Recycled Olympians

by Femi Olawole

Here is a brief appraisal of a cross section of the Nigerian delegation to the just concluded 2004 Olympics:

In the game of female soccer, the players were good materials but lacked the right technical coaching. Here is a case in point. The Falcons and their coaches attributed their loss (to the German side) to poor/biased officiating. I beg to disagree. The fact of the matter could simply be summarized thus: while the coaches of the German team operated at a digital level, their Nigerian counterparts were still on analog. It was very obvious that the Falcons had been instructed to adopt a physically-exerting game. But the Germans only had to persevere until their opponents ran out of steam. And that soon happened. By the 32nd minute of the second half of the game, the Falcons could barely move on the field. That the more experienced and tactical Germans did not score a basket-full of goals thereafter was due to the outstanding performance of the Nigerian goalie.

As for boxing, the Nigerian boxers displayed great foot works, stability and stamina. Even the ABC (American cable tv channel) paid glowing compliments to the boxers. Unfortunately, these attributes alone don’t win medals in amateur boxing which is scored electronically.

There is a sensor on the white patch of a glove that registers a point each time a boxer hits a target. This system was introduced several years ago to stop the apparent favoritism usually accorded boxers from “boxing nations” such as the United States, the old U.S.S.R and Cuba. One could remember the warnings of coaches in those days that “if you face a boxer from America or Cuba at international tournaments, you better maim or even kill him or else you’ll lose.”

Incidentally, the Americans have been lagging behind other countries at international boxing meets since the introduction of the computerized scoring system. It therefore did not come as a surprise that the same Americans (up till the latest games) have been complaining bitterly against the system. The surprise however had been the embarrassing comment credited to the Nigerian boxing coach (Obisia Nwakpa). In a Vanguard newspaper interview last week, the man claimed total ignorance of the computerized scoring system. Where had he been all these years, a much different planet?

Unlike the good soccer players and boxers who were saddled with obsolete coaches, the female basketball team did not only have the benefit of a “real” coach but have clearly shown the world how promising they are in the game of basketball. With their superb coaching, expected improvement and dedication, these young ladies will surely go places.

And in the Track and Field, some of the athletes attributed their poor performances to the nation’s “lack of interest in the welfare of athletes”. What welfare? It’s only a Nigerian athlete who could make up such a ridiculous excuse. But what else could one expect from lame ducks since it’s only in our country that government makes huge budget allocations for athletes’ participation in competitive sports?

As a sports enthusiast who was once a participant (in boxing and soccer) and now a spectator, one watched the last Olympics every day with almost a religious zeal. And as it ended on Sunday 29 August, 2004, I couldn’t help but attribute the losses sustained by our compatriots at the games to lack of adequate preparation on the part of the sports administrators. It’s quite ironical that just like the United States and other sporting nations, our country has a good system for picking its representatives. The only difference is that unlike the sports administrators in those other nations, ours incorporate prejudices and nepotism that make nonsense of the entire system.

The usual route was for an athlete to evolve from high school Inter-House sports to Divisional contests (at local government levels). The athlete would then graduate to participate at State sports festival and finally, the national sports festival. In the past, certain sports also had their peculiar routes. For instance, boxers would come from all over the country to slug it out in the Eagle Club (in Surulere) with those trained at the popular Lagos “boxing depots” such as Costain, Rowe Park and Alakoro. No matter how fantastic a boxer was in those days, he must win at the Eagle Club to represent Nigeria at the Olympics.

In soccer, the national team was usually formed with input from 3 sources. These were the Lagos Principal’s Cup (high schools), the Academicals (tertiary institutions) and the clubs (professional league). From the old Green Eagles to the present day Super Eagles, examples of those who once made up the crop of national players were Haruna Ilerika (high school), Segun Odegbami and Amesiemeka (tertiary institutions). Others were Christian Chukwu, Emman Okalla, Muda Lawal, Ismaila Mabo and Baba Otu Mohammed (professional league). There were no favoritism or nepotism as every invitation to camp and the eventual selection were done strictly on merit.

Unfortunately, things have since changed—for the worse. These days and for very narrow, selfish reasons, ageing athletes and obsolete coaches continue to be recycled at the expense of our nation’s sporting glory. Incidentally, sports have a lot in common with acting. In acting, an actor may refuse to take a bow when the ovation is loudest but rather loiter until he is booed out of the stage. Same goes for sports. Athletes who are not smart enough to quit in their heydays will definitely be disgraced out of the limelight by their poor performances.

Such had been the case with Mary Onyali-Omagbemi and some other athletes even as they appear to have stuck themselves in the nation’s sporting throat. There is just no way our sports administrators can ever convince anyone that there are no sprinters in our nation who are younger and faster than the likes of Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Mercy Nku and Endurance Ojokolo. If the American sprinter (Marion Jones) had been a Nigerian, definitely, she would have represented our nation till she was 90 years old. Because of these ageing athletes and the corrupt, inept sports administrators, there are thousands of young talents who are languishing in every nook and cranny of our nation.

In view of the nation’s present economic crunch, even if our governments at the Local, State and Federal levels can not afford to hold sports festivals, there is still a way out. If only our sports administrators can just take a step out of their cozy offices. All they have to do is take some trips around the nation to observe the sporting events at various high schools, tertiary institutions and other sundry places. For example, I was only shadow-boxing at the back of my school’s hostel some decades ago when a strange man approached me. He promptly introduced himself as a boxing coach from Lagos (Rowe Park). He was on a scouting tour of Kwara State when he learnt of a high school boxer that had the potential to be another Danny Lopez. And that was really flattering considering that the American boxer was then the reigning World Featherweight boxing champion and the only major similarity was in our physical appearances. These could be very deceitful because we both looked fragile.

On the issue of sponsorship, it’s quite interesting to note the many people who don’t know that we (in Nigeria) also have corporate sponsors. Oh, yes we do have them. The only problems have been the habitual laziness, personal greed and deliberate acts of nepotism that characterized our sports administration of nowadays. For instance, there is the Mobil Track and Field Championships that attract every athletic champion from each State. And there is Shell Petroleum that organizes the Eagle Club Championships for boxers. Even some banks are now into sports sponsorship. The coaches and administrators only have to go fish out all those identified local sports talents and invite them to the Mobil Track and Field, the Eagle Club Championships and others.

From the local Championships/sponsorships, participants with the greatest potentials will definitely be discovered by some aggressive foreign scouts, agents etc who are always on a global prowl in search of another athlete to turn into a “brand name”. And before we can say “run”, the successful athletes will be on the European Circuit and at the World Championships. Our nation certainly has a lot of potentially great sports stars who are only looking for the right spots to shine.

There are athletes from the economically impoverished parts of Africa such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya where foreign scouts go to annually to look for sports talents. The same thing goes for Jamaica and some other Caribbean nations. For instance, some of the Jamaican athletes (who later deprived the Americans of some Olympic medals) were even on the stable of some American corporate sponsors and were in fact trained in the United States.

One of the most interesting features at the recently concluded Olympics was the case of Felix Sanchez who won gold medal in the 400 meters hurdles. He was an American by birth and could have represented the United States. But he chose to represent the economically poor Dominican Republic just to honor the ancestral country of his parents. He neither asked the poor nation for “welfare” nor trained with their “poor facilities”. All those things were taken care of by his corporate sponsors.

Here now are the lessons in this story. In the first instance, it will really be a miracle to see an American, with Nigerian parents, offer this type of gesture to his parent’s home land. Secondly, it’s only uncompetitive athletes (with no quality to attract corporate sponsors) who will for ever be whining over their nation’s “poor training facilities and lack of interest in athletes’ welfare”.

The good news now is that the world of sports itself is fast changing. The Americans used to dominate certain sporting events such as basketball, 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 relay, 4×400 relay, lawn tennis and several others. But things are beginning to change as evidenced in the last World Championships and the just concluded Olympic games. Athletes of every nation are all greatly evolving in terms of exposure and approach towards their sporting events. Gold, silver and bronze medals are now up for grabs at every future international sporting event, especially in the European Circuit, the next World Championships and the 2008 Olympics in China.

Our country is not only blessed with the right human materials but also the needed natural environments to produce and sustain potential sports greats. For Track events, the nation can easily produce long distance runners from the North (in view of the atmospheric altitude) and sprinters from the South. Powerful swimmers can be located in the West and the South-south. Acrobatic gymnasts are in great abundance in Central part of the country especially in Isanlu-Isin and its neighborhood. Participants in other sporting events such as soccer, boxing, basketball etc can be found in all parts of the nation.

There is therefore a great opportunity for the emerging sports talents in our nation to arise and shine. But first our nation needs to urgently overhaul its entire sports administration more so, the various amateur sports associations, provide a level playing field and attract coaches who not only know what they are doing but also are current on new sporting trends.

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