Africa Drain: Why Cameroonian Olympian Francoise Mbango changed nationality

Olympic champion Francoise Mbango Etone

This past month, the news, not fully unexpected though, filtered in. Africa has lost yet another talented athlete. This time the Cameroonian double Olympics Triple Jump medalist, Francoise Mbango Etone, has finally changed nationality to France.

As a Cameroonian myself, I thought 'oh not again' but the reality is that Francoise Mbango will now defend the French tricolors' after she finally accepted a French passport, six years after she was first contacted to defect.

She won her two Gold medals for Cameroon at the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympics Games, the only medal Cameroon won during both competitions. Until she became French, Francoise Mbango did not have a coach. Not surprisingly, the reaction of Cameroonian sporting officials to her nationality change had been mute.

Camerouno-French journalist and author, Maryse Ewanjé-Epée, reckoned that Francoise, having given her all to Cameroon, can at the end of her career decide to take French nationality because it gives an opportunity for the comfortable life she deserved.

More like the case of Kenya-born Bernard Lagat when he took up the US citizenship. One can definitely argued that these athletes deserved to make these choices.

As to why, this was long in coming. Francoise Mbango tells her own story in an interview she gave to the Cameroon Tribune's Irene Morikang in 2003 after she refused to accept an offer of French nationality.

The interview gives you an idea of what usually pushes African athletes' to take a foreign nationality. Here is an extract:

Q)  Irene M: You put on a green-red-yellow hairdo to defend Cameroon at the 9th World Athletics Championship in France. Was it a choice or just a coincidence?

A) F. Mbango: It was never a coincidence. The idea was well thought out. Images speak more than words and I wanted my image to speak for itself. With the hairdo, I couldn't pass unnoticed and no word could better express that feeling of being proud to be a Cameroonian. Everybody could see that in my look.

Q) Irene M: How did the public appreciate your look?

A) F. Mbango: Fantastic. Africans in Europe as a whole, and those in my neighbourhood in Paris in particular, adored it. People have been calling to complement the hairdo. Some of them say what they retained from the 9th World Athletics Championship is the colour of hair I had when defending the country and the record which I brake, rather than the position which I occupied.

Q) Irene M: Your spectacular performance left no one indifferent. How do you feel being the only Cameroonian medalist of the Paris expedition?

A) F. Mbango: (Smiles) I am happy because it would have been a shame if we left from France without a medal. The other athletes also defended the country well at their own level. The Cameroon record in relay was broken and the relay team participated in the semi finals. I knew that in the team, I was the one who had the greatest opportunity to grab a medal. I am happy to have accomplished that mission.

Q) Irene M: Such a performance certainly demands a lot of training.

A) F. Mbango: Excessive training, I might even say. Since the introduction of triple jump in athletics, only twelve girls in the world have attained my performance in Paris. I beat my own record twice. We never had such a performance in the last two years. So it demands more training and a lot of sacrifice.

Q) Irene M: Under what conditions did you train for Paris 2003?

A) F. Mbango: (Recoils)) I had a lot of problems which even made me to come to Cameroon four times in less than a year. The last time I was in the country was a month before the World Athletics Championship. I came to inform officials of the Cameroon Athletics Federation and those of the Ministry of Youth and Sports what I was going through. I was in real difficulties. I was being threatened in France on the issue of nationality. My coach was prohibited from training me. I was not allowed to train at my usual training ground. I also faced threats at school. They stopped giving the little scholarship that I had and since it is my club in France that was lodging me, I also started having problems with lodging. All these happened two months to the world championships. I found myself without a coach, without a place for training, I also had no access to medical care because it was reserved for the French team according to what I was told. Similarly, I had no right to go for camping and at the level of the media, I was a victim of blackmail.

Q) Irene M: How?

A) F. Mbango: (Furious) I saw how the media was trying to destabilise me, destroy me and my image. Journalists decided to render negative everything that I did. In the Oslo Golden league, for example, I was second with 14.88metres. One week after in the second Golden League in Paris Saint Denis I was third with 14.82 metres They said I was falling and that the only hope for Cameroon grabbing a medal was gone. In meetings, I was presented as the person who held the African record in Triple Jump which was not a very good reference for the public. Some journalists even went to the extent of saying I no longer hold the African record in triple jump which is a lie. At one time, I was even victim of a rumour that I was injured. I have suffered from such media blackmail, telephone threats, verbal abuse and written insults.

Q) Irene M: All this because you refused to change your nationality?

A) F. Mbango: Categorically.

Q) Irene M: Many people in your shoes would jump for what is being proposed to you.

A) F. Mbango: It is the heart that is speaking. I can't really explain. But it is close to something like: you cannot refuse your mother even if she does not have the means to bring you up. It is not because another mother has all to offer to you that you would abandon yours and jump into her hands. It is patriotism. Imagine that you find yourself in a stadium where there are 210 countries and over 5000 athletes. Imagine that within nine days of the competition attention is never focused on your country and that the one person who had to bring glory to this country threw her lots elsewhere and made a delegation of over 200 persons at such a world championship to go unnoticed? It hurts. This is inadmissible to me. We are all trying to leave our trace in history. I wanted to leave a trace for Cameroon during this world rendez-vous. And I am happy Cameroon was present. It retained the attention of the world for at least a minute. There is no price for this.

So what's changed? not much really in the past decade. Most, if not all the African Athletics Federations still treat their athletes and coaches with levity and sometimes utmost contempt.

For Francoise Mbango, an athlete, especially one who have gone through such a difficult but amazingly victorious path she had, can only takes so much.

How do you think Africa nations can retain and protect their best talents? or would you say there is no hope?

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