Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Salvaging Nigerian Sports

This is not the best of time for Nigerian sports and their lovers. The sector that brought Nigeria and its sportsmen and women fame and fortune is in the doldrums. Our love song has turned to dirge. Things have fallen apart and the centre can no longer hold. Who shall restore us to our once glorious and illustrious path? Boxing used to be Nigeria’s king of sports before football. Boxing produced world and continental champions like Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey, Dick Tiger, Nojeem Mayegun, Obisia Nwapa, Peter Koyenwachie, Bash Ali and most recently Samuel Peters. After the flash-in-the-pan success of Samuel Peters, Nigerian boxing went into a coma. While the popularity of boxing was waning, that of football and athletics assumed meteoric rise. Nigeria, for close to two decades, dominated Africa in track and field events like Long Jump, Sprints, Hurdles and Relays as well as Table-Tennis while football became the undisputed king of our sports. Football is the toast of Nigerians irrespective of tribe, religion, age, sex or political affiliation. It is a unifying factor and consolidated Nigeria as a global brand. 1994 -‘96, in my estimation, was the peak period of Nigeria’s football. In 1994, we won the Nations Cup and had a good run at the World Cup. In 1996, Super Eagles won the Atlanta Olympic football gold medal. Nigeria was rated 5th best footballing country in the world in 1994 while Gen. Oladipo Diya (Rtd.) referred to Nigeria’s 1996 Olympic gold medal as the mother of all gold. After that era, our other successes had been at the youth championship like U-17 and U-20 as well as the women football, particularly Super Falcons who are acclaimed African champion.

Nowadays, watching Team Nigeria in any sports is an invitation to heart-attack. Not only do we no longer play inspiring football, we have also been embroiled in all sorts of scandals with the most recent one being the detection by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MSI) of 15 over-aged players in the Nigerian squad preparing for the 13th FIFA U-17 World Cup finals which Nigeria is hosting from October 24 to November 15, 2009. Before then, over $200,000 was alleged missing from the accounts department of the Nigerian Football Federation while issue of unpaid bonus also rocked the camp of Falcons during one of their international competitions. As things stand, Nigeria is as good as missing a second successive opportunity to be at the World Cup. Our chances of qualifying for the next 2010 Mundial in South Africa was blown after our ‘Super’ Eagles played a heart-rending 2-2 draw with the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia on Sunday, September 6, 2009. On top of the dismal performance the players were allegedly paid $10,000 ‘winning’ bonus even when they did not win. How better can a nation reward failure and mediocrity!

At the recently concluded World Athletics Championship in Berlin where Usain Bolt of Jamaica broke two world records and won three gold medals, not only that Team Nigeria didn’t win any medal, three of our athletes also failed dope test. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic in China, while Michael Phelps of USA won 8 Gold medals in Swimming events, Nigeria only managed to win a couple of Bronze medals through Blessing Okagbure in Long Jump and Chuka Chukwumerije in Taekwondo. To date, 1996 is Nigeria’s Olympic best outing with Chioma Ajunwa’s Long Jump gold medal as well as the football gold and few other medals in sprint.

If the truth must be told, poor performances and the dearth of laurels from Nigerian athletes in recent time is traceable to government’s domineering influence on our sports; calibre of our sports managers and the athletes themselves. How do I mean? There is high level of politics in Nigerian sports administration. There was a time when some state governors became chairmen of some of the sports associations and ran them like personal estates while some sport associations chairmen were imposed by Sports Ministry if not by the Minister himself. Coaches and athletes are sometime selected based on who they know in the corridor of power and not on their professional competence. Ethnic balancing and political consideration influence who gets appointed as coaches and who gets called up as an athlete, while inadequate funding made welfare of athletes’ Herculean responsibility. Of course, our sporting facilities are obsolete and badly maintained while there is also no blueprint for sports development. Athletes preparation for tournaments are largely shoddy and uncoordinated while some of them try to cheat the system by making false age declaration. Lack of adequate care and support have made some Nigerian athletes lackadaisical to national duty even as some have adopted dual nationality and are now representing other countries.

Crying over spilt milk will achieve nothing. In my own estimation, Nigeria’s sports sector needs total overhaul. This is the time to act on the various investigative reports gathering dusts in Nigeria’s Sports Ministry and Presidency. If there is a need to conduct fresh inquiry to unearth why it is no longer at ease with Nigerian sports, so be it. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua must get to the bottom of the crisis in Nigeria’s sports. The Minister of Sports and Chairman of National Sports Commission (NSC) as well as Executive Councils of various sport associations/ federations must be thoroughly probed to know why sports under their watch are in coma. To my mind, it is only when the Augean stables had been cleaned in the NSC and the various sports associations that the private sector can be guaranteed to invest reasonably in Nigeria’s sports sector. If the president will act with dispatch to salvage Nigeria’s sports, he would be remembered by posterity as the one who gave the sector the desired national re-birth. A stitch in time saves nine.