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Sierra Leone Marathon 2014

Sport in development and the Sierra Leone Marathon

Below is a piece our 2012 Race Director Ben Hodgson submitted to the Guardian's Development Podcast on the topic of sport as a development tool. 

 

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In June I was part of a team that organised the first ever mass-participation marathon to be held in Sierra Leone. The primary objective of the event was to raise money for the UK charity Street Child of Sierra Leone by generating corporate and runner sponsorship. In this regard, the marathon was a spectacular success.

 

But there were several ancillary aims. The first of these was to leverage the extraordinary challenge of running a marathon in Sierra Leone to persuade existing and new supporters of the charity to visit Sierra Leone, to see the country first hand and to visit the charity's street child and school building projects. There is surely no better way to raise overseas awareness of the social, health and educational challenges in countries like Sierra Leone than for visitors to see them first hand and, hopefully, become ambassadors for those causes.

 

The second ancillary aim was to hold an event in which Sierra Leoneans and foreign athletes would line up side by side, creating a truly international and inclusive flavour. Of the 380 runners that took part, about half were foreign nationals from more than a dozen countries. Some Sierra Leonean athletes were former street children or amputees. Much like Londoners during the Olympics, the marathon was greeted by spectators (and some stakeholders) with a heart-warming juxtaposition of pride and bemusement. Both of those things were accentuated by the fact that the run took place in the small city of Makeni, far from Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital and tourism and development hub, where big events and foreign faces are far more ubiquitous.

The third aim was to provide a platform for established and aspirant Sierra Leonean athletes to take part in a well-organised race with international profile, and sufficient prize money to make the training worthwhile. We were delighted when the race was won by Idrissa Kargbo, a Sierra Leonean running his first marathon, in a time (2 hours 38 minutes) that defied the road surfaces and hot conditions.

 

Even beyond these aims, there have been unforeseen positives flowing from the event. One foreign competitor in the marathon is now investigating ways of creating a long-term program to support the development of promising distance runners in Sierra Leone, and the marathon provided an opportunity for corporates in Sierra Leone and the UK who had not previously sponsored sports events to do so.

 

Moreover, in a country where gender equality remains a massive issue, the sight of the only Sierra Leonean woman to enter the marathon finishing in fourth place cannot have done that cause any harm.

 

The marathon generated revenue and profile, certainly. But it also generated pride amongst participants and spectators alike. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it inspired a whole generation, but it was a spectacular example of the power of sport to unify, empower and engage in a country that is still finding its feet. Projects like the Sierra Leone Marathon, and those run by Fambul Tok and the Craig Bellamy Foundation, can help to unlock both individual and collective sporting potential and self-esteem, and in doing so contribute to the promotion of a sense of national identity in countries where this is fragile.

 

Working on the marathon led me to conclude that sport is at its best as development tool when the development of sport itself is part of the aim. Above all, though, sport is fun to do and fun to watch. And a bit of fun goes a long way.

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