Guinea Bissau names American Siphiwe Baleka to its Olympic Swim Team

BISSAU, Guinea Bissau, June 22, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — The Olympic Committee of Guinea Bissau announced that Siphiwe Baleka will join the Guinea…

BISSAU, Guinea Bissau, June 22, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — The Olympic Committee of Guinea Bissau announced that Siphiwe Baleka will join the Guinea Bissau National Swimming Federation Team that will compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. The announcement was made after the Council of Ministers of the Government of Guinea Bissau completed the naturalization process for Mr. Baleka on June 10th, making him a dual citizen of the African nation and the United States.

«The National Swimming Federation has never had a team compete at the Olympic Games,» said Federation President Duarte Iola. «Not only will Mr. Baleka be the first swimmer from Guinea Bissau at the Olympics, but he will also, at the age of fifty, be the oldest swimmer in Olympic history.»

Sergio Mane, President of the Guinea Bissau Olympic Committee, stated that he submitted an application to the «Fédération Internationale de Natation» (FINA) to secure Mr. Baleka’s eligibility to compete under the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) universality rules that allow smaller nations with developing swimming programs to send athletes to the Olympic games without having to meet certain qualifying standards.

Mr. Baleka is a thirteen-time United States Masters Swimming National Champion and National Record Holder who won four silver medals at the 2017 FINA Masters Swimming World Championships held in Budapest, Hungary. Mr. Baleka’s swimming career started in childhood and continued as an undergraduate at Yale, where he led his team to a first-ever Ivy League Championship, but he narrowly missed qualifying for the 1992 Olympics Trials – by only eight-tenths of a second.

Facing disillusionment after the failure of his initial Olympic dream, Mr. Baleka embarked on a variety of international adventures and careers, including becoming a celebrity fitness guru for the truck driving industry. His story has been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/12/04/siphiwe-baleka-olympics-daily-cover and was the subject of an Emmy-winning documentary short in 2016. https://vimeo.com/119291674 

«I am extremely honored to represent the people of Guinea Bissau at the Olympics,» said Mr. Baleka. While he acknowledges that his quest for Olympic gold is a long shot, he says, «Whatever the final result, at age 50, my perseverance is the very spirit of the Olympic movement.  I want my Olympic dream to serve as an example to others, especially the people of Guinea Bissau and middle-aged people everywhere.»

In recent competitions, Mr. Baleka swam faster than 27 of the Olympians competing in the Men’s 50 Meter Freestyle during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This event is Mr. Baleka’s signature event.

Mr. Baleka’s unique journey to the Olympics is the result of genetic testing which determined that his paternal ancestors descended from the Balanta people of Guinea Bissau. Mr. Baleka is the first «Afro-descendant» from the United States to receive citizenship in Guinea Bissau based on DNA results, and will be the first such athlete to compete for his ancestral homeland.

Mr. Baleka thinks his connection to his ancestors’ homeland is meaningful for African-American descendants of slavery who are navigating their mixed feelings for America, too. His cousin, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police in August, 2020, adding to the country’s angst over racism and police violence.

Rigorous training aside, «the biggest challenge has been financing,» said Mr. Baleka. «I’ve had to find a way to live and train in Guinea Bissau on my own.» Mr. Baleka has raised $11,000 of the $40,000 that he needs through his «2021 Olympic Dream in Tokyo» GoFundMe campaign. To donate go to https://gofund.me/9876a618 .

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