Before becoming Britain’s most decorated Ironman athlete ever, Chrissie Wellington worked for the government agency DEFRA on international development policy. In this blog she recounts a visit she made earlier this year to post-genocide Rwanda, where she saw for herself the positive impact that a pro cycling team and multi-stage tour is having there.
Sport means so many things to different people. A challenge, the opportunity to push yourself further, to beat your own time, to beat the times of others, to keep fit, to stay healthy, to make friends, to travel, to wear lycra, to guiltlessly eat ten bowls of cereal a day.
People often ask me why I did Ironman. What is the sense in pounding the tarmac for hours on end, or pedalling up and down the same hill like a gerbil on a wheel, or immersing your body in chlorine just to watch a black line? The answers are hard to articulate. For me it was the restless spirit that won’t sit still, the perfectionist that strives to be the best you can be, the masochist that craves risks and welcomes pain, the stubborn mule that won’t give up and a warrior who wants to win. A passion for sport has pumped through my veins since I was a kid running around the fields and playing kiss chase.
Although wearing skimpy lycra outfits has its appeal, as a teenager sport, for me, was about hanging out with my friends and meeting boys. My time as a club swimmer was notable not for pool based achievements, but for the fact that it was at the club disco that I had my first kiss. At university socialising far outweighed fitness as the raison d’etre for joining the swim squad. My swimming ability declined as my social calendar grew ever fuller.
At that time I also strove to be the best that I could be academically. Sport was for making friends, a vehicle for having fun. It was in my mid-late 20s that something inside me changed. With my undergraduate and masters degrees finished, the energy, drive, determination and passion that I had devoted to my studies now needed a new outlet. Sport happened to be it.
In becoming a professional triathlete I grew mentally and physically, learned endless lessons, fell down (a lot), suffered road rash (a lot) and pulled myself up (a lot) and achieved more than I ever could have dreamed. My life changed in so many wonderful ways. What never altered was my love for sport and my unwavering belief in its power to make a difference.
During my university holidays I worked as a swimming teacher at ‘Beaver Country Day School’ in Boston (and yes, I still have the shirt which has Beaver plastered across my chest in Pamela Anderson red). It was at Beaver when I managed to teach a nervous, reluctant and timid boy to swim that I saw first hand the power that sport had to generate change in others: to make him smile, to give him confidence and a sense of achievement.
In Nepal the first thing I did was buy a mountain bike, which I nicknamed ‘Premi’ (Nepalese for boyfriend). We spent a lot of time together. Mountain biking broke down countless barriers. I biked with Nepali men and learnt so much from them, not only about how to grind up hills with gritted teeth in my big chain ring, but about Nepali culture, history, food, religion and much more. I remember the joy on the faces of the local children, playing with their small stick and a wheel, a broken badminton racket or a battered football. I even watched as a Buddhist monk decided to climb about Premi and take him for a spin.
Then there’s the memory of running 26.2miles, with 33,000 others, through the streets of London in 2002. Barriers – whether based on gender, age, race, physical prowess (or otherwise) – were broken through this mass participation sporting event. The same goes for parkrun, and its ability to catalyse participation in physical activity in communities across the UK and around the world.
A desire to witness first hand the power of sport recently took me thousands of miles from the UK to Rwanda. As many will know, Team Rwanda Cycling was created from the ashes of the genocide, as a means of promoting professional cycling in the country and promoting reconciliation through sport. It comprises about 20 male athletes, who are based at the Africa Rising Cycling Centre (ARCC) in the town of Musanze, a small town in the north of the small country of ‘a thousand hills’, as Rwanda is aptly known.
The ARCC was set up and is run by Americans Jock Boyer (the first American cyclist to ride in the Tour de France) and his wife Kimberley Coats. The Tour of Rwanda, held each year in November, has become one of the sporting highlights in the country – especially since it joined the UCI’s international calendar six years ago. It brings together teams from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Burundi, South Africa, Germany and Switzerland among others, and is held over seven stages with a prologue, totalling 911.60km.
The Tour was absolutely phenomenal from start to finish. While, of course, there are things that could be improved, overall I was so impressed with the professionalism – both of the event, and also for the teams and their riders. It really did surprise me to see the high standard that Team Rwanda, and other countries, are striving to achieve in terms of organisation and performance.
The crowd support was absolutely mindblowing, with around two million people lining the streets over the course of the week. The riders have become celebrities there, and the crowds would shout their names at the tops of their voices – waving the blue, green and gold Rwandan flags as they did so. Those that hadn’t lined the streets were obsessively following the race on their radios, with the live coverage managing to reach into the homes of thousands more people.
I saw the sheer elation when the Rwandans took several stage wins, crossing the finish line, buoyed by the loud music, and the energy generated by the thousands of spectators.
I saw joy, happiness, elation, courage, ambition, determination, drive, resilience and bravery, and when the yellow jersey was presented to Rwandan Valens Nydayisenga for winning the General Classification (GC) and to Team Rwanda for the overall win we all applauded and celebrated – united by one powerful, uniting force. That of sport.
The Tour and the Africa Rising Cycling Centre really has helped to catalyse a passion for professional cycling amongst a whole nation, as well as facilitating intra and inter-country collaboration. Rwandans from different backgrounds who suffered unimaginably from the genocide, were born in refugee camps, or saw their family members murdered before their eyes have united under one banner.
Eritrea and Ethiopia both attended the pre-Tour training camp at the Centre, and stood shoulder to shoulder on the start line of the race. This is a superb example of how sport can build bridges where diplomatic efforts may be failing in two countries that are mired in conflict.
Some of the Rwandan riders, and their local support staff, have benefitted from UCI support, particularly through training courses and camps held in Switzerland. Proof that external investment in these countries truly is yielding tangible results. The team and the Tour appear to not only have the support of the local population, but also at the highest level within the Federation and Ministerially. The Minister for Sport, Joseph Habineza, even danced on the podium at the prize giving, and more recently the team also had the honour of meeting the President Paul Kagame.
The press and social media coverage has been extensive too – both nationally and internationally. There were some great online articles (VeloNews and AllAfrica.com for example) as well as TV broadcasts on CANAL 5, TV5Monde and Supersport South Africa. That can only serve to catalyse further interest – commercially and from the general public, in that virtuous circle that we all want to see.
For 2015, ARCC aims to further support the development of the Rwandan, Ethiopian and Eritrean teams and facilitate their participation in a range of continental and international races – as both national and mixed-nation teams.
Imagine that: Ethiopians, Rwandans and Eritreans working together on the same team, united in the pursuit of a goal regardless of the political differences that pervade their countries. The Centre would also like to organise courses for mechanics and coaches, to build the capacity of the local people in cycling related skills.
The ARCC also wants to also help grow the women’s side of the sport in Rwanda and neighbouring countries, but investment will be key. I would welcome more information from UCI on their own strategic plans for developing women’s cycling in Africa – especially in countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea where the women apparently have a huge amount of potential if provided with the necessary support, resources and opportunities (including races, which are thin on the ground).
In January the ARCC would like to support two Rwandan women and one junior to travel to, and train in, South Africa for a month in advance of the Continental Championships, as well as three women each from Ethiopia & Eritrea. Of course, financial support is required to make this a reality.
I realise cycling is not a panacea, and investment cannot take place in isolation. It remains necessary to look at the wider picture to ensure that such progress doesn’t take place in a silo, and is linked to other plans, strategies, programmes and projects that help to promote lasting, sustainable development in these countries where some of the most basic services are simply not available to the populace.
Careful consideration must be given to monitoring and evaluating the short and longer term impacts of such interventions (both the quantifiable, and the less tangible) to ensure the (clearly articulated) objectives are being met, ensure the optimum and effective use of resources, steer the implementation process, be used as the basis for programmatic fine-tuning, reorientation and future planning, and also provide evidence to support a model for others to potentially emulate.
Through my visit to Rwanda, I remain convinced that sport – and in this case cycling – has tremendous power to make a positive difference to the lives of individuals, communities and nations. It is a vehicle to catalyse national pride, to alter international perceptions of a country, to give hope, to entertain and excite, to facilitate conflict resolution, to build bridges, and to create livelihood and employment opportunities.
The thousands of smiles I saw amongst the crowds in Rwanda, the happiness in the eyes of the children as they chased a homemade football, the elation in the faces of the stage winners, and the heartwarming (yet slightly comical) sight of Minister Habineza dancing the funky chicken on the stage on the final day – all tell me so.
If you want to find out more about the work of the ARCC, or offer your support for what they are doing please see www.teamrwandacycling.org, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter at @TRwandacycling.