By Dibussi Tande
“Francoise Mbango does not respect Cameroon. She has dragged Cameroon through the mud on numerous occasions” Ange Sama, President of the Cameroon Athletic Federation (2005)
“I don't know if I had to obtain the permission of the athletics federation or that of Ange Sama before having a baby... This is insulting!” F. Mbango (2008)
Yesterday, Cameroonian triple jump champion, Francoise Mbango Etone, won the Olympic gold medal in her discipline with the second-longest jump in history – 15.39 meters – just 11 centimeters off the world record. This was Mbango’s second consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Four years ago in Athens, she produced one of the finest championship series in history, recording five jumps over 15 meters, twice hitting the winning distance of 15.30 to reclaim her African triple jump record along with the gold.
Francoise Mbango’s win brings to an end her fiery and sometimes vicious four-year war of words – and wills – with Cameroonian authorities who accused her of being ungrateful, arrogant, greedy and even unpatriotic. In fact, only three months ago, she wasn’t certain to participate in the Olympic games because she was under an indefinite suspension by the Cameroonian Athletics Federation...
Prima donna or free spirit?
Mbango’s problems with Cameroonian authorities began immediately after the 2004 Olympics when she took 17 days to return to Cameroon – a delay considered too long by government officials impatient to milk the gold medal for political purposes. She again infuriated officials when she returned to Cameroon unannounced in the early hours of September 18, 2008 thereby depriving government functionaries of a chance to bask in the limelight. Although it had been intimated that she was urgently wanted back in Cameroon for an audience with President Biya, she was forced to wait for another five months before being received by the president in February 2005. Mbango was promised a special bonus of 80 million Francs CFA (20 million FCFA for each year) to allow her prepare adequately for Beijing 2008 – unlike in the run-up to Athens when she was abandoned to her own devices and coached by her junior sister.
Relations with Cameroonian authorities, particularly the Cameroonian athletics federation took a turn for the worse when Mbango, who was expected to lead Cameroon’s delegation to the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki, Finland, informed officials just hours before the delegation’s departure that she would not make the trip. She claimed that that she was not psychologically ready for the competition because of the condition of her mother who had been diagnosed with cancer. The Athletics Federation would have none of it, especially after it was fined $4,400 dollars.
Mbango did not take part in any athletic competition for the rest of the year, save for a meet in Zurich where she came in 6th. She reappeared again only in April 2006 to give an incendiary interview to Radio France International in which she complained about the shabby treatment of Cameroonian authorities and their refusal to honor the 80 million FCFA pledge made by the president.
I am upset... orders were given in public by the highest authority in Cameroon…they openly promised me many things... They themselves know what has become of those promises today… I was very distressed and I have decided to take a step back… to take care of myself… and to deal with those who gave me and are giving me a hand so that I can continue with my career.
Records of the IAAF Show that Mbango kept to her promise and did not take part in any competition for the rest of 2006 and all of 2007. During this period, she had a baby, leading many to wonder if she would ever compete again.
Even though she was away from the spotlight, Mbango would be at the center of yet another controversy in June 2007 when her name was not included on the list of athletes selected by the Cameroon Athletics Federation to take part in the All African Games in Algiers. The federation argued that Mbango had not met the minimum requirements for taking part in the games. The federation’s president, however, intimated that her absence was due to her attitude when he told reporters that “Francoise Mbango does not respect Cameroon. She has rubbed Cameroon in mud on numerous occasions”. The federation was eventually pressured to overturn its decision.
To the consternation of everyone, Mbango who had allegedly been training in Paris, inexplicably failed to show up in Algiers. Mbango’s no-show in Algiers was the final straw in her tumultuous relationship with the federation. On September 25, 2007, the disciplinary committee of the Cameroon Athletics Federation, charged Mbango with “contempt and disrespectful behavior” and suspended her indefinitely from all national and international competitions. The committee stipulated that the suspension would be in effect until such a time when the athlete justified her absence from the 2005 Helsinki Games and 2007 African Games, return the money that was given to her for the All African Games, and apologize to the federation. The suspension was announced shortly after the Ministry of Sports finally gave her 38 million francs as part of the 80 million promised in 2005.
Mbango refused to apologize or appear before the disciplinary and accused federation officials of being callous:
“I don't know if I had to obtain the permission of the athletics federation or that of Ange Sama before having a baby... It is inhuman to demand that a female athlete, an Olympic champion for that matter, who takes a break from competition and returns after giving birth... be brought before a disciplinary commission. It is insulting!”
Even with the suspension hanging over her head, Mbango showed up for the national athletics competition in Yaounde April 2008 which were also the trials for the African Athletics Championship scheduled for Ethiopia in May. She was allowed to take part in the early stages of the triple jump during which she met the required 13 meter jump for the African championship. She was eventually she kicked out of the competition on the orders of the the President of the Athletics federation who insisted that a suspended athlete could not take part in the competition.
The standoff between Mbango and the federation continued until April 22 when the athletics federation announced that it had lifted the suspension “in spite of the blatant indiscipline of the athlete, Mbango Etone Françoise, her contempt for the Cameroon Athletics Federation, the National Olympics Committee, and government authorities…”
The “capricious and bellicose” Mbango accepted the olive branch, and explained that there had been “too many misunderstandings”. She offered her “sincere apologies” to the Cameroonian people, and promised repeat her gold winning performance in Beijing.
One last demand
Mbango went on to win the gold medal at the African championship in Ethiopia, thereby winning her ticket for the Olympics. She however had one last ace up her sleeve before heading off to Beijing. While the Cameroonian delegation was already in Beijing, Mbango flew in to Yaounde and requested that the Ministry of Sports hand over her 25 million FCFA participation bonus. With the Olympics barely a few days away, the the Ministry of Sports acquiesced without a fight. Although officials at the Athletics Federation applauded the speedy resolution of the issue, they nonetheless complained about the “blackmail” that surrounded the whole affair. “We should not get into a power struggle with government”, pouted one official.
Before boarding the plane for Beijing, Mbango promised to bring back the gold medal to Cameroon. “I am 100 per cent confident” she bragged.
The rest is history…
Now we wait for the next – and inevitable! – chapter in the never ending saga of the world class athlete who is determined to do things her way and of Cameroonian officials who're also determined to force her to submit to the demands or diktat of the “superior interest of the nation”.