As we ecstatically inch towards the finale of the greatest sports fiesta in the world, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in Brazil, it is becoming increasingly apparent to many Nigerians that this time, Nigeria is going to end up without a single medal of any colour in any of the sports event. In fact, we may not even be in any of the finals of any sport, except perhaps, football, our current saving grace. But before I go on, let me appreciate and say Thanks and Kudos to our motley crew of athletes who, despite all the obstacles hurled in their way by insensitive and inept officials, are still competing for their fatherland, and giving it best they could, under the extenuating circumstances.
Watching Rio 2016 Olympics athletics events is a sad reminder and unarguable confirmation of how far backwards Nigerian athletics – and indeed, sports - has gone. While it is very heartening to watch a South African win the 400 meters men in world record time and a Botswanan finishing fifth, it is instructive to note that Nigeria was not represented in that event. Also, the other day an Ivorian lady came fourth in the women's 100 meters; again no Nigerian made it through to the finals. To think that not too long ago, at least in Africa, the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters were the exclusive preserve of Nigeria, male and female. I really do wonder......
So, shaking my head, what is the matter with our track and field athletes, and again, indeed, sports? Our athletes are simply not performing (that is, those few ones we see), and whose fault? Definitely, I will not pass the blame on the athletes; rather, it is the fault of our mediocre, corrupt and unpatriotic sports administrators and the indifferent Nigerian government itself. The people, this time, take my vote; we are as enthusiastic, supportive and patriotic as ever and always.
One thing is clear and salient, Nigeria has got the talents - harnessing these talents and making them world champions will remain so very elusive as long as those in authority continue to be inept, lethargic, unconcerned, self-centred, self-serving, serving sectional interests, practicing nepotism, putting mediocrity before meritocracy and lacking vision and focus. The lack of cohesion, the lack of adequate preparation for international events, the absence of unity, the overwhelming ethnicity complete the major reasons why we don't do well in sporting activities these days... and I might add, in everything we do.
Oh! The days of Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Sunday Bada, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Francis Obikwelu, Soji Fasuba, Henry Amike, Yusuf Alli, Olapade Adenekan, Osmond and Davidson Ezinwa, Deji Aliu, Glory Alozie, Christy Opara, Beattie Utondu, Chioma Ajunwa, Olabisi Afolabi, Regina George, Charity Opara, Clement Chukwu, Adewale Olukoju, Fatima Yusuf, Moses Ugbisien, Airat Bakare Adejobi, Alimat Sadiat Sowunmi Barnes, Carol Lyn Nwajei, Kehinde Vaughan, Linda Ezemokumo, Linda Ige, etc. They don't make them like these anymore. These may not have won Olympic medals or World Championship medals, but they have won in Africa and made their marks on the international stage too. Most of them were highly globally ranked and respected; gave Nigeria respect and dignity in athletics, and did their best for this country.
Olukayode Thomas (Playthegame.com of 09.08.2007) in his article, The Sorry State of Nigerian Sports, wrote “It is shocking that officials of NSC are not concerned that about a decade ago, for every eight lanes in the women 400m at either the European circuit or the IAAF Grand Prix, it was certain that four of the athlete would be Nigerians. Then we had three consistent 49.00 secs runners in Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo, Charity Opara and Fatimah Yusuf. The last of the four, Bisi Afolabi was then a consistent 50.00 secs runner. But officials of NSC are not bothered by any of the above. Nor are they bothered that a few years ago, Nigerian female sprinters like Mary Onyali, Gloria Alozie, Christy Okpara, Beatrice Utondu, Ajunwa, Mary Tombiri etc. rivalled the likes of Gwen Torrence, Gail Devers and others for honours in major games and championships.
They have forgotten that not too long ago Olapade Adeniken, the Ezinwa twin brothers, Davidson and Osmond, Daniel Effiong. Francis Obikwelu, Seun Ogunkoya, Sunday Bada, Clement Chukwu, etc. were among the best sprinters and quarter-milers in the world. They also don't seem to remember that apart from the Americans, Nigeria's relay teams were the most dreaded in the world not too long ago. NSC officials do not realise that unless they go back to organising monthly classics and other developmental programmes and the American school system, we will never get back to where we were before, talk less of surpassing it.
It was local developmental programmes that led to the discovery of such phenomenal talents like Ajunwa, Bada, Afolabi, Ogunkoya, Obikwelu, Alozie, Nduka Awazie, Angela Atede, Rosa Collins, Innocent Asonze, Opara, Deji Aliu and others too numerous to mention, while the American school system gave as the likes of Ogunkoya-Omotayo, Onyali, Chidi, Imoh, the Ezinwa Brothers, Pat Itanyi, Fatimah Yusuf, Innocent Egbunike, Adewale Olukoju, Chima Ugwu, Vivian Chukwuemeka and others.
NSC top shots have not thought it wise to revive the programmes of the past, which worked so well. What appears paramount to them are promotional events, and obviously the megabucks that goes with them”.
Compatriots please read and digest the above. What has changed? Nothing! Has anything been learnt? No! Isn’t it painful that NOBODY ever listens or learns from mistakes and history? Are we cursed to be saddled by unthinking and mediocre administrators in all areas of our lives in this country? Why are we always applying “fire brigade” approaches to all our preparations? Ours is a classic case of “if you fail to prepare, then be prepared to fail” – and this has been happening since time immemorial. Our inept administrators never fail to prove and confirm their ineptitude.
In my article, “The Death of Nigerian Sports And A Walk Down Memory Lane”, published in 22 Aug 2009, I wrote: “We were on our way then, because in subsequent years, Nigerian sport was improving splendidly, nurtured by disciplined, sincere, honest, focused, dedicated and committed sports administrators such as the late Abraham Ordia, Isaac Akioye, Dan Enajekpo, Dr Awoture Eleyeae etc. They practically lived for athletics, a trait that is hard to come by in present-day managers. Then the roof, or rather the sky, fell on Nigerian sports the moment the likes of Amos Adamu came in with their one main ambition – make as much money as they can. And they did make money”. But the country’s sports have been on a downward spiral since they took over.
In that article, I proffered many solutions, advice and called on the government of Nigeria to please realise the importance of sports in governance. We do not need to win tens of gold medals in any international competition, but to perform well and creditably; for our athletes to be proud they contested, and for upcoming youths to be interested and looking forward to represent their country and for that country to be proud of them too.
Grassroots sports development remains a programme on paper; sports facility development and welfare of athletes are lip service; poor funding and no call for private investments; the decay in sports is a reflection of the decay in Nigeria. Look at our efforts in recent past at sanitising the sports industry and see what obtains today. How do we expect to be victorious without any worthwhile effort, sacrifice and necessary prerequisite to be competitive in the world – little or no funding or adequate preparations were made to compete with world-class competition.....it's a no brainer. ....we cannot reap where we don’t sow. We refuse to invest in our youths, in our sports, in our education; so what do we expect from those youths who are the backbones of sports in any country? Then we install mediocre and corrupt officials to manage our sports.
Rather than make progress, we are retrogressing. This is beyond corruption. We just keep having inept people who know nothing about sports running sports. That's another problem – putting square pegs in round holes, all because of nepotism, political narrow-mindedness and blatant ethnicity.
On the Africa medals table, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt are ruling the roost with medals; these are also more progressive African economic hubs, let us face it. Globally the US, Great Britain, China, Japan, Germany are on top ... again these are global economic and industrial giants. If only we understood how a sound economy impacts on so many things positively, we would not trifle with it.
There is a very strong correlation between sports achievement and economic and industrial progress. In a country where people are impoverished, unemployed, unloved and uncared for by their own leaders and government, living day by day in an unjust, unequitable and corrupt society, where in every area of endeavour and governance, there is no level playing field, there is no opportunity to excel, there is no chance to spread your wings, failure is bound to be the outcome of any competition that the government embarks on. It is there for all to see in EVERY area of our lives.
Now comes the question of Nigerian nationals now competing for other countries, notably, Asian and Middle-east countries? Do we blame them? Why are others still competing for Nigeria despite all that Nigeria has NOT done for them, if that is our grouse against our country’s attitude? Why are you still a Nigerian yourself? (and if you say you're not Nigerian anymore, why are you reading this article and interested?) Why are some athletes still doing things for Nigeria when they have seen that Nigeria MAY not do anything for them in return?
Somebody said Patriotism is reciprocal; No, it is not (my opinion). It is one way. You are either patriotic to your country or you're not. Like the famous JF Kennedy saying goes, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. Yes, our rulers are bad, but also our people, the followers, are bad too. It is a societal problem. We have all contributed to the demise of EVERYTHING in Nigeria. I do not believe there is an excuse for abandoning or not representing one’s country of birth when the opportunity arises.
Our country itself, NIGERIA, is not a bad country, God knows; it is the people, rulers and followers alike, in it who are messing it up. Didn't we have the American-born Nigerian professional rower, Chierika Ukogu, who probably paid her own way to the Olympics, rowing for Nigeria? She's probably never been to Nigeria, and probably bought her gear from her savings. The Nigerian Olympic Basketball team consist mostly of American-born Nigerians who came together to represent Nigeria from their base in the US.
We have to change the system; we have to change the leaders; we need to educate our people. It is our country. It belongs to all of us, not greedy, clueless, corrupt charlatans parading themselves as leaders, senators and legislators. Please this is NOT about Politics or Party Politics. It is about a natural desire for us to be a good country, a good people, a progressive people.
How can our athletes and sportsmen/women give good performance with no preparations or trainings? It is the fault of the mediocre people that are everywhere in Nigeria. It’s the fault of the system. Sometimes the best are not picked because those that will go have godfathers and mothers. How can they compete with people who prepare and train year in, year out and have been doing so since their country qualified for the next Olympics. Since 1998, UK Sports has increased its funding to its athletes about 300%, and this paid off when London hosted the Olympics in 2012. Their commitment, efforts, vision, focus, resources, and funding has paid off again at the Rio Olympics. They invested in their athletes; the country reaped the benefits, the fame, and most importantly, the goodwill of their citizens, who are happy and proud every time a medal of any colour is won for Great Britain. Yet, the British Government itself contributes very little to the funding of their athletes. This is left for the independent UK Sport to raise funds, mostly from the National Lottery, to support promising athletes and sports that they feel they will get the most medals and mileage.
In my country, there is no proper diet; no regular training schedule; very little funding (and the little funding, the officials still put into their own pockets); there are no more serious sport programmes to nurture new talents; youth empowerment is zero; the motivation and drive is no more there and I think the system of picking these athletes is seriously biased. They don't pick the best anymore.
Bad leadership begets a bad system ....and when the system is bad, nothing works! Our leaders do not seem to care about sports; this is visible when you see them getting fat and unfit whilst in power; going about in agbada, babariga and feathered caps; and not allocated needed funding for sports. The National Stadium in Lagos; the Abuja Stadium, the Liberty (now Obafemi Awolowo) Stadium and the Lekan Salami Stadium in Ibadan, all lying almost derelict, rare or no sporting activities, except uses for religious and entertainment activities. The stadia have been converted to “pepper-soup” joints, where even the rent that commercial tenants pay fail to be recorded into the account of the Sports Commissions that own these stadia, and end up in the pockets of the Commission officials.
Our rulers do not know anything; their minds are totally shut out from ideas and knowledge; they are irresponsible, obdurate and tyrannical. They are devoid of any inspiration to do things for their country, only to loot. They don't know sports make the country great and famous. The only 'sports' they know is corruption and oppression of the masses. They do not know the role that sports plays in national development, youth empowerment, employment, health, good governance, acceptability and respect in the comity of nations. They do not know that sports promote unity and people cohesion; promotes security and negates dissent and grumbling from the people. They do not know sports is a tool of governance.
The key is the re-introduction of an autonomous National Sports Commission headed by a technocrat .Their remit will be for development of sports in the country, and to raise funds which will then be matched by the government after due accountability. Coaches and sports administrators should be employed and posted to the geo- political zones and to all the States and the various sports Associations. This will also assist in creating jobs for the youths on the streets. The talent scouts should be all over the country, helping to organise grassroots sports to identify budding talents that they can then groom to world standard. School Sports should be revivified and brought to the fore .The School Sports have always been producing national athletes in the old days. Foreign-based athletes always compete against home-based to pick jersey. Most often the Local based have always been defeating foreign based then. The overseas scholarship should be brought back for budding talents to go to America to gain more – this is how we produce Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali, etc
In the days of these athletes mentioned, there was a pride to being a Nigerian, a certain sense of belonging and patriotism; zeal to project Nigeria.... All of these fuelled the very ingredient of representation through TALENT HUNTING!
Every government, past and present, military or democratic, federal, state or local, is to be blamed. Nigerians in the past that did well in sports did it out of sheer determination and a hope that sports issues would improve in the country. But they have realised that every Nigerian government does not care about its citizens, neither do the government keep to its promises. So, those who represent us now are not only ill-prepared but have been emotionally drained. I learnt that those who went to Rio were told to pay for their flights and warned to fly economy. If this is so, how can they perform well when they have a lot of other worries on their minds?
Simply put, our sports are just a reflection of who and what we are – a nation without pride, dignity, credibility, vision, focus; led, ruled and ruined by mediocre people of dubious character and pseudo-patriots.
There are thousands of Niger Delta natural swimmers, but those who run our sports would never look that way as these people do not belong. Archery should be natural to the core north, but the Almajeri system is an entrenched social system that forbids schooling, not to talk of sports participation.
When the wicked ones are in the position of governance, the nation mourns and when the righteous ones are in the position of governance, the nation rejoices. This is a true reflection of the current happenings across every sector in Nigeria. Current happenings beg for proper and ideal solutions. We all have gone to sleep in Nigeria and it is time to wake up to the reality of the current times.
Things have fallen apart. We have failed and are still failing, ourselves. But the hope is that we can still rescue ourselves from these self-inflicted failures.
Will we be saying the same thing in four years’ time?