These past twelve months threw up their fair share of sporting drama and dazzling performances. But Sports Insight also focused on some stories of human endeavour and courage; examples of generosity and good sportsmanship; triumphs against the odds….and the elements.
To begin with, there was the mad desire by 22 men and one woman to cross the Atlantic alone in a rowboat. The trip from Senegal to French Guyana ended at the beginning of the month and one man, Henri-Georges Hidair, admitted that he was motivated to attempt the crossing because of ghosts from a distant past.
"I wanted to do the same journey as the one my ancestors were forced to do," Hidair confided. “That was my main aim. I felt a presence during the race. When I saw the African coast disappear from my horizon, it really choked me up. My great-great-great-grandfather had also gone that direction, but not in the same conditions.
"And he’d suffered terribly. But if I’m alive today it’s because my ancestor was a very tough guy. He had to be to survive the crossing. So, I wanted to experience the violence he been confronted with, all chained up.
"And there were also the nights. You have these dreams, you don’t control your mind so well. And I often heard voices, maybe it was the wind transformed and I had the impression it was my ancestors who hadn’t made it, they were coming up from the depths of the sea. And they’d say: “We’re going to push your boat, we’re going to help you morally, so you can make it. We failed, but you’re going to make it.”
Henri-Georges Hidair finished third in this third Bouvet Guyana rowing race.
The physical exertions might have been less, but the success of the Zambian national football team at the Africa Cup of Nations was equally colossal. Radio reporter Gloria Siwisha believed that most of the 14 million people living in the southern African nation could hardly believe they had lifted the trophy.
“This is a huge event for us,” the journalist from Flava FM in Kitwe explained over the phone. “and everyone is celebrating. It is uniting us behind our team, and will probably bolster our image abroad.”
Zambia’s win over Côte d’Ivoire in the final was hugely symbolic. It occurred a few kilometres from where a tragic airplane accident in 1993 wiped out the nation’s most promising team in decades.
A feeling of duty and homage did much to galvanise the Zambian athletes. These same emotions coursed through the veins of a Tunisian runner at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Habiba Ghribi could never have imagined the events which shook her homeland 15 months ago. She was nursing her feet after they were operated on in 2010. The 29 -year-old was slowly returning to top level when a revolution gripped Tunisia and swept into her life. But Ghribi just ploughed on with characteristic determination:
“I continued to train, that was the only thing I would go out to do,” she insisted to RFI. “There was fighting and tear gas everywhere, It was very tough, but it was such an important event for me. But after a month of training with bullets flying around me, I had no choice but to leave the country, on 14 January.”
Ghribi moved to Paris , where her husband comes from, and kept to her training. And in August, she astonished the sporting world, by beating the Kenyan and Ethiopian favourites to stand on the podium, only dwarfed by Russian Anatasiya Kapachinskaya. It was one of the most inspiring sporting moments of 2011.
At Daegu, another nation was trying to put the trauma of the past behind them and show how sports can unify. South Africa returned from the world championships with only two silver and two bronze medals. But team manager Hugo Badenhorst was quick to remind me that such performances have an important social role back home.
“These athletes are role-models for the youth at home,” the veteran coach told RFI behind the Daegu track. “It keeps the young kids off the streets and away from drugs and other such nonsense.”
Hugo Badenhorst hopes the likes of Oscar Pastorius and Caster Semeniya will continue this social healing work with their running performances at the London Olympics this summer.
Sports sometimes manifest itself in the most unlikely quarters. Before visiting Ethiopia in November, Sports Insight had no idea it could include competitions to reward the ‘athlete’ who can laugh the most in this often-tragic world.
And little did RFI know that the undisputed laughter champion, with a world record of non-stop laughing of three hours and six minutes, resides in the capital Addis Ababa.
Belachew Girma needed to train his body like a professional athlete to achieve this feat in 2008.
For years, Belachew Girma has been using laughter as a form of therapy to help children and adults overcome various forms of handicaps and illness.
The 44-year-old has travelled the world to share his knowledge and experience with thousands of people attending his workshops and lectures. Belachew himself says it is laughter that saved his life from disaster.
His years as a nightclub owner had come to an end after a series of disasters. He lost his wife to Aids, had his home and business go up in flames and was a victim of a flash flood.
“Psychologically, I became tortured. I was looking into an abyss, I was told I only had seven years to live,” he calmly explained from his first floor office outside the centre of Addis.
There was a moment of silence, then, he burst out into a trademark laugh as if switching on a light. Only there is nothing mechanical about Belachew’s laughter. It ripples out of his muscle-toned chest and creates a ripple effect with his trainees sitting politely around the small room.
Belachew’s contagious energy has helped create a national laughter day in Ethiopia , the only one of its kind.
Its tenth edition will be on 29 October 2012. He himself has set an almost-impossible barrier to break - a three-hour nonstop laughing record, set at the Genius Impossibility Challenger Competition in 2007.
Unfortunately, it seems no Guiness Book of Records official was there to confirm the feat. But RFI was in Addis to record the remarkable work Belachew is doing with people crippled by serious illness.