Competing Against the Odds

Competing Against the Odds is a photo essay about the Malian National Swimming Team and their preparation for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Bamako’s Olympic-size swimming pool at the Modibo Keïta Stadium was built in the late 1960’s by the Soviet Union for the 1969 All-Africa Games. The impressive, Communist-style structure lay empty for years, having fallen into disrepair, but it was renovated with Chinese funds and re-opened in 2010, as part of the 50th Anniversary of Mali's Independence.

Less than a year after the grand re-opening, however, the pool was closed once again, due to lack of resources for its upkeep, leaving the members of the National Swimming Team with no option but to train as best they could in a small, private pool on the outskirts of the city.

In December 2011 I met with the team's coach and some of the swimmers, and suggested the idea of a photo shoot at the abandonded pool. A casual conversation with the on-site caretaker got us in without too many questions. The tiled concrete basin was eerily quiet and uncomfortably hot. Faded lane dividers lay in a heap gathering dust, and the harsh afternoon sun created deep, playful shadows. Together we explored ideas for a series of dramatic photos and individual portraits. 

The following morning I accompanied the swimmers to their daily training session in a pool that was visibly too small. Their coach told me that the water was also too cold. At the poolside the young men mixed protein powder with milk in a large plastic barrel, to supplement their diet and support their demanding physical schedule.

Eight months later, I was thrilled to see that despite the increased level of political instability in Mali, swimmer Mamadou Soumare and his colleague Fatoumata Samessekou from the Women’s Team did make it to London to represent Mali in the 2012 Olympic Games.