Take a Nigerian and you have a survivor, take two Nigerians and you get two competing survivors, take three Nigerians and you get a series of contradictions. That in part is the story of Nigeria in the just concluded successful London Olympics. It is also in part the story of this Nigeria as a whole, this rich but poor country where things start great but end teeny, this land of many titles but little deeds, this nation full of places of worship but neither known as a haven nor for godliness.
Although Nigeria might not seem godly to many from afar, we can assure them that extraordinary things happen in this land that turns soldiers into militicians and together with politicians they play politricks rather than politics with a resolve to make the best and brightest be led and represented by the mediocre. All of these in a system where the simple is made complex and the obvious made mysterious. All of these in a system where the people, normally provident and ingenious in their private life, are in a perennial shock of the obvious when it comes to their public interest. It is all so fascinating for a scholar but sad and painful for a citizen.
A cruel British friend and colleague casually called my attention to the fact that this might be the worst Olympics for Nigeria in the last quarter of a century. He was clearly rubbing it in, should I still be his friend? I have checked it is true: the last time we did not win a single medal was 1988 in Seoul. A look at the IOC records will make one think Nigeria’s best days are behind. “I reject it”, as they say in Nigerian parlance. Sadly it is nothing new; this is not the first time we take one giant step forward and many backwards. Do you know our world cup story? Students of sports management should be made to use it as a core case study. The Super Eagles entered the 1994 World Cup with a bang and after their first match they became everybody’s darling of the tournament but since then it has been backward: The Nigerian national squad’s trajectory in the global event has been from great to anonymous, to absent, to pathetic and then to annoying.
Whilst the Nigerian flag and country may have little Olympic success to fly and cheer about, that is definitely not the case for the people of Nigeria. The individual Nigerian, once freed from the shackles of the Nigerian system, becomes the unbridled and enterprising survivor capable of competing and excelling amongst his and her peers across the world. Like their parents that tend the sick and teach the young in different parts of the world outside Nigeria based merely on personal merits and interest, many young Nigerians now have a lot to cheer about in the just concluded Olympics, they are of course doing so cladded in non Nigerian colours and they are doing so whilst the country Nigeria is going home dejected.
From day one of the games, I started making a list of these Nigerians and the list grew as the games continued. These brilliant stars shined thanks to their performance and I recognized them to thanks to their names. Regardless of their final results, it was a joy to hear people around me chant names like Margaret Adeoye, Danielle Alakija, Eniola Aluko, Oluwadamilola Bakare, Peter Bakare, Ifeoma Dieke, Innocent Emeghara, Temi Fagbenle, Andre Iguodala, Ayodele Ikuesan, Christian Ohuruogu, Marilyn Okoro, Lawrence Okoye, Anyika Onuora, Ezinne Okparaebo, Abi Oyepitan and so on. I am sure they are many more whose name may not have given us the clue to readily recognize them. My personal star of London 2012 is 20 years old Liz Cambage born on the same day as my daughter Noemi Kila. Liz Cambage is commonwealth incarnate, born in England to Nigerian and Australian parents. Whatever happens in future, she will remain the first female player to complete a dunk in Olympic basketball. In the game against the USA, she racked 19 points in 20 minutes and made the USA coach call aside his team to say you must “stop her”.
Conversations with others have revealed I was not the only one proud of these international stars and supporting their flags. Nigerians spectators were rooting for athletes not flying Nigerian flags. Nigerians names were present in almost every activity and almost any country you can think of. My favorite example comes from American based Nigerian Dr Ladi Adeniyi and his wife. They came to London for the games and they told me they were rooting for Fiji because of Danielle Alakija.
All fantastic for globalization, but a question must be asked locally: Can we share in their glories? Truth be told: As a country, we neither trained nor encouraged these champions. We did not invest in them. The team Nigeria managed was awful, let us be clear; not because we lack talents but because of poor vision, bad management and an irritating inability to get simple things right. Innocent Egbunike was called in as head coach of Team Nigeria 200 hundred days to the games.
We need to review our understanding of and commitment to sports. These are not just games they never have been, it is economy, nation building, image making.