John Hakizimana is one of Rwanda’s flag bearers in the marathon. He has been representing the country for the last five years and has recently done the same in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
On August 8, he was the last Rwandan to compete. He had a promising beginning rom Sapporo Odori Park, as he ran half of the marathon on the right track.
However, the APR Athletics runner was forced to pull out of the race after running 33km out of 42km after his body struggled to cope with the heat in Tokyo.
“I was struggling with a different altitude in Tokyo. I should have been warned by our medical assistant to brace for it but he did not know either,” Hakizimana pleads.
In July-August Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Rwanda was among 205 countries represented. None of the five Rwandan athletes was able to end Rwanda’s Olympic medal drought since the country’s Olympic debut in 1984.
Hakizimana says the hard conditions around their career make it challenging for them to win medals. In his case, despite the achievements that would presumably be enough to earn him a living, Hakizimana continues to struggle with providing his family with a decent lifestyle in Kigali.
He has been able to bring home some rewards, including a bronze medal in the men’s marathon from the 2019 Military World Games held in Wuhan.
“A football player who has been playing as long as I have been a marathoner, is way more financially stable than I am. Not because I am any less talented but marathons are exotic for Rwandans.
They don’t value and incentivise it as much,” Hakizimana says. Hakizimana serves in the military with the rank of sergeant.
According to him, the military income is what sustains his family. The passion he has for marathons is what keeps him going despite the insufficient rewards.
Hakizimana's case is not special. A survey on elite athletes from 48 countries indicated that more than half are financially unstable.
For countries like Rwanda, where some sports are only emerging, financial stability for athletes remains a dream. Even when there are opportunities, the rewards can be as low as Rwf 15,000 or $15.
Financial instability, lack of assistance and professional support has resulted in weak representation of Rwandan athletes in numerous international competitions and the Olympics.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the chances for athletes to make money and improve their standards. For example, due to the economic crisis linked to Covid-19, the 2021 Kigali International Peace Marathon, that took place on June 20, only cost Rwf200 million, down from Rwf400 million spent in the previous edition, according to the Rwanda Athletics Federation.
Kigali Peace Marathon rewards winners range from $200 to $6,000 for a full-marathon and $200 to $3,000 for half-marathon.
Efforts to get details on Rwanda Athletics Federation’s plans to boost support for their members were unsuccessful by press time.