To many observers, Angola may have figured only peripherally at an Olympic rowing regatta dominated by the traditional powerhouses.
While Great Britain, Germany and New Zealand swept up the lion’s share of the medals, Angola was represented by a single boat, with Andre Matias and Jean-Luc Rasamoelina finishing 20th overall in the men’s lightweight double sculls.
In the context of the country’s history, their mere participation was significant.
As a former Portuguese colony, rowing once had a rich history in Angola.
In the 1880s, colonialists established what is still Angola’s solitary boat club in the capital, Luanda.
Matias’ grandfather took part in the sport, which thrived until Angola gained its independence in 1975, sparking a brutal civil war. The 27-year-long struggle between pro and anti-communist forces that ended in 2002 claimed around 500,000 lives.
Matias and Rasamoelina remember growing up through the conflict in the 1990s.
“We didn’t have electricity for a while and there was shortage of water,” Rasamoelina told Al Jazeera. “Although the capital was relatively safe, I remember hearing gunfire from our apartment.”
When the Portuguese left Angolan shores in the mid-1970s, they took much of their culture with them.
“Rowing was mostly practised and funded by the Portuguese in Angola,” Rasamoelina added. “When Angola gained independence, most of them quickly left the country so they didn’t have time to leave a legacy.”
Amid the sociopolitical chaos, rowing and many other sports simply vanished, Matias told Al Jazeera.
“It was just abandoned,” he said. “There was just no culture of rowing after independence. The whole idea was that you have collective sports – handball, football and basketball. More focus was put into those rather than largely individual sports.
“And even though we have a beautiful bay, all the conditions you need for rowing, no one thought about bringing it back to life.”
Nobody until 2006, when Matias inadvertently became Angola’s first rower in decades.
Having attended high school in the US, he started looking for ways to continue his involvement in Angola.
“I found out that the marina in Luanda had these left-over boats that were decades old. They were in a really bad shape and but they floated. They had wooden sculls, which tells you how ancient they were. No one has rowed with wooden sculls for years.”
A year later, Matias was sent to compete for his country at the All-African Games, the first time an independent Angola had been represented in an international rowing competition.
“I got slaughtered,” said Matias. “I was sent to Algeria and they gave me a nice boat and sculls, but I finished second to last. I then went to university in the US. In 2010, I decided to go for the Olympics with exactly 1,000 days to go until Rio.”
By 2011, Rasamoelina had taken up rowing too, and the two childhood friends decided to pursue their Olympic dream together. With little financial support, it seemed almost impossible.
To achieve their dream, Matias quit full-time education, and Rasamoelina gave up his job. The pair moved to Switzerland to train, scraping together funding from their families and various private companies.
In 2013, they won Angola’s first medal at the All-African Games. Two years later, qualification for Rio 2016 was secured against all odds.
But funding and lack of infrastructure have been major issues for athletes in the country.
“The mentality of the Angolan sports federations needs to change,” Ana Nobrega, 100m freestyle swimmer, said.
“Team sports are the most attractive to the public, something which is engrained in our culture, and so they get the most investment. For Angolan swimmers and athletes in other individual sports to make an impact on the world stage, things need to change from the top. The reason why our handball and basketball teams are African champions is because they’ve received a lot of funding.
“The only reason why I made it is because I train in Portugal and my parents have provided financial support for everything. In Angola we don’t have any infrastructure for individual sports. In swimming we lack even the basic things like gyms and swimming pools.”
But Matias and Radamoelina’s presence at the Olympics has secured Angola a rowing legacy which both hope will last for years.
“It’s an expensive sport,” Matias said. “Our success has been the catalyst for many things. The World Rowing Federation has seen that Angola is serious. Right now we have just one club, but I dream that soon we will have rowing in many other parts of the country.”
In 2013, Angola imported 10 boats, the first time any rowing equipment had been shipped into the country since before the civil war.
The vice-president of the Angolan Nautical Federation told Al Jazeera that most of the rowers before independence had a Portuguese background.
“That’s why rowing dropped off the map when they left, and now our culture is just beginning,” said Olga Albuquerque.
“It’s not easy to resurrect a sport from scratch but by purchasing boats, promoting it to people in Luanda and getting our best athletes together for training camps ahead of the African Championships, as well as training coaches and umpires, rowing now finally has some expression in Angola.”
Since 2013, Matias and Rasamoelina have been joined by more competitors at the African Championships.
“I was afraid that Angolan rowing would die with me,” Matias said. “That I wouldn’t pass the baton. But we’re definitely building something. I think Angola will have a regular presence at least in African rowing in the next few years and we’ll have rowers at Tokyo 2020 in some events.
“Rowing is seen as something for the wealthy, but what we’re creating in Angola is an accessible sport. We have a lot of kids who live in poor neighbourhoods close to the club in Luanda. To them, it’s a possible way out of poverty. A lot of these kids come to train on an empty stomach and that shows a lot about the fighting spirit of my countrymen.”
Both Matias and Rasamoelina believe strongly in the unifying power of sport, and while for many Angolans the civil war is still a vivid memory, being represented on an international stage eases some of the pain.
“We have a brutal history of war and that’s something which is still alive in our memories,” Matias said. “It only ended in 2002, which isn’t so long ago. For many years we couldn’t really travel the country. But we’re looking towards the future and a sport like rowing is very unifying.
“Sport is so important. It lifts people and gives them possibilities. Right now we’re in the middle of a deep financial crisis with the oil shock. But people are looking at our handball team who defeated Romania and Montenegro at these Olympics, and it gives them hope.”
And what has been the biggest legacy of their Olympic journey?
“Until very recently no one knew about it in Angola. People didn’t know that you could row on the bay of Luanda. We’ve brought it back.”
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