By Joachim MacEbong
For over two weeks this month, Nigerians joined the rest of the world in marvelling at the feats of the best athletes on the surface of the earth. The athletes flying the Nigerian flag are not among that number, not for lack of talent or determination, but simply the lack of focused planning that must accompany all attempts at excellence in any sphere.
Where does one start? Is it the fact that some had to open GoFundMe accounts to raise funds, after initially being told they would have had to pay their way to Rio? Is it the fact that during the opening ceremony parade, they were in tracksuits instead of attire that was made for that purpose? (it was hideous, by the way) Or is it even the fact that the U-23 team arrived for their first game just 7 hours before kick-off?
Thanks to the Dream Team VI U-23 football team, Nigeria has one bronze medal to show for its Rio Olympics efforts, but it is one more than the country deserves based on its preparation for the games.
Even knowing this, we never tired of praying for our athletes to succeed. That is all we seem to be able to do. Pray. Perhaps invoking the supernatural is the best recourse when confronting almost superhuman opponents.
Divine Oduduru at least managed to get close enough to touch one of those superhuman opponents, Usain Bolt, after his 200-meter heat, and plastered pictures of it all over his Twitter page. Everyone was agog: ‘He came second to Bolt! He came second to Bolt!’
It was cute to see: The plucky Nigerian ran a 20:34 second personal best in that race, a mere 0.06 slower than the world record holder, but that was where the similarity ended. In the semis, Bolt ran 19:78, while Divine ran 20:59. The slowest of qualifiers for the 200m men’s final ran 20:10.
Usain Bolt’s country, Jamaica, is a country of about 3 million people, and is dominating track and field the way the Americans used to. The fastest man and woman in the world are both Jamaicans, and that country has provided Usain and his fellow sprinters with a platform to succeed, something that Divine’s own country has not even come close to.
The first thing is that school sports in Jamaica are like a religion. Every year, there is a competition called the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association Boys and Girls Athletics Championship. That is an incredible mouthful, so it’s no wonder it was just shortened to ‘Champs’. It regularly gathers 30,000 people, which is just over 1% of the population. Imagine any single footballing event in Nigeria – never mind athletics – drawing 1.8 million people over 4 days.
The Champs is highly competitive, and the cauldron-like atmosphere generated prepares those young athletes for the pressure-filled world of elite sprinting, where there is no room for mistakes. The confidence gained as a result of those endeavours contributes to the supreme confidence displayed by Jamaica’s runners, of which Usain Bolt is the ultimate embodiment.
There is also the Jamaica Paradox. Poor countries, like Nigeria, tend to have lower life expectancies and rich countries have higher life expectancies. Despite a per capita income of $8,490, its life expectancy is 76.2 years is just five years shorter than the United States which has $53,750 per capita. Its excellent public health system that is nearly a century old is the reason for this, and it has guaranteed a solid supply of healthy children who are ready to take over the world of athletics.
Jamaica’s dominance of the sprints is very much a bottom-up matter, in the same way Great Britain’s new sporting superpower status – confirmed after coming in second in medals to the US in Rio – is more top-down. Back in 1996, Nigeria had 2 Olympic gold medals to Team GB’s one. Twenty years later, Nigeria has one bronze medal, and GB finished with 27 gold.
This happened because in 1997, John Major, then British Prime Minister, began the funding of elite sport in Britain using some of the proceeds from the National Lottery. See their progression below.
To qualify for funding, a sport needs to show medal winning potential at Olympic level, and if targets are not met, the funding is cut. For example, table tennis, swimming and volleyball did not deliver on their promise at London 2012, and were left out of the next round. Two-thirds of the funding goes to selected 14-25 year olds who are deemed likeliest to win medals, and the best of the best get extra money for living expenses.
It’s brutal, it’s Darwinian, it’s similar to how a venture capitalist would approach the matter, and its stunning effectiveness is hard to fault. Britain are now the only host nation to increase their medal tally after hosting an Olympics. The days of empire are long gone, but the country now appears set to be a sporting superpower for the foreseeable future.
The approaches of Jamaica and Britain to achieving Olympic excellence are different, but the plans are clear. Nigeria’s plan is to use supplication to the divine as a substitute for diligence in the temporal.
You see this plan in action in both the neglect of grassroots sports, and the neglect of our top athletes. It took Divine Oduduru’s rant for Union Bank to sponsor him and a few others to Rio. In doing this, Union Bank may have opened the floodgates for other corporates to take on Nigeria’s promising athletes and reap the brand rewards.
However, their efforts are not a substitute for Jamaica’s Champs, America’s NCAA, or Britain’s effective use of government money to drive athletic excellence. Despite the vast opportunities present in a developed sports sector – from the athletes themselves to media rights – Nigerian sports is bathed from head to toe in incompetence, and there is no end in sight.
Then there is the brazen corruption. The International Olympic Committee gives grants to its national associations every year, money meant to help athletes with their training. The Nigerian Olympic Committee does not account for these resources. Neither do the sporting federations under it, chief of which is the Athletics Federation of Nigeria.
Budgetary allocations for sporting events are also unaccounted for. In the 2015 budget, there was N2.9 billion set aside for the High Performance Center in the University of Port-Harcourt. The HPC was commissioned in 2013 by the IAAF, and was supposed to take our top athletes to the next level, only to be starved off funding. This N2.9 billion is yet to be accounted for. No one has answered for its use.
Apart from the athletes and footballers who are not given their due, there are the coaches who go months and months without pay. Samson Siasia was rumoured to be on the verge of resignation in the middle of the Rio games, with good reason. He was owed salaries for 5 months, and now that his contract is up, has resorted to begging the NFF to pay him what they owe.
The late, great Stephen Keshi was also owed salaries before he passed, and several promises to his family went unfulfilled. Tobias Igwe, veteran athletics coach, also known as ‘Toblow’, was kicked out by the Abia State government because he is not an indigene, after 13 years of service. No gratuity. Nothing. In the story of Nigerian athletics, Toblow would occupy a similar place to America’s Bobby Kersee or Jamaica’s Glen Mills. He coached the 4x100m women team to Barcelona 1992, where they won bronze, got silver in Atlanta with the 4x400m women, among other laurels.
Yet, he is treated like dirt.
In the end, the story of Nigerian sports is similar to that of the Nigerian state itself: A state that continues to expect excellence from those it does not give the necessary resources, support, or recognition. When people do well for the nation, how are they rewarded? The Nigerian state pours scorn on the labours of our heroes past and present, and guarantees that there are fewer heroes in the future.
The opportunities and discipline in sporting endeavour is one way to channel the energies of the country’s youth, in addition to raising the morale of the nation. But there is no plan. There is no focus. There is only greed and sloth. Nigeria got exactly what it deserved in Rio, and until our treatment of sports changes, the closest we will get to Jamaica, Britain and other serious sporting nations will be the starting blocks.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija