Competing Against the Odds

Competing Against the Odds


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Bamako’s Olympic-sized swimming pool is an impressive, Communist-style structure, built in the late 1960’s by the Russians for the 1969 All-Africa Games. The pool had long fallen into disrepair, left to crumble in the harsh Malian climate, but along with a number of other city landmarks, it was entirely renovated as part of Mali’s 50th Anniversary of Independence in September 2010. Less than a year later, the pool was sadly once again dry – the funding designated for its upkeep had run out, and the water was no longer safe to swim in.

In December 2011 I was invited to photograph members of the Malian National Swimming Team, to help raise their profile prior to attending the Olympic Games in London. On hearing the story of the pool, I thought it would be a great location for a shoot with the swimmers. It was eerily quiet and uncomfortably hot, the tiles underfoot mercilessly reflecting both heat and light. The coloured lane dividers lay in a heap gathering dust and fading in the sun. The mid-afternoon light was harsh, but I wanted to capture that intensity, and the strong, playful shadows in my images.

The following morning I accompanied the team to their daily training session in a private pool on the outskirts of the city near the airport. The pool was just 15m long, and the water was cold. Too cold, according to their coach.  The plastic barrel by the poolside contained milk with added protein powder, which the swimmers mixed thenselves each morning. Their regular rice-based diet needed boosting in order to maintain such a demanding physical schedule.

Despite the increasing political instability in Mali in 2012, swimmer Mamadou Soumare and his colleague Fatoumata Samessekou from the Women’s Team did make it to the London 2012 Olympics.