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 Keita Stadium was built in the late 1960’s by the former Soviet Union for the 1969 All-Africa Games. The impressive, Communist-style structure had fallen into disrepair, but was renovated in 2009 with funds from a Chinese company, and re-opened the following year, as part of the 50th Anniversary of Mali's Independence in September 2010.

Less than a year after the grand re-opening, however, the pool had to close again due to lack of funding for its upkeep, leaving the National Swimming Team with no option but to train as best they could in a small, private pool - competing against the odds to qualify for a place in the London 2012 Olympics.

In December 2011 I met with the team's coach and some of the swimmers, to propose the idea of a photo shoot at the dry Olympic pool. A casual conversation with the on-site caretaker got us in without too many questions. The 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. 

The following morning I accompanied the swimmers to their daily training session on the outskirts of the city. The pool was visibly too small and the water too cold, according to their trainer, but they made do. At the poolside the young men mixed protein powder and milk in a large plastic barrel, to supplement their diet and support their demanding physical schedule.

Despite the increasing political instability in Mali at the time, and the challenges facing these young sportsmen, Mamadou Soumare and his colleague Fatoumata Samessekou from the Women’s Team made it to London to compete in the 2012 Games.