In a matter of five days the 2012 Olympic Games will begin in London and will run for 17 days with over 10,000 athletes, including Nigerians, jostling for medals. For the first time, the country is presenting a lean contingent of 85 athletes, a departure from the past when the slogan seemed to be the more the merrier, where almost every sport was allowed to attend. For this year, the National Sports Commission, NSC, stressed that it wanted only sports where Nigeria has comparative advantage and thus emphasised that most team sports, except of course football, where the country has never really done well even on the African scene, will not be part of the world sports festival. Ironically, football, both men and women listed earlier for the Games, failed to pick tickets and the NSC thus settled for wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, athletics, canoeing (surprisingly) and taekwondo. Basketball was never in NSC’s agenda but the Nigeria Basketball Federation, NBBF believed in its players, especially after the national male team stunned Africa last year in Mozambique to win the All Africa Games gold medal for the first time. At the African qualifiers, the team tagged D’Tigers missed the ticket which Tunisia won, against Angola surprisingly. So to Venezuela they went for another chance. Three tickets were on the card. No one, not even basketball buffs in the country, gave them any chance. One man who believed in them however, was debonair sports minister and Chairman of the National Sports Commission, NSC, Malam Bolaji Abdullahi, who said, after the team lost their first match to host, Venezuela, that he was sure the team would qualify because they posses the Nigerian spirit. They picked their pieces from there and went ahead to down European giants, Lithuania and Greece, succumbed to Russia but overwhelmed Dominican Republic to pick the third ticket behind Lithuania and Russia. With Team Nigeria contingent selected from all the qualified sports set to begin the medal rush in London, Nigerians are expectant that they may not be mere participants but contenders for medals. But are they really prepared? Their preparation may not be the best in terms of duration but they definitely got quality training from the various training tours they embarked on. For the first time too, the Director General of the NSC, Chief Patrick Ekeji had a sports minister with whom he has a good working relationship and approves of his plans. With the 2012 national budget being delayed and money not forthcoming, the NSC sort for loan to prepare the athletes pending when funds would be made available to it. Surprisingly, instead of lauding the NSC, the House Committee on sports raised eyebrows, ostensibly after some disgruntled elements petitioned it. Malam Abdullahi stood behind the DG and defended the action of the NSC and preparation of the athletes went ahead unhindered and silently, locally first before they were sent abroad. The federations, notably athletics, weightlifting and wrestling are promising medals of any colour from their athletes. Olympic champion, Daniel Igali in particular, who has been involved in preparing the wrestlers for the Olympics, has said that wrestling would win medals but added that had their preparation been early enough, he would have been sure of a least a gold. President of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN, Chief Solomon Ogba is also banking on the female athletes to get one or two medals from the relays and long jump. Taekwondo is hoping that Chika Chukwumerije would hit form like in Beijing and improve on his bronze medal. And who says the lone canoeist will not surprise the world, same for the two weightlifters registered. The miracle workers in basketball should also not be written off. The Nigerian spirit which Malam Abdullahi talked about before the feat of the basketball team has always been exhibited by Nigerian athletes in past Games, be it Olympics, All Africa Games or even the FIFA World Cup. It was the same spirit that gave Chioma Ajunwa the country’s first individual Olympic gold medal in 1996, Mary Onyali (200m) and Falilat Ogunkoya (400m) their first individual medals, bronze each, in 1996, the women’s 4Ãƒ-100 bronze in 1992 as well as the Aniefiok Udo-Obong anchored 4x400m silver at the Sydney Games in 2000 which was later upgraded to gold after the USA team were stripped of the gold when a member of their quartet tested positive to a banned drug. In a year when the NSC and the Nigeria Olympic Committee, NOC are working harmoniously together for the good of the contingent, coupled by the fact that some good corporate bodies like Promasidor, First Bank and world acclaimed insurance company, IEI, are backing Nigeria’s campaign, there is a silver lining somewhere in the sky. To crown it all, Promasidor’s pledge of monetary award, N1,500,000, N1,000,000 and N500,000 for gold, silver and bronze medal winners, athletes’ morale would surely be boosted to give their all. Like in previous years when expectations are low from the citizens, Team Nigeria may surprise themselves and Nigerians in London. Heartland no threat to us — Crown Crown FC of Ogbomosho were at their best last Friday when they defeated Kwara United 3-2 at the Legacy Pitch, National Stadium to qualify for the quarter-final stage of the Federation Cup. They will now travel to Port Harcourt to confront Heartland tomorrow. Coach Oladuni Oyekale has said that playing against the defending champions of the competition was going to be tough but assured that his wards were ready to do their best to outshine their opponent in the game holding in Port Harcourt. “We are not afraid of Heartland. They are good but we are up to the challenge and my boys have promised to do their best. Though the time to prepare for the match is limited but we are ready for the challenge”, said Oyekale.
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