, the United States, and South America. In 2010, South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup for the first time on African soil, which was a major boost for African soccer.
Countries well-known for their soccer prowess having performed well in global tournaments include Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon, Tunisia, and Senegal. Notable African football personalities include Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Adebayor, Yaya Toure, as well as many others. Interestingly, more than 80% of African players who play in World Cup play for various clubs in Europe.
According to the latest world FIFA rankings released on August 10, 2017, Egypt tops the African continent at position 25 globally with 866 points. The Democratic Republic of Congo is 2nd in Africa and position 28 globally with 822 points, with Senegal in 3rd position on the continent and position 31 globally with 794 points. Other African countries are Tunisia in 4th in Africa and 34th position globally with 776 points, Cameroon in 5th position in Africa and 35th position globally with 737 points, and Nigeria in 6th position in Africa and 38th position in the world with 716 points. Football is indeed one of the most loved sports in Africa.
The popularity of rugby has increased rapidly, especially in recent years when the sport has gained a foothold in a couple of countries in Africa. Did you know South Africa, alone, has over 600,000 registered rugby players? Rugby’s popularity on the continent began in South Africa where it played a key role in ushering in South Africa’s post-apartheid era. Other African countries that have excelled in this sport include Kenya, Namibia, and Ghana.
In 1995, South Africa’s national team, Springboks, won the Rugby World Cup on home soil and Nelson Mandela, then South Africa’s president, wore a No. 6 shirt for Francois Pienaar, a white South African. This was a great moment for South Africa’s racial reconciliation as the two openly embraced cooling down racial tensions.
In Kenya, the rugby industry has grown rapidly with the international annual Safari Sevens Tournament attracting participants from all over the world. In 2016, the Kenyan National Rugby Team won the IRB Sevens World Series in Dubai.
The number of rugby players has been increasing steadily, with South Africa having over 600,000 registered rugby players. On the other hand, Kenya has 40,000 registered players, of whom 3,000 are women and 30,000 are teenagers. According to World Rugby Rankings released on July 17, 2017, South Africa was ranked 5th globally behind New Zealand, England, Ireland, and Australia.
Even though cycling has always been associated with western nations, the sport has increasingly become popular in Africa. Cycling is a fast-growing sensation and very popular in South Africa, which is famous for its scenic and exciting cycling routes. The diverse cycling routes allow participants to encounter various ecosystems to include streets lined with trees and luscious vineyards.
The Cape Town Cycle Tour, which attracts over 35,000 cyclists, is the world’s largest individually-timed cycling race in the world. Currently in South Africa, there are over 25,600 registered cycling members, of which 2,600 are holders of competitive licenses, 550 track cyclists, 100 para cyclists and 400 BMX cyclists. One of South Africa’s top cyclists include Greg Minnaar, a three-time UCI Mountain Bike World Cup winner. In 2013, Chris Froome, Tour de France winner, launched his professional cycling career in South Africa.
Eritrea is also seen as an upcoming cycling nation, whose great talent and potential has seen Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus become the first Africans to participate in Tour de France. What many do not know is that in 1898, Italian colonialists were the first to introduce bicycles in Eritrea, and ever since, cycling has remained a favourite sport.
Asmara City is popular for its rich biking culture mostly comprised of unique vintage bikes. Neighbouring Ethiopia is famous for women’s cycling with phenomenal talent at the grassroots. Other countries that have taken up cycling as a sport include Algeria and Kenya.
Africa is an athletics powerhouse, especially in field and track events where the continent has performed extremely well in global competitions. There is no doubt that athletics has put Africa on the global map, and these success stories began a couple of decades ago. Excellent talent on the continent has seen African athletes shine and break major world records at high-profile global sporting events. Several countries in Africa are known for their sterling athletic performance to include Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Algeria.
African athletes play a huge role in promoting Africa as a sports continent. In addition, sports tourism has been on a steady incline as a result of the hype and success of athletes. The history of athletics in Africa stretches back to the time of Reggie Walker, a South African sprinter, who became the first African to win an Olympic 100 meter gold medal in 1908.
As countries started gaining independence, athletics continued to increase in popularity with many key personalities winning major international races. Kenya has talented athletes to include Kipchoge Keino, who, in 1968, won the 1500-meter Olympic gold medal in Mexico. Famous Ethiopian athletes include the late Abebe Bikila, double Olympic champion, and retired Haile Gebrselassie, a long-distance track champion. Other notable athletic figures in Kenya include David Rudisha, World 800-meter record holder, Asbel Kiprop, Ezekiel Kemboi, as well as 2015 World Champion javelin thrower, Julius Yego.
Women who have excelled in Athletics include Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, two-time marathon world champion, Ethiopia’s multiple world champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, Mozambique’s Maria Mutola, and four-time Olympic champion, Vivian Cheruiyot, from Kenya. According to IAAF World Championships Athletics All-Time Medal Table Data, Kenya tops in Africa medal standings with 128 medals, Ethiopia with 72 medals, and South Africa with 21 medals.
Cricket is a popular sport in Africa, especially in South Africa, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Just like other sports, cricket has become popular and appreciated across the continent. A few decades ago, only white people were allowed to play cricket in South Africa in line with the Apartheid policy. South Africa was banned from participating in international cricket for over 20 years because of apartheid.
After the apartheid regime lost power, South Africa was allowed to participate in international cricket tournaments. In 1992, World Cup fixture against Sri Lanka, Omar Henry was the first South African black player in history to play for the national team. In 2003, Africa hosted the Cricket World Cup which was co-hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.
Cricket is also being used to empower communities with a perfect example being the youthful Maasai Warriors in Kenya, who have abandoned the traditional spear and are using cricket to help fight outlawed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Kenya. This applaudable community initiative has earned the team a lot of admiration, support, and global recognition.
Other countries where cricket is played include Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. In Nigeria, cricket is the oldest sport with the first official international match played in 1904, twenty years before Nigeria participated in a football match. Today, many African countries are taking part in numerous international cricket matches while posting impressive results.
According to ICC ODI Championship, South Africa ranks first with 50 matches, 5957 points, and a rating of 119. On the other hand, Zimbabwe has played 41 matches, earning 2129 points, and a rating of 52.
Wrestling has always been part of many African communities since time immemorial, where wrestling matches were common in village arenas. This tradition has continued in many communities to this day, particularly in Senegal, Sudan Nubian communities and Southern Egypt where wrestling is quite popular. Successful wrestlers are well-respected and become famous celebrities. Nubian wrestling dates back over 3,000 years and is one of the most ancient martial arts.
Wrestling is the favourite sport in Senegal ahead of soccer and has also played a key role in social integration and economic empowerment. Aside from being a sport, it is a perfect representation of African culture and tradition. Senegal is one of the most popular and active national sports hubs in West Africa, and for this reason, Senegalese wrestling is now watched across the borders.
Wrestling began in the villages hundreds of years ago, and farmers would go to wrestle to pass the time or watch various fights. During the dry season, the farmers went to the city in search of jobs and realized city dwellers were willing to pay money to watch them wrestle and place bets on matches. Because of poverty, rural dwellers would then fight and entertain the urban dwellers in order to earn money, thus making the sport a favourite in the city.
Wrestling matches are lively with singing, dancing, cheering, and also attract large crowds. They mostly take place in sandy areas where wrestlers attempt to bring down their opponents by making their back, knees or shoulders touch the sand.
Most wrestling bouts don’t last long and end in a couple of seconds or a few minutes. Statistics have revealed that wrestling receives annual sponsorships of about $1 million to $2 million per year. Stadiums flock to capacity and the stakes are high as top national wrestlers can earn up to $200,000 per game. Many African youths see wrestling as a ticket out of poverty, despair and crime. Despite beginning as a traditional sport synonymous with the village, wrestling has become a popular urban sport and there is no doubt the future is bright.
Motor rallies in Africa are known all over the continent and globally, making rallying one of the most popular sports in Africa. The rugged African roads and off-road terrain is a favorite for rally lovers. African rallies are considered to be the most challenging in the world and bring together renowned and upcoming rally drivers.
The number of spectators has continued to grow every successive year as various events are staged around the continent. Countries where rallying is common to include Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. The Africa Rally Championship (ARC) is an annual event that is held across several selected African countries.
The KCB Safari Rally in Kenya is one of the most hyped and well-attended events on the African continent. Launched in 1953, fans come from across the world to witness this spectacular event that receives massive media attention. This rally is known as KCB Safari Rally because it is sponsored by the Kenya Commercial Bank.
The Dakar Rally was originally known as Paris-Dakar Rally since it followed the Dakar–Paris route. The Dakar Rally began in 1978 and grew to become one of the best-known rallies in the world. However, in 2009, security threats compelled organizers to change the venue to South America.
Other major rally events in Africa include the East African Safari Classic Rally, whose first event was held in 2003. This rally was launched as an initiative to revive the excitement associated with rallying. Participants in this rally come from all over the world and only classic cars are permitted to participate in the competition. The route traverses rugged rural landscapes in both Kenya and Tanzania.
Other rallies held on the continent include Uganda’s Pearl of Africa Rally that started in 1997, Zambia International Motor Rally, which happens to be one of the oldest rallies in Africa, and Rallye Cote d’Ivoire.
Despite many rallying tournaments on the continent facing numerous challenges such as lack of adequate sponsorship, the sport is still popular. In recent times, numerous newer and smaller corporate-sponsored rallying events are being held periodically in various countries around the African continent.
According to statistics released by FIA, the world motorsport body, Uganda tops the African continent with 2754 points in the 27th position nationally. Rwanda is in 2nd with 2124 points and 34th position globally. Zimbabwe takes the 3rd position in Africa and 38th globally with 1701 points.
Since its introduction in the 1960s, basketball has increasingly become popular and is played across the continent. Young African boys and girls love basketball and it’s widely played in neighbourhoods for fun, as well as dominates school competitions.
When you travel to many African cities, you will see numerous youngsters dressed in sweatshirts, vests and t-shirts with names of famous NBA players. Both public and private schools have availed basketball training facilities that allow youth to better their playing skills.
In recent times, the number of professional teams has increased with many basketball clinics organized to improve the quality of basketball. Some of the countries where basketball is common to include Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Famous Africans who have played on the international stage include former NBA stars, Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. Olajuwon is a former NBA star who was born in Nigeria and played for the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. On the other hand, Mutombo was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and successfully played 18 NBA seasons.
According to statistics from NIKE FIBA World Men Rankings last updated on August 21, 2016, Nigeria tops the continent at position 16 globally with 106.2 points. Tunisia is 2nd in Africa and 21st globally with 69.0 points. Other Africa countries that feature on the list are Angola at 23rd position with 66.0 points, Cote d’Ivoire at 40th position with 20.4 points, and Egypt at 41st position with 19.2 points.
There you have it, these are the top 8 most popular sports in Africa.