African medal performance at the 2016 Olympics

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The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, finished a week ago. Traditionally, African nations gather most of their medals in athletics, particularly middle- and long distance running, led by Kenyans and Ethiopians. Only a small fraction of medals come from other sports. South Africa, for example, produces good swimmers and rowers, while Egypt has been good in weightlifting. Olympic football gold has been won by an African country twice.

African countries got a total of 45 medals at the 2016 Olympics, 10 of them golden. If Africa was a country, it would have been placed 7th on the medal table, just above France.

Team sports

African teams tend to do well in youth football, and men’s Olympic football is essentially a youth tournament, mostly for U23 players. Nigeria won Olympic gold in 1996, and Cameroon four years later. Previous three Olympics, however, no African team had reached the semi-final stage.

Three African teams competed at men’s football this year. South Africa and Algeria were left last in their groups, but Nigeria advanced to semifinals losing to Germany. Nigeria took the bronze medal by beating Honduras at the 3rd place play-off.

Nigeria football team after winning the third-place play-off (photo source)

South Africa and Zimbabwe qualified for the women’s football tournament, but neither advanced to play-offs.

Nigeria competed at men’s basketball, stunningly winning the match against Croatia, but despite this Nigeria were left last in their group. Senegal lost all their matches at women’s competition.

The addition of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport was welcome move, and South Africa thanked by taking bronze medals at the men’s competition. Kenya finished 11th at both men’s and women’s competitions. The performance of Kenyan men’s team was a big disappointment, them having won Singapore Sevens this year.

South Africa playing against Japan at the 3rd place play-off. South Africa took bronze at the first ever Olympic Rugby 7s competition (photo source)

African teams perform traditionally poorly in volleyball. Egypt men’s team made a historic 3-0 win over powerhouse Cuba. This was the first time an African team won an Olympics volleyball match against a team of other continent (in 1984 Tunisia beat Egypt in the last place play-off). Cameroon played at the women’s tournament, losing all their matches, but giving Argentina a good match winning two sets.

African teams sometimes perform well in handball. Egypt and Tunisia qualified for the men’s tournament, winning a match each, not enough to push them through the group stage. Angola reached quarterfinals at the women’s handball tournament, but succumbed there to Russia, the eventual gold medallists.

No African team participated field hockey or water polo competitions. South Africa won both men’s and women’s continental field hockey qualification, but opted not to participate Olympics. Interestingly, Zimbabwe has participated women’s hockey only once, the 1980 boycott Olympics in Moscow, winning the gold medal.


Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa did one of the greatest performances at the games, not only winning 400 metres gold, but setting a new world record (43.03 seconds) beating the old magical record by Michael Johnson.

Gold medallist South Africa's Wayde van
Wayde Van Niekerk celebrating new World Record (photo source)

Ethiopia won only one gold medal at Rio Olympics, but that one was an amazing new world record by Almaz Ayana at the women’s 10,000 metres race. The time, 29:17.45 minutes, shaved over 14 seconds of Wang Junxia’s 23-year old record. Vivian Cheruyiot reached the finishing lane 15 seconds behind, setting a new national record, close to the old world record. The 2008 and 1012 gold medallist Tirunesh Dibaba took bronze, her time was a personal record. This was a fast race by all counts, several national records were broken, including that of Burundi, by Diane Nukuri, who finished 14th. Almost all top-15 finishers set their personal best.

Women’s 10,000 metres race medalist, Word Record setting Almaz Ayana in the middle, accompanied by Vivian Churuiyot (left) and Tirunesh Dibaba (right) (photo source)

Ayana was expected to dominate the 5000 metres race as well, but Vivian Cheruyiot won it, setting a new Olympic record. She crowned her long career by finally winning an Olympic gold. Kenyan Hellen Obiri, took silver, while Ayana had to settle for bronze.

Somali-born Mo Farah repeated his London 2012 feat by winning men’s 5000 and 10,000 metres double from Great Britain. Other 10,000 metres medallists were Paul Tanui of Kenya and Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia.

Not a single athlete representing Kenya qualified for the 5000 metres race, but Kenya-born Americans Paul Chelimo and Bernard Lagat were 2nd and 5th, respectively. Hagos Gebrhiwet (ETH) took bronze.

Kenyan runners rule marathons, but often fail at the Olympic marathon. This was not the case in Rio though, as Eliud Kipchoge and Jemina Sumgong won marathon golds. Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) tooks men’s silver, his race will be best remembered for a political protest at the finishing lane.

Kenya-born Bahraini Eunice Kirwa took women’s marathon silver, Mare Dibaba was on bronze. The latter is not related to “Dibaba-sisters” (Tirunesh, Genzebe, Ejegayehu).

Men’s marathon gold winner Eliud Kipchoge (photo source)
Jemina Sumgong winning the women’s marathon (photo source)

Caster Semenya’s career has had its ups and lows since the South African 800 metres runner emerged tho the scene, winning the world championships 2009. This year she is dominant again, winning Olympic gold medal, setting a new national record. Francine Niyonsaba won a rare Olympic medal for Burundi, finishing second. This was the second ever Olympic medal for Burundi, Vénuste Niyongabo won men’s 5000 metres gold at the 1996 games in Atlanta, where Burundi participated Olympics for the first time. The 800 metres bronze went to Margaret Wambui (KEN).

Caster Semenya celebrating 800 metres race win

David Rudisha (KEN), who set the current 800 metres World Record at London Olympics, successfully defended his Olympic gold at the Rio games. Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria took silver.

David Rudisha wins his second Olympic gold medal (photo source)

Makhloufi became a double silver medallist after the 1500 meters race, these were the only medals Algeria won at these games. Makhloufi was a defending 1500 metres Olympic gold medallist. Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti was 4th in the 1500 metres race, losing bronze very narrowly. Djibouti has ever won only one Olympic medal, that was by Houssein Ahmed Salah at the 1988 men’s marathon.

Faith Kipyegon won women’s 1500 metres, upsetting Genzebe Dibada of Ethiopia who finished 2nd.

Faith Kipyegon wins women’s 1500 metres ahead of Genzebe Dibaba (photo source)

Men’s 3000 Metres steeplechase gold went to Kenya 9th time a row, now to Conseslus Kipruto, who won the race on an Olympic record. Two-time Olympic gold medallist (2004, 2012) Ezekiel Kemboi finished third, but was later disqualified. Beijing 2008 Gold medallist Brimin Kipruto was left to 6th place.

Conseslus Kipruto, Rio Olympics men's steeplechase_3368109_ver1.0_640_360
Conseslus Kipruto continues the Kenyan dominance in men’s steeplechase (photo source)

Women’s 3000 Metres steeplechase was won by Ruth Jebet, a former Kenyan now representing Bahrain. The defending world champion Hyvin Jepkemoi took silver.

Kenyans have only recently started performing well in 400 metres hurdles, Boniface Mucheru was another proof of this by winning Olympic silver. Last year’s world champion Nicholas Bett tumbled in the heats, not advancing.

Men’s 100 metres was dominated by Usain Bolt, but two Africans reached the final too. Akani Simbine of South Africa finished 5th, and Ben Youssef Meïté of Ivory Coast sixth.

Ivorian sprinter Marie Josée Ta Lou finished fourth at both women’s 100 and 200 metres. At the 200 metres race she clocked the same time as bronze medalist, two-time Olympic winner Shelly-Ann Fraser.

Ivorian sprinting star Marie Josee Ta Lou narrowly missed a medal in two events (photo source)

Botswana finished 5th at men’s 4×400 relay, setting a national record, in a tight race for medals. Boswana’s only Olympic medal ever is silver by Nijel Amos at men’s 800 metres at 2012 London Olympics.

Luvo Manyonga of South Africa took silver at the eventful men’s long jump final, losing gold by one centimetre. He was in footsteps of compatriot long jumper Godfrey Khotso Mokoena, who got silver at the 2008 Olympics.

Luva Manyonga all in joy despite missing gold by one centimeter (photo source)

At the women’s long jump, Nigerian 20-year old Ese Brume finished fifth.

Julius Yego, the reigning javelin world champion after a sensational last year, continued to make history by becoming the first Kenyan to win medal in a field event, taking silver at the Rio games. Women’s javelin silver was thrown by Sunette Viljoen, South Africa. She had finished 4th at the previous Olympics is London.

Julius Yego, Kenyan javelin superstar (photo source)
Sunette Viljoen finally achieved a medal at her 4th Oympics (photo source)

Republic of Congo has never won an Olympic medal. This year it was close, Franck Elemba finished 4th in the men’s shot put, a new national record. Elemba has greatly improved  his records this year.

Frack Elemba, Republic of Congo, 4th in shot put (photo source)

Larbi Bourrada (ALG) finished fifth in decathlon, setting a new African record. He has in past served a two-year ban for doping.


South Africa is the African swimming powerhouse. At 2012 Games Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh both won a gold medal, respectively, but had to settle for silver this year.

Chad+le+Clos+ (1)
South African swimming medalists Cameron Van der Burg (sitting) and Chad le Clos (photo source)

Kirsty Coventry, the Zimbabwean 2004 & 2008 Olympic gold medallist in swimming, achieved this year a respectable 6th position in the Women’s 200 metres backstroke.

Otherwise, the African swimmer attracting most attention was Ethiopian swimmer Robel Habte, whose physical appearance earned him the nickname “whale”. He is the son of Ethiopian swimming federation.


African countries have started to excel in taekwondo, that is a relatively new Olympic sport.

Ivory Coast won two medals at the 2016 Olympics, both in taekwondo. Cheick Sallah Cisse won the country first ever Olympic gold at the men’s 80kg event, beating Lutalo Muhammad (GBR) with last second points. At the semifinal Cisse had beaten Oussama Oueslati of Tunisia, who took bronze. Another Ivorian Ruth Gbagbi got bronze at women’s 67 kg event.

Cheick Salleh Cisse won the first ever Olympic gold for Ivory Coast (photo source)

Abdoul Razak Issoufou of Niger reached Taekwondo final at the men’s 80+ kg category, but lost the match. His silver is only the second ever Olympic medal by an athlete from Niger, the first was a boxing bronze medal back in 1972.

Egypt got also a taekwondo medal, Hedaya Malak took bronze at the women’s 57 kg event.

Other Sports

South Africa has some traditions in rowing, notably winning a gold medal in London 2012. This year South Africa pair Lawrence Brittain & Shaun Keeling took a silver medal. The good South African performance was complemented by two fourth places and two fifth places.

South African pair Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling rowed a bronze medal (photo source)

The men’s triathlon bronze was taken by Henri Schoeman, first ever Olympic medal in triathlon for South Africa. He was followed by compatriot Richard Murray who finished fourth.

Olympic athletics - Day three - Rio - Brazil
Henri Schoeman and Richard Murray after the triathlon race where they finished 3rd and fourth, respectively (photo source)

Cycling is a sport with lots of potential in Africa. South African cyclist Louis Meintjes, fresh from finishing eight at Tour de France, did another good result in Rio finishing 7th at road cycling race.

Egypt has a long history participating in the Olympics, and a long tradition of not winning any medals. This has changed since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and at Rio 2016 they gathered three bronze medal. Two of them were in weightlifting, by Mohammed Ihab (Men’s 77 kg) and Sara Samir (Women’s 69 kg), the latter becoming the first Egyptian woman to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting.

Sara Samir wins weightlifting bronze for Egypt (photo source)

Ines Boubakri won Tunisia’s first ever fencing medal in women’s foil. Two other Tunisian fencers reached quaterfinals in their events.

Ines Boubakri won a fencing medal for Tunisia (photo source)

Marwa Arwi achieved bronze for Tunisia in womens freestyle wrestling 58 kg category, also first ever Tunisian Olympic medallist in her sport.

African countries have been relatively successful in boxing, but the only medal at Rio 2016 was a bronze by Mohammed Rabii in the men’s 69 kg category. This was Morocco’s only Olympic medal at Rio 2016.


Kenya was the most successful African country at the 2016 Olympics, gathering 23 medal, six of them golden.  In the past, other than athletics, Kenya has won medals only in boxing, last time in 1988 when Robert Wangila won the only non-athletics gold for Kenya so far.

South Africa total medal tally, 10, is their best post-boycott performance, and huge improvement since 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, where they won only one medal (silver). Normally South Africa has taken 5-6 medals.

Ethiopia won only one gold medal, which was a major disappointment, despite getting eight medals overall.

Ivorians can be happy to have won a gold medal and a bronze. In addition Ivorian runners did well in sprint events despite missing medals. Before these games, Ivory Coast had won just one Olympic medal, back in 1984 when runner Garrial Tiacoh took bronze in men’s 400 metres.

Rio 2016 Medal table, African countries

As illustrated on the map and tables below, most African counties were left without a single medal, a sharp contrast to other regions. Only Middle East, South East Asia and Central America perform equally poorly.

A map showing Olympic medal count by country


Rio 2016 medal count by continent (source). Note that the Africa bronze count differs slightly from the other table above.   
all time_olympics_medals_by_comtinent
All time Olympics medal count by continent, updated after 2016 Olympics (Source)

In total, Africa won 45 medals, a notable increase from 34 in London 2012. But there is little to celebrate, as Africa still trails other continents.

Why the lack of success?  Most African countries have no traditions in other sports than football and athletics. Even more important factor is the lack of money. Without money there are no qualified coaches, no suitable facilities, no competitions. From such background it is nearly impossible to reach global level.

There is definitely talent in Africa, but the chances that they end up playing the sport they are best at, are minimal. Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego is a huge exception, but he had to go through lot of hardships on his way to Olympics medallist and world champion.

There are no easy solutions how to improve success in sports, but countries can implement sports policies that help people participating in sports and nurturing the best talent. Particularly, lack of proper junior programmes is a major hindrance – it all has to start from grassroots level.

Another problem is limited exposure to international competition.  Even the most important continental sport event, All-Africa Games, lacks in standard, not getting the attention it would deserve.

Further reading:

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