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Uganda: athletes fight BAT's abuse of sports

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BAT must be concerned that its sponsorship of sport in Uganda has been attracting a rising chorus of criticism.

Beatrice Ayikoru, Assistant General Secretary of the Ugandan Amateur Athletics Federation, who still holds the women's national marathon record.

Starting with its leading brand, which bears the unsubtle name Sportsman, BAT's policy on top level sport sometimes seems akin to ownership. But while sports journalists might usually be among the first to blow the whistle, or at least question the highly inappropriate association between cigarettes and sport, BAT has found a simple solution—sponsoring the well organised Ugandan Sports Press Association (USPA). For 10 years, USPA has taken BAT's money, and in that time, few voices critical of tobacco have been heard among its membership. Some are prepared to speak privately about their disapproval, but not on the record.

Kenneth Matovu, USPA's general secretary and its journalist of the year for the last two years, was asked in a recent interview why he had not written an article analysing tobacco sponsorship of sport in Uganda. Apparently deeply troubled by the issue, his reply was simple: “I can't be quoted. No comment.” Journalists in other fields, however, are well aware of the contradictions. Joachim Buwembo, editor of the Sunday Vision and president of the Ugandan Newspaper Editors and Proprietors Association (UNEPA), has said: “USPA is the most active media association. UNEPA commends them for the great job they have done over the years. But we would be happier if they downplayed the identity of their tobacco sponsor or, better still, got another sponsor.”

Another distinguished journalist and editor of theMonitor, Charles Onyango Obbo, told an interviewer: “There is an element of cowardice in the attitude of the sports journalists. It is not because their newspapers would not run critical articles on tobacco sponsorship of sport—I would run them, but I just don't receive them.” The explanation for this, he said, lay with what he called “club relations”—journalists being reluctant to offend the sponsor of their club. So the key pressure not to write anti-tobacco articles comes from a journalist's peers, rather than directly from the tobacco lobby, an illuminating evaluation of the effectiveness of BAT's sponsorship. Other leading sports figures have also begun speaking out. Major General Francis Nyangweso, president of the Ugandan Olympic Committee (UOC), and David Agong, the president of the Ugandan Amateur Boxing Federation, both recently emphasised their opposition to tobacco sponsorship of sport.

Grace Birungi, 26, sprinter turned middle distance runner, is the mother of two small children yet has stayed in the sport, making her a much admired role model.

The highlight of USPA's year is the annual Sportsman Gala, when it traditionally crowns its “Sportsman of the Year”. This year, the rally driver Charles Muhangi was awarded the title, with athlete Grace Birungi and boxer Mohammed Kizito runners up. The regulations of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) (rule 18.3) prohibit tobacco advertising at athletics events, and a logical interpretation in relation to the USPA Gala would mean Grace Birungi being asked not to attend the ceremony.

This point is well appreciated by Beatrice Ayikoru, the much respected Assistant General Secretary of the Ugandan Amateur Athletics Federation (UAAF), senior member of the Ugandan Olympic Committee and a former athletics star—she still holds the women's national marathon record. Grace Birungi, 26, used to be a sprinter, but recently converted to middle distance (800 m), in which event she last year won a bronze medal at the All African Games in South Africa. Unusually for a woman athlete, she has two small children, yet has remained in top level athletics. She is thus a particularly powerful female role model, a point no doubt not lost on BAT's marketing department. In a country where few women smoke, the importance to BAT of trying to get her to a much publicised tobacco promotion cannot be overstated.