Personal Interview: Former continental champ, All-African Games record holder speaks out Professor Francis Dodoo was born and grew up in Accra, Ghana, where at a very early age his father—a two-sport national team star—introduced him to sports. Before he turned 15, Professor Dodoo had already been invited to the national cricket team. By the time he left the shores of Ghana at age 20, he had earned call-ups to represent Ghana in five additional sports: volleyball, hockey, basketball, team handball, and track and field. A late arrival to track and field, he competed in the triple-jump at Achimota Secondary School and the University of Ghana. In 1979, as a first-year student at the university he represented Ghana in the Junior World Cup in field hockey, an event that coincided with final examinations at the university. Dodoo, and another university colleague, had made the trip to represent their country with the understanding that they would be allowed to take the examinations upon their return (during the period for referred exams). Upon their return however, the university had rescinded its earlier position, and asked the pair to repeat their first year. This was the impetus for someone who had not considered earlier opportunities to leave for a scholarship to depart the country; feeling betrayed that he had been penalized for no other purpose than representing his country, Dodoo re-contacted coaches who had in earlier years tried to woo him to America, and left the country for an athletics scholarship in December, 1980. He landed at the University of Idaho as a twenty year old, where he competed for only five months because of his track coach's disagreement with his continuing interest in other sports, and particularly volleyball. After breaking the school and conference record in his short time there he moved on to Washington State University where, despite continuing to dabble in volleyball and field hockey he, in his own words, “invested more heavily in track and field.”. The next year, Dodoo first broke the Ghana National Record in the triple jump, a record he held for 11 years until his protégé, Dr. Andrew Owusu, claimed it. In August 1987, he went on to break the African Games Record, which remains the oldest standing continental record today. Presently, Dr. Francis Dodoo is a Full Professor of Sociology and Demography at The Pennsylvania State University, where he continues to test himself in track and field and volleyball, the latter which he plays with the Penn State nationally-ranked, women's varsity team. Professor Dodoo, in a recent interview, gave his perspective on track and field and, more generally, the sporting establishment in Ghana, clarifying exactly what he thinks needs to be done to repair the system in Ghana. WHAT IS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON GHANAIAN ATHLETICS? Ghanaian athletes continue to work hard to represent themselves and their country to the best of their ability. To a large extent, they continue to represent us well, and it is a shame that after all the effort they put in—we all know how difficult, painful, and injury-riddled training for athletics is—their effort, and the glory that could accrue to the nation is compromised by the under-achieving, outmoded, system of management and governance that we see in Ghana. Contrary to the general belief, I do not think Ghanaian athletics or sport has depreciated: compared to forty (or even ten) years ago, our athletes are running faster and jumping further; more of our boxers are winning global laurels, even more soccer players are playing in the best leagues in the world; our tennis players demonstrate a much higher standard; and so on. Unfortunately, I think our sport management, governance, and technical handling has actually depreciated in quality, which is especially troubling when you situate that in a context where the general standard, across the continent and globe, has appreciated. In short, I think our sport management, imbued by all sorts of corruption—financial, moral, managerial, etc.—has let the nation and the athletes down terribly. For a nation of such historical sporting excellence this is such a shame. Beyond their lack of familiarity with the conduct of 21st Century sport, there is an inherent arrogance, apathy (except for international travel), and reluctance to solicit help for the good of the country that undermines national investment in sport, no matter how small it may be. WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU MEAN WHEN COACHES, OFFICIALS, AND ADMINISTRATORS “LACK FAMILIARITY WITH THE CONDUCT OF 21ST CENTURY SPORT”? I could say so much, but here are a couple of points to clarify what I mean. First, immediately prior to competition, I think that coaches, officials, and administrators are very ineffective in reducing the amount of tension around the athletes; indeed, intentionally or otherwise, they actually manage to elevate the stress levels, which you can imagine is detrimental. Second, many officials are totally unfamiliar with the appropriate physical AND psychological needs of today's athletes; it would not be unfair to suggest that they are caught in a time warp, trying to deliver 1960s and 1970s ideological approaches. Times have changed: athletes are older, in many cases, wealthier, and perhaps more intellectually savvy about what they do and what they need. Athletes are also more often than not professionals in their sport. None of this means that the “animals should run the zoo,” as it were, but it definitely means that the athlete/official dynamic can't continue to operate as it did in the 1970s when I first participated for Ghana. As for coaches and officials blaming athletes for non-performance, it is almost laughable. Here's a hypothetical scenario: athlete in his or her prime goes to the Olympics with a recent record of world-class performances; athlete doesn't live up to his or her own expectations; coaches, perhaps in trying to save their own skins, turn around and report to the nation that the athlete deliberately sabotaged the country or misbehaved significantly before the competition, or something akin to this. They typically fail to understand how silly this all sounds; in this era of professionalism, where winning titles or performing well at major events is the basis for “pay raises” for athletes or sportspersons, it is absolutely absurd for any athlete to even consider doing this; it stands to reason that they would sabotage no one more than themselves. A 21st Century official would attempt to get a more valid understanding of what went wrong so as to intervene against that in the future; unfortunately, in Ghana, it seems as though every major international competition ends with the same sort of “the athlete didn't produce” explanation. Something is wrong elsewhere, when before the athletes meet up with the officials, the athletes (on their own) are putting up world class performances which vanish with the arrival of the officials. Common sense would dictate that we look elsewhere for the cause. Heck, these are the same officials who can't even put together selection criteria that guarantee that the best athletes who hold Ghanaian passports represent the country? I could go on and on, talking about fundamental things that don't need an infusion of money to resolve, but which would make a major difference in the productivity of our national teams. WHAT TYPE OF CHANGES NEED TO BE MADE IN GHANAIAN SPORT? I believe there needs to be many alterations to Ghanaian athletics, however the central change must take place in leadership, management, and administrative processes. As I have indicated, I believe that very many Ghanaian coaches, officials, and administrators are stuck in a time warp that dates back to the pre-1970s era. Over the past twenty or thirty years, the institution of sports has evolved considerably, but management and administration have not. We always talk about corruption, and believe me, there are major issues on that front. But, even more easy to remedy is the lack of transparency that dogs our sport.
You won't believe this but, in almost all the Olympic Games that have occurred between 1984 and 2004, Ghana has paid scarce foreign exchange to transport and care for athletes who had not even met the qualifying standard to go to the Games. Even in this age of computerization, outdated officials fail to recognize that despite conning Ghanaians about who is or is not qualified, they won't be able to pull the wool over the international organizations' eyes. So, our nationally-subsidized athletes get to Sydney or elsewhere, only to be told that they can't compete because they are not qualified. What a waste of money! And what a moral breaker, particularly for the other qualified athletes who were not selected. Yes, Ghanaian selectors invariably opt for athletes they like rather than those who are necessarily the fastest.
As I turn 45, I can tell you that corrupt selections, blaming of athletes for non-performance, and accusing athletes of indiscipline (somehow officials escape this tag) have been perennial in Ghanaian sport since my introduction as a teenager in the 1970s. If that isn't a reflection of being caught in a time warp, I don't know what is. Without changes in the way we run our sports, I see only a bleak result for country and the avid, deserving supporters of Ghana sports. The sad part of that is that many of the nation's children will continue to kill themselves to represent Ghana, only to held back by an artificial ceiling that need not be imposing. BESIDES MANAGERIAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE ALTERATIONS, WHAT ELSE DO YOU BELIEVE NEEDS ALTERATIONS? Not unrelated to what I have said above, we ultimately fall back to blaming our national performance on lack of resources and infrastructure. Trust me, having been an athlete in many sports I, too, subscribe to the school of thought that Ghanaian athletics needs infrastructural improvements. Heck, I think the last upgrade in almost-concrete running tracks was in 1978 or thereabouts. But, I caution Ghanaians to refrain from thinking that replacing these—and I'll emphasize that upgrading is sorely needed—will lead to improvements. Even doubling the amount of money the government invests in sport will not yield the outcome we seek UNTIL we fix the way we organize our sport. Although our tracks are deplorable, we have to understand that many of our predecessors were putting out far more respectable performances on cinder and grass tracks in Ghana in the 1960s and 1970s. My advise then is that the optimal improvement we seek in our sports in general, will only come with an overhaul in both the infrastructural AND managerial/leadership departments. While we wait for the financial investments in the former, we can enhance our circumstances by addressing the latter. I suggest this low-cost remedy (albeit needy of a strong national commitment) will yield high profit. I hope our government will act to move Ghana into the 21st Century in sport!,
WHY DO YOU THINK THESE ALTERATIONS HAVE NOT TAKEN PLACE? Most people understand the physical health benefits of sport. Still, I think if we had a fuller appreciation of the contributions that sport makes to a national society—financially (in the 21st Century), morale-wise, in terms of national cohesion, psychologically (both at the individual level and in terms of national psyche, etc.)—the national elite would give it more attention. As it stands, sport continues to be looked at something as a pastime that the lower classes indulge in more. For the upper classes, it continues to be seen as a recreational endeavor; many parents still shoo their kids away from sport, and urge them to rather focus on their books…as though there was a necessary incompatibility between the two. That's how the average person has been programmed to think about sport in Ghana and, yes, you've got it, that perspective would fit under the rubric of what I define as NOT 21st Century thinking. All you have to do is reflect on what baseball earnings (for individual players) have done for developing countries like the Dominican Republic, to understand what sport can do for nations today. We are not there and we need to get there…soon.