Over the next four weeks, Africa.com will be profiling athletes and sharing stories from the continent to London as the 2012 Summer Olympics get underway!
At the 2011 World Championships in Athletics in South Korea, Amantle Montsho became Botswana’s first-ever track and field champion: she subsequent
ly became the reigning World Champion over the 400-meter race, with a personal best of 49.56 seconds.
Monthso was born on July 4, 1983 in Mabudutsa, Botswana. She represented Botswana at both the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, competing in the final of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Montsho’s 2004 Athens Summer Olympics debut made her Botswana’s first female Olympian, and at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, she finished eighth in the 400m race–a remarkable improvement from her Olympics debut in 2004.
Amantle Montsho had a humble upbringing in the village of Maun, in northern Botswana. A recent New York Times article covers the athlete’s early life, speaking with family members. Her stepsister, Kabelo Monnawalebala, recalls the two of them chasing ostrich and racing against each other. Montho’s parents separated when she was approximately two years old, and both parents struggled to make ends meet. However, Montsho has fought a lot of struggles to reach her current position in life.
Compounded with her familial financial struggles, Montsho was faced with the inadequate facilities in Botswana. The country allocates a small amount of its resources to sports. Also, Montsho did not have any role models in Botswana. However, Montsho’s growing popularity and support from her country, and the African continent, may very well create a role model out of Montsho for other female athletes. There is a lot of pressure and expectation for Montsho, as no African female athlete has ever won the 400m race, and the last African man to win this race did so in 1920. Her performance in the 400m race has improved since entering the High Performance Training Centres program, sponsored by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), in Dakar, Senegal.
Montsho’s athletic endeavors come with a price. As a teenager, Montsho was ridiculed by classmates because of her athletic physique. The image of women in Botswana requires her to look “feminine,” which is contrary to the body image of a lean and muscular athlete. As a result of the privileging of hegemonic femininity, Montsho was tormented in her adolescent years. Sadly, this ideal has affected a number of female athletes, as many of them are afraid of the ridicule and stigma associated with looking like a world-class athlete. According to historian Roger S. Levine, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has also contributed to the lack of desire of females to pursue professions as athletes. He claims that being thin, “even in an athletic sense, would have been seen problematically, in terms of being underfed or sick.”
Despite all the setbacks and trials that Montsho has had to endure, she is quickly becoming globally known. She has been awarded a sponsorship with Nike, which provides her with an income. She has also become an icon in Botswana and can be seen on billboards, which will definitely affect the perception and participation of female athletes in more competitive arenas. Montsho is one to look out for at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.