ONCE upon a time in Kampala, excellent sportsmen were the toast of the town. They were the dudes everyone looked to; the ones everyone rushed to see on the streets, the biggest cultural influences of the society. In stepped showbiz personalities who stole their shine.
The glory days
You must have heard of one of those grey-haired elders wax about the days when John Akii-Bua was a larger-than-life phenomenon in Kampala, after he won Ugandaâ€™s first and only ever gold medal at the Olympics.
It is said business would come to a standstill at every street he appeared for the remainder of his life, as people gathered to have a look or even a chat with the national hero.
You may have caught the tales about those 1970s and 1980s days when top local footballers like Philip Omondi and Polly Ouma had everyone rushing out of their shops to wave at them when they strolled through Kampalaâ€™s streets.
If you find one who has really seen the years fly by, there are also stories of how boxer Ayub Kalule (who won the World Welterweight boxing title in 1974) was so celebrated that everywhere he passed in the city, people presented him with gifts in form of sugar, meat, money and clothes.
Showbiz personalities take over
Fred Ssekitto, a legendary sports journalist and administrator, says with the liberalisation of the electronic media in the 1990s (which saw the advent of FM radio and private TV stations in Uganda), a new class of celebrities that were media-made, emerged.
These were stage actors, musicians, socialites and radio/TV personalities. They were bolstered by a vibrant tabloid press (largely magazines) in the mid-1990s that paved the way for tabloid newspapers at the turn of the millennium, most of which largely focused on the new group.
Then in the early 2000s with the advent of PAM Awards and other developments, this new class began to exhibit real money, power and influence.
Local sportsmen had long been relegated to the peripheries of fame and popularity and, with their meagre pay, could hardly keep up with the flamboyant lifestyles of their showbiz counterparts that attracted popular and media attention.
Ssekitto also attributes the waning of sports personalitiesâ€™ celebrity status to a decline in the management and organisation of local sports.
Return of the macks
But hark! There seems to be a recent twist. Apparently, sportsmen are once again reclaiming their spot among celebrated personalities.
Loud-mouthed Moses Golola, who recently got the nationâ€™s attention as he battled for the African Middleweight Kick-boxing belt three weeks ago, is the latest example on a long list of local sportsmen that have clearly captured our imagination beyond their respective sports over the last few years.
There is Moses Kipsiro who is perhaps Ugandaâ€™s biggest sports personality in the world at the moment. This Kipsiro is the only Ugandan currently featuring in a signature trailer on continental sports broadcaster DStv, playing on screens across the continent several times a day.
In boxing, there is boxer Kassim the Dream Ouma, a former world champion fighting at the top-most level of boxing in the world. His romance with singer Juliana Kanyomozi must be one of the most publicised affairs in recent times. Sharif Bogere is another pugilist who should soon be at that level.
In motorsport, personalities like female rally driver Suzan Muwonge, Ponsiano Lwakataka and Ronald Ssebuguzi are household names. There is Duncan Mugabe in tennis, Edwin Ekiring in badminton and professional footballers like David Obua and Ibrahim Ssekagya, among others.
All these top sportsmen are now household names across the country; real celebrities in the eyes of the people, like their showbiz counterparts.
Many of them now earn enough to live large â€” driving cool cars, dressing up in fancy clothes and splashing money when it is party time.
How they bounced back
Joseph Kabuleta, a local sports analyst, believes that after Inzikuruâ€™s triumph (at the IAAF in 2003, when she became the first Ugandan to win gold at an IAAF meet), Ugandans discovered that when a sportsman succeeds they have a rare opportunity to be proud of their country.
So they took to once again celebrating every sportsman who succeeds just to draw some national pride.
After realising that sportsmen command a large following, corporate companies have started throwing their weight behind these sports celebrities for their branding and marketing purposes.
One sports administrator who prefers anonymity thinks that mainstream showbiz celebrities should feel threatened. Corporate sponsors are dividing the same budget between them and their re-emerging sports counterparts; more of one means less of the other.
Yet, unlike some showbiz celebrities (especially musicians) who are ill-mannered (fist fights, abuse of illegal substances with impunity and all sorts of irresponsible behavior), sportsmen display a high level of discipline in public which is good for brand image.
Getting their groove back