What the Olympics & the Commonwealth Games are saying to Nigeria

by Adedayo Ademuwagun


2012 Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony
Team Nigeria arrive at London 2012

In July 2012, the Nigerian Olympic team arrived in London for the Olympic Games. It was Nigeria’s 15th appearance at the Games since Helsinki 1952, and Chioma Ajunwa was currently the only Nigerian to ever win an individual gold medal.

This set of athletes thought they could change that in London. In the end, no one of them won a single thing.

Our journalist spoke with some coaches and athletes to get their views about the state of sports in Nigeria and find out why Nigeria has managed just one individual gold medal in 62 years.

Coach Funmi Nutayi is an athletics coach. She says, “The main problem is that we have neglected the grassroots programmes. We focus on elite competitions such as the Olympics and the Commonwealth games at the expense of the grassroots. These days you’ll hardly find schools that have sports grounds and facilities. A lot of private schools around don’t even have space where you can construct a volleyball court. Some of the athletes I’ve trained only started learning to run when they entered university. They lacked the foundation. We’re not developing our young people in sports.”

Dr Akindele Ogunsemore, a football coach, agrees with Funmi, He says,”Even in communities it is the same thing. There are no facilities for various sports where young people can train, get active and stand a chance to get spotted. Look at Festac or Ikorodu for example. How many sports facilities are there? Some youths never get to see a tennis racket, and they want to play tennis. In estate design and town planning there should be sufficient provision for sports grounds and facilities.”

nigerian swimmers
“Okay, we understand that they only want ‘the elite swimmers’ to go for international competitions representing Nigeria. But what about age grade competitions and competitions meant for universities?

Dike (not real name) is a young swimmer and a university student. This year he did 25.20s in the 50m mixed relay category at a championship. To put in perspective, that time is only two seconds less than the national record held by Musa Bakare, a retired swimmer.

“The major problem in Nigeria,” says Dike, “is corruption. For example, Samson Opuakpo is the fastest swimmer in Nigeria, but he’s getting old. Yet, the Nigerian Aquatics Federation are so hell bent on taking him mainly to competitions rather than concentrating on younger swimmers who have more room for improvement. There’s a lot of politics going on in the system.”

“Okay, we understand that they only want ‘the elite swimmers’ to go for international competitions representing Nigeria. But what about age grade competitions and competitions meant for universities? These same ‘elite swimmers’, who aren’t in school, find their ways into those competitions. They go on to represent Nigeria at the World University Games. Can you imagine such?

“You deprive young people of the chance to represent their country. Then when they get into university and hope they can work their way up by competing in university games, you also deprive them of the chance to go for international university competitions. Some schools even go as far as faking the admission status of some swimmers just to make them represent them and win medals for them. In Nigeria, we want fast results without working hard to nurture talent for the long term.”

Ayo (not real name) has played for Kwara Falcons in the Nigerian basketball league. He says, “National team coaches don’t look at what the new kid would bring in to the basketball court, even if he’s got skills. They prefer to keep using the same old guys again. They’re not willing to give new kids a try.”

“In basketball, we don’t have a lot of players graduating from one level to another,” says basketball coach Emmanuel Okolo. “The age grade championships are flawed. When a competition comes up, people above the age grade would falsify their age to be eligible. Whereas, there should be a gradual advance from one grade to the next.”

Coach Funmi says, “When we were active, there used to be various relay competitions for secondary schools, sponsored by companies. That was how athletes like Mary Onyali and Yusuf Alli were discovered.

“Those days,” Dr Ogunsemoren recalls, “we had so many clubs for various sports. All parastatals and most companies had sports clubs. Abiola owned Concord Babes and ITT FC. I was a goalkeeper for Island Bank. Stephen Keshi was at New Nigeria Bank. These clubs have now gone extinct.

"Medals are won by people who have worked hardest, not by those who have prayed hard" - Bolaji Abdulahi
“Medals are won by people who have worked hardest, not by those who have prayed hard” – Bolaji Abdulahi

“Previously, Lagos, for instance, was in five divisions and coaches headed each zone. Laloko was in Ikeja. Tella was in Lagos Island. Joe Erico was in Ikorodu. Sports developed in the grassroots and age grade competitions were going on. From those competition, they would select the best talents to represent the state at national competitions and from there they can get drawn to the national teams.”

Coach Funmi thinks there should be a broad, long-term plan for sports. She explains, “We don’t have a sport policy in this country — a document that contains a well-detailed agenda about how sports will be run and developed in the country. At the moment, the administrators don’t have such a document to work with. So if there is a new minister of sports today, he would just do his own thing. Then the next minister who succeeds him would come with a different thing. For things to work, we need a sports policy.”

“Another issue is sports administration,” says Coach Emmanuel. “The government needs to put the right people in charge.

“Also, there should be more age grade championships where young people can compete and get exposure. Government should give companies incentives to invest in sports by sponsoring championships like that.”

Dr Ogunsemore adds, “Government must go into the communities and provide facilities that focus on sports development in the grassroots. Government must provide an enabling environment for young talents to develop so that we can effectively replace our old athletes when it is time.”

After the Nigerian team’s awful outing at the London Olympics, the minister of sports Bolaji Abdulahi wrote soberly about the lessons his administration had learned from the experience. He wrote, “We must see this crisis as the necessary disequilibrium required for serious actions and drastic change.

“Every medal is clearly projected and carefully planned for, both in financial and technical terms over a sustained period of time.

“Only years of intensive, unrelenting training and preparation can win medals. There is no short cut.

“Medals are won by people who have worked hardest, not by those who have prayed hard. We can only win medals by building systems that are capable of producing medalists and champions, not by selecting athletes that we hope can win medals.”

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