Christian Gobé is Cameroon’s big hope for the forthcoming Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Gobé’s route towards Rio has not been smooth sailing.
He started off representing Switzerland and later switched to his country of birth in an unusual manner. But for him what he wants is just “to compete” as he discloses in this interview with Africa Link. But he has not been alone on this journey. He has benefitted from the support of Swiss Construction firm Induni. In this interview with bot Gobé and Induni President, Christian Danz, they both traced path in the boardroom of the company and the hope for future collaboration.
Can you tell us what life has been like for you in Cameroon?
C- I come from Cameroon, I became disabled with polio since I was four. I came to Switzerland in 2000. At first I came to study for a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Communications and Management at the University of Geneva. I had some friends that told me that whilst here I could play in a basketball team. It was very interesting when I started to play. The coach remarked when he saw my performance: “that guy has something better than the others and maybe we can do something”.
So the Switzerland’s national coach came to watch my performance and asked whether I would like to train with the Swiss national basketball team. I accepted and went to train with them and was rated the fastest. They then asked me: “Do you want to play with the Swiss national team?” Of course I said yes and they followed up with another question: “Do you have Swiss nationality?” I said no, I am Cameroonian. They asked how long I had been in the country and whether I wouldn’t opt for the Swiss nationality because they needed players like me.
I reckoned this was a big opportunity for me and so they started processing my nationality documents. They called the Federation for disabled sports in Cameroon and asked if it was possible for me to join the Swiss team. Cameroon called me and asked me about it and I told them that I was here and it was a good opportunity. They agreed and then the process was completed. I then started to play in the national team.
In the basketball team I was very fast and the coach of the athletics team met with my basketball coach and said “I need him, he is very fast and could be trained to become an athlete.”
As a disabled person one can take part in many disciplines and while competing here in athletics I came first in three track events: the 100m, 200m and 400m. So I continued to do both basketball and athletics. But for my family thought this was too much of a combination given that I was still in university. They thought of the training sessions for all the disciplines, my study time and so advised me to choose between them. This was true because every week I had to go to championships games and train for athletics. I was fully aware of the fact that the level of basketball in Switzerland was not as high as expected and that athletics was highly rated. It was not a difficult decision to make. I started racing with the national team. I took part in world championship and many European championships in addition to the local Swiss championship. I was always amongst the top.
Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games I had the best results in Switzerland. I expected to have been on the final list for the Swiss athletes to go to that Olympics. I knew I had all the qualifying standards, but when the list came my name was not included. I was the first, but it was names of the second and third athletes that were on the list. When I questioned the authorities they told me I was not regular at training. I said that could not be true because I lived in Geneva and I was always at training sessions so did not understand their decision. For me it was a very bitter pill to swallow. I went and spoke to my sponsor, the Cameroon embassy and the chairman of the athletics association but they did not give me any reasonable answer. When they returned from Beijing they told me that I would be on the list the next time. I didn’t take that well.
I called the Cameroon Sports Federation and told them what had happened and they said that I could represent the country if I had not participated in the Olympics for Switzerland. I thought this was very interesting as Cameroon had a highly competitive team. I thought to myself ‘why not’ but that also meant they had to call their Swiss counterpart to sort things out. I told the Swiss federation that I am an athlete and I want to compete, and that I was not happy with what happened for the Beijing trip.
That was how I began to race for Cameroon, and I have been the flag bearer in all competitions in which I participated in Africa
I won many competitions in Africa. Cameroon is very happy that they have a good athlete with a good staff and very good results. Now, for instance, I am the only athlete to meet limit A qualifying standard in Africa. Everything I do, training, physiotherapy staff etc. are here in Switzerland, but the honour is for Cameroon. I still have a good relationship with the Swiss federation, so when there are competitions, I often compete in Switzerland.
Were you at London 2012?
Yes, I was but there was another problem. I didn’t have a Cameroon passport. I was holding a Swiss passport and since Cameroon does not allow bi-national citizenship but I was not aware of that. I called up the Cameroon Embassy in Berne to find out if something could be done but was told because of the time constraint that was going to be impossible. For one to obtain the passport all documents had to be sent home for processing and that could not have been done before the start of the Games. I had myself to blame for this. So yes I was in London but as an observer and not a participant. It was amazing. So now, Rio will be my first Olympic games!
I have been working very hard to perform very well in Rio. I have very good staff and I train hard every day to come out successful in Rio.
How is your training going?
It is good.
Let’s go back to the beginning again. When you were in Cameroon did you do any sports?
Yes, it was like a hobby. When I was in Cameroon I was in a school, which was a rehabilitation centre (National Centre for the Disabled ) at Etoug-Ebe in Yaoundé (CNRH). We had lots of sporting activities there including basketball, swimming, and athletics. There were no competitions because we didn’t have the equipment to do them.
The school was established in 1982 specifically for disabled people. But now it has become a hospital of sort. It was very good and offered decent education. It had many activities for us; we had a swimming pool and many sporting equipment. The government has now taken it over. When I was in Cameroon on vacation last year I visited the school only to find out that it has become a hospital.
I think maybe, I will do what I can do to open that kind of centre in Cameroon. That is my project for the future. I would like to start another school; it would be hard to equip and run by the government. It would be very interesting to start a new one. Disabled people in Cameroon need something
Are any of your school mates into sports?
Yes, in Geneva there are two that went to this school. And my other classmates are all over the world.
How did you find your sponsor?
I am very lucky to have this sponsor. The company, Induni SA, a construction firm employs more than 600 staff and has constructed so much that could be seen throughout Geneva. I live in a flat near the hospital in Geneva and my neighbour worked with the company here. I used to send out letters requesting for sponsors every year. In 2007, my neighbour informed me that the company for which he works usually assists sportspeople, mainly athletes and that I should give them a try. I wrote a letter to them explaining my situation and barely two weeks later, was invited to their offices where I met with the president, Mr Christian Danz. He told me they had some athletes working with the company, and that their philosophy is to support budding athletes and that there was room for me if I wanted to become one of theirs. I immediately jumped at the idea and said ‘that was what I was looking for.’ The first year, they bought me a new wheel chair, and every year they gave me CHF10, 000 for my Swiss competition. I also started to wear Induni branding logo.
This year, they have promised to provide me with all my needs for Rio which includes staff, new equipment, a training programme. They have provided me with a lot of support.
Do you also work?
When I finished University, the state of Geneva offered me a job at the Post office. But six years after I started working I underwent a surgery and now I can’t be seated for more than four hours. If I do I will have to lie down. So it is just not possible to work. I do benefit from invalid insurance, which has helped me a lot.
Now it is not possible to stay at home so I have made training my full time work.
Do you have a family?
Yes three children. Together with my Swiss wife of 12 years we have three children, 12, ten and four years old.
Do you get any other support from other companies?
Yeah, we have Rolex, Nike, (that provides me with all the sporting equipment,) SB sport gives me one coach and facilities to train and UEFA offers me their arena for gymnastics training.
How often do you train?
I train every day, three hours a day. Sometimes on the track and sometimes technical training.
In what events will you be competing?
I hope to be competing in Shot Put, Discus and 100m. Every athlete is allowed to compete in three events, and these are the three in which I have the best chance to win a medal or medals.
Christian Danz (President of Induni SA)
Why did you and your company decide to sponsor Christian?
Christian Danz (CD) - Our Company is all about people. The workers are very important to us. I am the president, but if I make a mistake, you see it in two or three years. If the workers make a mistake, it is visible very quickly. When Christian came to me for sponsorship, for the Beijing Olympics, in 2007, we had very good contact. He is a good person for us, and he merits our support. So we decided to give him a chance. We have been with him since 2008.
After the problems in London, we thought we really must take this person in to our care, not only with money, but also because he was very alone personally. No coach, no support, he was a self-made man. After London, we put everything in place. He has coaches, all the medical team to give him the chance in Rio. Very quickly, with a coach here in Switzerland, he said, “Christian makes some very big mistakes in his training regime, but if we make some changes he will have a very good chance in Rio.” So, since making these changes, we soon saw the improvements. In February he was Africa’s champion, and soon he will also compete in Dubai. We have seen very good results and we are sure now that it is possible for Christian to get a medal in Rio. That is our goal, not just to go to Rio but also to succeed in Rio. It is very possible for him, and we have seen that.
We have three athletes with us. Dawa Sherpa, a Nepalese who is the champion of the Ultra Trail in the mountains, and a mountain skier, Séverine Pont-Combe, whose sport is not very visible, so we decided to support her also.
That is why we helped Christian, it is not an interest for our company. It is human interest. We can’t have a contract that we make money back from this support. It is all about humanity.
What is the response of the Cameroonian authority to your support?
CD – I am not sure that Cameroon has the same interest as ours. We are interested in providing an opportunity for Christian to participate in Rio and bring back success. I don’t know if Cameroon sees things the same way. For them I think the interest is mainly to see the country represented in the Paralympics and not quite who represents it.
Our contact is via phone and mail. We have never met any of their team. It is a very complicated relationship. I am not sure that they see the effort that we have made here to bring Christian to this level.
Perhaps it was a mistake from me. I accepted that he went to Cameroon, but he was in the Swiss Team. For two years now we have seen that Shot Put is great for him. Prior to that he was basically a sprinter and in Switzerland we have a very big racing team and Christian was not number one. With shot put, he is the best, and if he stays with Switzerland he would be a star. But he cannot now go back to competing for Switzerland. If he wishes to, he would need to stop competing for two years and that would be very complicated.
If he was competing for Switzerland and returned with a medal, he would be a star! All the sponsors would stand by me. At the moment, I have very big problems finding sponsors, because he is competing for Cameroon. This CHF 200,000 support is a lot of money for us. When I go to other companies in Switzerland, they say “what’s our interest in this? He is for Cameroon.”
But, I hope he comes back with a medal or medals and then we will see how he can profit from the medal.
Christian Gobé’s impressive records include:
• Gold medalist in the shot put at the 11th All Africa Games in Brazzaville in 2015
• Silver medalist in shot put at the Grand Prix athletics CPI in Dubai in 2014.
• In 2013, he tried the shot put and carried a spray of 8.70 m athletics meeting of Grosseto, then global para-athletics Lyon a stream of 9.40 m F55 and 15th World class. This launch also allows him to get the African record and qualify for the next Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
• Between 2007 and 2010, four times Swiss vice-champion in the 100m, 200m twice, once in the 400m and bronze medalist twice and three times over 200m 400m
• First selection to participate in the World Athletics Championship in 2006
• Bronze medalist with the Swiss basketball team in Brno, Czech Republic in 2006
• Winner of the Swiss Cup with the Aigles de Meyrin (basketball) in 2006
• Champion, Francophone Africa 100 & 200m in 2000
• Athletics Champion of Cameroon from 1998 to 2000.