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Niger judoist Alassane
Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004

Open quoteAbdou Alassane Dji Bo's Olympic debut lasted just 1 min. 33 sec., but he didn't come out feeling like a loser. The 25-year-old judoist, the first from Niger ever to compete at the Games, crashed out in the first round of the 66-kg weight class, in a bout with Slovakia's Jozef Krnac that resembled a very fast two-man game of Twister. "Of course in my heart, it hurt to lose," Alassane says. But the point of this trip for Alassane — and for Olympic Solidarity (OS), the scholarship program that has given him more than $20,000 for training and travel over the past 18 months — was to get a masterclass in judo. Krnac went on to win the silver. "I've seen that there's a much higher level," Alassane says.

The OS program is designed to help him, and 584 other Athens Olympians, reach that level. During the past two years, the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) has plowed $13.7 million into athlete scholarships, and another $100 million into training centers, regional competitions and sports development. Without the money that OS invested in him, Alassane would never have left Niger to train, got a world-class coach or won a bronze medal at the African championships in May, the feat that qualified him for Athens. OS "is indispensable," says Hassene Ikhlef, who coaches Alassane and 19 other scholarship holders at the International Center for African Judo (CIJA) in Rabat, Morocco. Without the funding, nations like Niger "would be very sparsely represented. These countries don't have the means to train properly, to travel, to compete."

OS was born along with the newly independent nations of the developing world in the 1960s and 1970s. "There were suddenly all these new Olympic committees coming into being that wanted to send athletes to the Games," says James Macleod, the I.O.C. project manager who oversees the scholarships. But many of the countries didn't have the sports infrastructure or financial resources to develop and field teams for the Games, much less contend for medals. "The Olympic Games wouldn't be the Olympic Games with just the big countries," says Macleod. "We're trying to give the smaller ones the means and the methods to send athletes to compete in the Games with dignity."

The idea is to spot talent early. Mozambican track star Maria Mutola got a scholarship in 1991, at age 18, which funded her move to the U.S. to train. "They supported me from day one, and it inspired me," she says. "They gave me the opportunity to focus on my athletic career." Mutola took a little while to deliver Olympic returns on the investment. In 1996, she won a bronze in the 800 m, her first Olympic medal — and Mozambique's. Four years later, she won the gold, which she's in Athens to defend. Mutola has started her own foundation for promising athletes.

Such examples of OS success buoy Alassane and other scholarship holders who once couldn't even imagine getting to the Games. As a kid, he lived near a local judo club in the Niger capital, Niamey, and fell in love with the sport because "it was a chance to knock everybody flat." He flattened enough opponents to become national champion at 13. But before he got his OS scholarship, he could barely scrape together the funds to compete outside Niger. Alassane grew up as one of six children in what, for Niger, is a middle-class family, with an income of a couple hundred dollars a month. But he left school after ninth grade, and neither his family nor his country had the money to pay for a world-class athlete's training and travel, which costs at least $10,000 a year — 50 times the per capita income in Niger. "About the most we could afford was to cross the border to Burkina Faso," says Alassane. There was no system in place to cultivate his talent. "You could show up for training or not, and nobody really cared," he says. "The coaches did the same thing."

Chewed out by his father — who was an amateur judoist in his student days — whenever he got lazy, Alassane fought on. After placing third at two regional meets in late 2002 and winning a place at the CIJA in Morocco, OS stepped forward to cover his costs. "It was an enormous boost," he says. After about a year of coaching and a new, more rigorous training regimen — two hours of speed and endurance training in the mornings, two hours of combat and sparring in the afternoons — he got bronze at this year's African championships in Tunisia, and qualified for Athens.

Before Athens, Alassane had, like so many others, entertained fantasies of Olympic glory. A month before the Games, while training near Paris, he told TIME: "I have worked hard, really hard. Everybody goes for a medal. I say, 'Why not me?'" OS also said, "Why not?" But in reality, he was not ready — this time. His big prize, and that of most other OS athletes in Athens, was the exposure, the opportunity to compete, the taste of the experience that has whetted his appetite for more.

The day after his loss, Alassane was back at the judo venue, watching and learning lessons from every match, philosophical and a little humbler. "The competition is so advanced in both tactics and technique," he marveled. "I'm truly content, but I need to work a little harder." Macleod says "medals are not the point of Solidarity." Nor will they be the only measure of Alassane's — or any other athlete's — growth. Even if he never strikes Olympic gold, Alassane "has discovered the world and enriched himself as a person. That," says his coach, Ikhlef, "is the success story." Close quote

  • An Olympic scholarship program helped Abdou Alassane Dji Bo chase his dreams
Photo: JOHN GICHIGI/GETTY IMAGES FOR TIME | Source: An Olympic scholarship program helped Abdou Alassane Dji Bo chase his dreams