Let’s be clear: FIFA planted the first flag of a major world championship on the African continent with the 2010 World Cup held in nine cities across South Africa. With an average of 46,670 fans per match and a stylish march to the trophy by Spain, it was a clear success – even with the vuvezelas – and the harbinger of more major events to come.
But not right away.
The biggest players in international sports – the International Olympic Committee and the big international federations – had no first-tier events in Africa in the remainder of the 2010s. Perhaps the closest was the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda in 2017.
But the 2020s are different.
On Friday, the 190th Congress of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) awarded its most important event, the Road World Championships, to Kigali, Rwanda for 2025.
The UCI revealed the sites for eight different championship events from 2022-27 at the Congress, with six in Europe, one in Canada and the Road Worlds in Rwanda. But this was a major step:
“The announcement that the 2025 UCI Road World Championships are awarded to the capital of Rwanda means this will be a first appearance in Africa of the UCI’s annual flagship event. It is a decisive step in the organisation of this historic event which featured among the major objectives of the UCI’s Agenda 2022.”
Said UCI President David Lappartient (FRA), who was re-elected by affirmation to a second term at the Congress:
“I welcome the attribution of the 2025 UCI Road World Championships to Kigali, in Rwanda. Staging our biggest annual event in Africa was one of our dreams.”
The event was going to Africa in any case, as the other bidder was Tangier, Morocco, which was encouraged to bid again in the future. Choosing Rwanda was controversial given its horrific human-rights past and continued concerns today, but the UCI also noted the strong public interest in the annual, eight-stage Tour du Rwanda, which was held for the 24th time in 2021.
This selection followed the initial step by FIFA, but also a major statement by the IOC in 2018, when it selected Dakar, Senegal was the site for the V Youth Olympic Games in 2022. Due to the pandemic, the IOC pushed the event back to 2026.
But the cycling folks will have them beat by a year, in 2025. And there are more events coming.
World Athletics has been showing more and more interest in Africa and especially in powerhouse Kenya as a site for its World Championships. And it got a partial rehearsal of a possible 2025 Worlds in Nairobi this year with the staging of the 958-athlete (but spectator-free) World U-20 Championships there in August at the Moi International Sports Centre. Further, the Kip Keino Classic invitational meet – a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold event – was held on 18 September and drew some strong American and European entries; Trayvon Bromell of the U.S. ran a world-leading 9.76 to win the men’s 100 meters.
Swimming and gymnastics? FINA is committed through 2027 for its World Aquatics Championships, while the Federation International de Gymnastique (FIG) has named its Artistic Worlds hosts only through 2023, so it might head to Africa in this decade.
More likely might be other big federations in the second tier of Olympic television revenue distribution, including basketball and volleyball. Cycling and football are already in; tennis is wedded to its four traditional major tournaments in Australia, France, Great Britain and the U.S.
But basketball’s FIBA has seen tremendous growth in its AfroBasket championship events and with the debut of the NBA-supported Basketball Africa League in 2021 – with the final held in Kigali – could the 2027 men’s World Cup, or the women’s World Cup in 2026 or 2030 – be held in Africa?
Volleyball’s men’s World Championships have generally been held in Europe or South America and the 2022 FIVB Worlds will be in Russia. The women’s Worlds will be in Poland and the Netherlands in 2022, so both 2026 and 2030 could be open to be held in Africa.
The UCI’s placement of its most important event of the year in the Rwandan capital of Kigali continues a noteworthy – and positive – trend toward placing events in cities which have reasonable tourism infrastructure as opposed to the highly-developed hospitality centers of Europe, North America and 3-4 countries in Asia.
Rwanda, located in the middle of the continent, just to the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has a population of about 12.7 million, just a little more than metropolitan Los Angeles (about 12.4 million today).
Kigali itself is estimated at about 1.1 million people in 2021; why not hold a major world championship there when World Athletics is headed to Eugene, Oregon in 2022; the “metropolitan area” of Eugene-Springfield is just 382,971 per the 2020 U.S. Census!
So why would Rwanda be so interested in the UCI Road Worlds?
A fascinating section of the Rwanda Development Board annual report for 2020 noted that its “sleeve sponsorship” of the famed English Premier League team Arsenal:
● “41% of fans aware of the partnership are more likely to visit Rwanda, an increase from 35% in 2019
● “Among the 41%, sleeve branding continues to be the most influential factor
● “46% of those more likely to visit report promotional videos and the [Brazilian midfielder] David Luiz 2019 visit to Rwanda as a factor in this shift.”
From the Arsenal branding exercise, the Development Board review identified that potential visitors do not view Rwanda as being “safe” or “luxurious.” So:
“There is, therefore, an opportunity to emphasise the safety and luxury elements of the holiday experience in Rwanda in future activations.”
There you have it. The Development Board target for foreign investment in the pandemic year of 2020 was $1.5 billion (U.S.), and there are opportunities for a lot more. Who cares if there is modest local ticket revenue from the Cycling Worlds in 2025 if potential foreign investors can be shown a positive business environment?
We are at the beginning of a fascinating era for international sport, and especially its mega-events, as players in the development of African business – by and for Africans – by bringing the attention of the business world to host cities and countries of major events which are highlights on the international sports calendar.
As the late Aretha Franklin put it in her monster 1985 hit, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who“?
For our 743-event International Sports Calendar for 2021 and beyond, by date and by sport, click here!