Sport has enormous power to generate social, economic and environmental change. It is a tool to empower girls and women. It has the potential to equip them with leadership skills and discipline but also dismantle stereotypes and discrimination. Women are far more visible in sports today than at any previous point in history. However they are still underpaid compared to their male counterparts. It is our challenge to ensure the achievement of gender equality in the sports world and values underpinned in the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.
Here are 10 African women who have excelled in a variety of sports and have either paved the way or are still paving a way for other African women athletes.
Tanya Muzinda (Zimbabwe)
Tanya started racing at the age of 5 years. Before the age of 13, Tanya is the first ever female motocross champion in Zimbabwe and holds various other titles including Teen Sportsperson of the Year. She is the first woman in Zimbabwean motorcross history to have won a championship race. Tanya is an example that girls can excel any sport and age doesn’t matter.
Derartu Tulu (Ethiopia)
Derartu is the first African, black female athlete to win an Olympic title, Tulu was born in the village of Bekoji, in the Arsi region of central Ethiopia in 1969. She is known to be one of the legendary African runners specializing in long-distance running – road running, marathon distance, cross country running. In 1992, Tulu won the women’s 10,000 meters race in the Barcelona Olympics. She was also the first athlete to win two Olympic titles over the distance of 10,000m when she won the race in the Olympic games of Sydney in 2000. Tulu also won the world title of 10,000m in Edmonton in 2001.
Portia Modise (South Africa)
Portia is the first African female player to reach the 100th goal scored for the national team. Modise was born in Soweto, where she started football competitions with the Soweto Ladies in 1996. She became one of two African women, along with Perpetua Nkwocha, to be nominated as FIFA World Player of the Year, which was won by Germany’s Birgit Prinz.
Isabelle Sambou (Senegal)
The Senegalese freestyle wrestler is a nine-time gold medalist in under 51 kg in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013, and under 53 kg in 2014 and 2016 at the African Wrestling Championships. Born in October 1980, Sambou became a four-time silver medalist in under 56 kg in 2001, under 51 kg in 2006, under 48 kg in 2012, and under 53 kg in 2015. She won the bronze medal in 2002 under 55 kg, as well as, to the 2009 world title of breach wrestling under 70 kg. Sambou was crowned 2015’s “African Wrestler of the Decade” by the World Wrestling Union (WWU). She is seen as a model for all fighters considering her sport being male-dominated.
Maria Lourdes Mutola (Mozambique)
Mutola, born in 1972 in Maputo, is the only Mozambican athlete in history, including both men and women, to have won a world or Olympic title. She is also the only athlete in history to have won four world or Olympic titles over 800 meters. She specializes in mid-stance, including 800 meters. Mutola won the Olympic title in 2000, three titles at the World Open-Air Championships, as well as seven victories at the World Indoor Championships. She also won five titles at the African Championships, three at the African Games, and two at the Commonwealth Games. The Queen of the 800m further won two world records – 1,000 meters in Brussels (1995) and Stockholm (1999), two 800-meter world championships in 1993 and 2001, first place in the 800-meter World Cup final Meters in 2001 in Lisbon, and a gold medal at the Sydney Olympic Games (2000).
Nawal El Moutawakel (Morocco)
The Moroccan Minister of Sports from 2007 to 2009 was the first Moroccan, Arab, African, and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. This happened to be the first time that the race became a part of the program of the Olympic games. The gold medalist in 1995 became a member of the International Athletics Federation. She subsequently became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1998 and held positions on the Executive Board. Before becoming a Sports Minister in 2007, Moutawakel was appointed the Secretary of State for Youth and Sports in Morocco by King Hassan II. Born in 1962 in Casablanca, Morocco, Moutawakel is now seen as one who champions the movement of emancipation through sport, culture, and politics.
Caster Semenya (South Africa)
Caster is a double champion and triple world champion in the 800m distance. Semenya won the gold medal at the Berlin World Championships in 2009. She first participated in an international competition in 2008, when she competed in the 800m junior world championships. She subsequently won the gold medal at the African Championships in Mauritius in 2009. Semenya also became the World Champion in Daegu in 2011. She also won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in London 2012 and Rio 2016, before once again becoming the world champion at London 2017.
Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe)
Kirsty is swimmer specializing in backstroke and four medley competitions. She discovered international competition in the late 1990s, and her first participation in the Olympic Games was in 2000 in Sydney. Four years later at the Olympic games of Athens 2004, she became the first individual Olympic champion of her country. She confirmed her new status by winning several awards at the world championships, including two world titles won in 2005 in Montreal. After underperforming in 2006 and 2007, Coventry beat the holder of the world record in February of 2008.
Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia)
The cross-country racer between 2003 and 2013, won three Olympic titles, five world championships on track, and four cross-country championship titles. Born in 1985 in Bekoji, Tirunesh Dibaba became the only athlete to have achieved the double in 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the same edition of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. She is also the first to consecutively win the 10,000 meters during the Games in 2008 and 2012. Dibaba became the third-fastest woman in history, as well as the Ethiopian record holder, when she finished in second place with 2:17:56 during the Marathon distance at London 2017. In her second participation in the Marathon distance in London 2017, Tirunesh Dibaba became the third-fastest woman in history, as well as the Ethiopian record holder, when she finished in second place with 2:17:56.
Françoise Mbango Etone (Cameroon)
Francoise (1976 – Yaoundé) is a Cameroonian athlete specializing in triple jump. Mbango is the first and only Cameroonian athlete in history to have won a world or Olympic title. She was a gold medalist in triple jumping in Athens in 2004, as well as in Beijing in 2008. She started her career with a first medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. She then won her first medal in 2001 at the World Championships in Edmonton, finishing second behind Russia’s Tatyana Lebedeva. Only a year later, she won a new silver medal at the Commonwealth Games held in Manchester. At the Olympics in Athens, Mbango later won the title in a competition where she first crossed the 15.30 m- her personal best. Mbango crossed 14.76 meters at the 2008 African Championships in Addis Ababa, giving her a place to defend her title at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. However, this participation was thanks to an intervention by the International Olympic Committee, since the Cameroonian federation did not want to register her in games despite her performances. In the Beijing competition, she jumped 15.39 meters, which allowed her to win a second Olympic title. Mbango has since lived in France for more than twenty years, and she obtained the French nationality in 2010.