Sports play an integral role in African culture. Regardless of cultural or social differences, sports are thought to unite Africans together as one. There is little doubt that Africa has the potential to foster world-class athletes across every sporting discipline. Today, African competitors can be found participating in nearly all sports globally, showing no signs of relenting their dominance anytime soon.
The sporting tradition in Africa boasts a long and illustrious history. The continent has now gained worldwide recognition for its excellence across various athletic domains. Let us examine some of the most beloved sports across Africa.
8 Most Popular Sports in Africa
Football is undoubtedly Africa’s most beloved and popular sport, spanning the continent from north to south and east to west. Its origins can be traced back to the 1800s. It is a common sight to see children playing football in any open space in rural and urban areas alike. Some of the most renowned professional footballers launched their careers on those humble playgrounds, which may surprise you.
Given Africans’ passion for the sport, the number of professional football clubs and leagues on the continent has steadily grown. Among them are the African Cup of Nations, the Nigerian Professional Football League, the South African Premier Soccer League, and the Algerian Ligue Professionnelle. Sponsorships from both public and private entities have undoubtedly contributed to football’s widespread popularity.
Some of Africa’s most notable footballers include Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Samuel Eto’o, and many others making waves globally.
Rugby enjoys widespread popularity in Namibia and South Africa. Along with football and cricket, it is one of South Africa’s premier sports. The Confederation of African Rugby serves as the governing body for rugby union across Africa, currently consisting of 37 member nations. The organization oversees various rugby tournaments held throughout the continent, including the CAR Super 16 and Africa Cup competitions. The African Leopards represent an African select team aimed at further promoting rugby across the region.
The rugby landscape in Kenya has witnessed rapid growth, with the high-profile annual Safari Sevens Tournament attracting players worldwide. Kenya’s National Rugby Team made history by winning the IRB Sevens World Series in Dubai in 2016.
South Africa boasts over 600,000 registered rugby players, representing steady growth. By comparison, Kenya has 40,000 registered players, of which 3,000 are women and 30,000 youths. In the official World Rugby Rankings released on July 17, 2017, South Africa placed fifth globally behind New Zealand, England, Ireland, and Australia.
While cycling has traditionally been linked with Western nations, its popularity in Africa continues to surge. Cycling has emerged as a rapidly expanding phenomenon that is highly popular in South Africa, renowned for its picturesque and thrilling cycling trails. The diverse cycling paths expose riders to varied ecosystems, from tree-lined streets to verdant vineyards.
Cycling’s popularity in South Africa is evidenced by over 25,600 registered members nationwide. South African native Greg Minnaar has won the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup three times.
Women’s cycling is also gaining traction in Ethiopia, Eritrea’s neighbor. Similarly, Algeria and Kenya are embracing cycling as a growing sport.
Cricket enjoys immense popularity across Africa, especially in nations like Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Uganda also boast legions of ardent fans. However, due to apartheid policies, South Africa was barred from competing in international cricket for 20 years, only returning after the ban was lifted.
The 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, co-hosted by Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, marked Africa’s first major international cricket tournament, further elevating the sport’s popularity on the continent.
Some of Africa’s most accomplished cricketers include AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Barry Richards, Hashim Amla, Allan Donald, and Dale Steyn, among other icons.
Wrestling has been integral to countless African cultures since time immemorial, with village wrestling matches being commonplace. More than just a sport, it profoundly reflects African society and tradition. This practice continues in many communities today, especially in Senegal, Nubian communities in Sudan, and Southern Egypt where wrestling reigns supreme. Talented wrestlers garner immense respect and rise to become prominent athletes.
Wrestling is the national pastime in Senegal, with football coming in second. Surprisingly, wrestling has been a major catalyst for social assimilation and economic advancement in the country, in addition to serving as the quintessential embodiment of African culture and tradition. With Senegal also emerging as one of West Africa’s most successful and vibrant hubs of national sport, Senegalese wrestling now enjoys viewership across borders.
Once a village sport to pass time during the dry season, wrestling has now evolved into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Statistics show the burgeoning sport rakes in up to $2 million in sponsorships annually, with top national wrestlers capable of earning up to $200,000 per match. Such lucrative sums draw many impoverished African youths to wrestling, believing it to be their best opportunity for improving their lives.
Africa stands as an athletics juggernaut, particularly in field and track events where the continent has excelled in international competition. Undoubtedly, athletics has helped put Africa on the map, with these success stories beginning several decades ago. Thanks to an abundance of talent, African athletes have shined and broken major world records at high-profile global sporting events. Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Algeria number among the African nations renowned for their stellar athletic performances.
African athletes play a pivotal role in cementing the continent’s reputation as a sporting powerhouse. Moreover, on the back of the hype and triumphs of its star athletes, sports tourism in Africa has steadily risen. African athletic history traces back to 1908 when South African sprinter Reggie Walker became the first African to claim Olympic 100-meter gold.
According to an IAAF World Championships Athletics report, Kenya holds the distinction as the top African country in the field of Athletics with 128 medals. Ethiopia follows closely behind with 72 medals, while South Africa places third with 21 medals. Gifted with exceptional speed, strength, and stamina, African athletes continue to dominate the sport at a global level.
Motor rallies across Africa enjoy widespread renown both on the continent and globally, cementing rallying as one of the region’s most beloved sports. Rally enthusiasts relish the rugged African roads and off-road terrain, which are regarded as the most challenging rally courses worldwide. This brings together renowned and up-and-coming rally drivers.
Despite numerous hurdles like inadequate sponsorship, rallying remains a cherished sport with many tournaments held regularly on the continent. In recent years, several newer, smaller corporate-sponsored rallying events have emerged in various African nations.
According to rankings by FIA, the global motorsport governing body, Uganda leads the African continent with 2,754 points, placing 27th overall nationally. Rwanda ranks second in Africa and 34th globally with 2,124 points. Zimbabwe places third in Africa and 38th worldwide with 1,701 points.
Basketball stands as one of the fastest-growing sports across Africa. In many African cities, it is common to see children donning sweatshirts, jerseys and t-shirts bearing famous NBA player names. With basketball facilities available in both public and private schools, youth can hone their skills, particularly in high school basketball leagues.
In recent years, the number of professional teams has risen substantially, accompanied by many basketball clinics aimed at elevating play quality. Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo rank among the most eminent African basketball stars to have competed in the NBA.
While basketball enjoys popularity in other nations like Tunisia, Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon, Nigeria remains atop the continent’s FIBA Men’s Basketball rankings. Considered one of the top six sports for workouts, basketball reigns as one of the best indoor sports available.
The sports detailed above constitute Africa’s top eight most beloved athletic activities. Boxing, golf, netball, swimming, surfing, and tennis also enjoy widespread popularity across the continent. Exercise confers numerous benefits. In addition to fostering improved mental and physical wellbeing, sports instill discipline, teamwork, confidence and character development.