Just a few days after the just concluded Rio Olympics, Mariam Usman, a Commonwealth medallist, said she has lost the urge to represent Nigeria at international events. She was the only weightlifter that represented Nigeria in Rio, where she competed in the +75 category and amassed 265 kg. She finished 8th in her group. Her words: “It is painful to come to the Olympics and see people who are your contemporaries perform better than you; not because you lack the ability but because you were not prepared like them….I can only consider going to another Olympics if things change for the better. But if the status quo is maintained, I don’t think I will go to another Olympics again. Olympic gold medal (or any medal for that matter – my own input) doesn’t come cheap. It is painful that one has to suffer and when competition comes they expect you to win a medal with your blood. The people you have to compete with had everything they needed: training grants, competitions and are exposed to the most modern equipment. I had nothing. You don’t expect such people who have invested so much to lose to one who don’t even train adequately.”
Only four years ago, in Nigeria, the top leaders of sports were at a Presidential Retreat to discuss London 2012 debacle and to lay a solid ground work for Rio 2016. Sometime in 2013 the media showed the top echelon of sports administration hunkering up to create a high performance programme for Nigerian sports and therefore deliver medals for Nigeria at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but because of politics and power play at the upper echelons of government as well as reported strong resistance by the top civil servants to this Bolaji Abdullahi-led initiative, all these efforts, as we have now seen happen, turned out to be in vain. It’s time to start planning for Tokyo, and hopefully there will be some sense this time.
However, for those urging and hoping that Nigeria would start preparing for Tokyo 2020 Olympics immediately, we may already be too late. Nigerian officials, whether sports or in other areas of our governance, are not built for preparedness – readiness is an alien activity to them. If they are ready, there will not be money to mismanage or divert, and nepotism to be effected. The British Olympic Association (BOA) has already visited and inspected prospective preparation camps in Tokyo three times in the past one year and will be finalizing arrangements in October this year. Also the developmental cycle for BOA is eight years, meaning that they will this year identify and begin to groom athletes that will represent Great Britain in the 2024 Olympics. In other words, for Tokyo 2020, the BOA started 4 years ago!!! That is what is called PREPARATION TO SUCCEED.
BOA invested for twenty years to achieve their leadership position at number two at Rio 2016. Nigeria has not started at any rudimentary level yet, so four years is nowhere near enough in a system so suffused with corruption and measured maladministration; that puts square pegs in round holes; and that places mediocrity over merit every time and that is always engaging in “fire-brigade” and “last minute panic” approaches to everything it does, even in governance. The rest of the world invests, commits and continues to move on in a 21st century which has no place for the 19th century. This has been said over and over again and we keep saying it. The problem is that the people who are “at the top” either don’t understand or are deliberately unwilling to actually turn sports around in this country, or both and more. Unfortunately for us, these people, these top dogs civil servants are virtually untouchable. They are the Alpha and Omega of sports in Nigeria; they call the shots; and even the politicians placed above them to “minister” over them, are scared stiff of them.
It is unlike us to ever start in time. We always like crisis management in a world that’s daily perfecting scientific long-term management by the day. Our result at the Olympics was so woeful but that is not unexpected with zero planning and the reported vanishing of appropriated funds over the years. That will not be unlike us. It’s garbage in garbage out. It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to get the right answer from the wrong input. The name of the game is a well-considered enduring plan and honest finishing. This is the only thing that will attract sponsorship by corporate organizations. As things stand, there is nothing to show that we have begun to come to terms with the problems talk less the solutions. Unless and until we do, the Jamaicas of this world will excel while we will still come back, year in, year out to make up the numbers and then bemoan our problems and failures.
But look ahead we must! We must look at what Britain did after Atlanta ‘96. We cannot politicise sports and expect professional results. Neither can we have complete mediocre and charlatans running our sports and expect to do well at international sports events. Mediocrity and charlatanism will always breed corruption, which ends up affecting preparations for major sports events.
UK Sports has done very well since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, USA. I can’t describe what they have done here. Funded mostly by the National Lottery, funding of its athletes has increased almost 400%, talent hunting and catch them young, local or grassroots sports was funded and encouraged, more facilities provided, etc. That is a country that went for it. They have never had it so good since they realized from what they achieved in Beijing 2008, what was missing in their sports and decided to correct them. For the second position that Team GB took at the Rio Olympics, they worked for every medal, they paid for every medal; according to Team GB and UK Sports, every medal they won was worth four (4) million pounds sterling; being the amount they invested in the athletes that represented Britain at the games.
I don’t see Nigeria doing that. Nepotism, favouritism, corruption, hypocrisy, square pegs in round holes and cultural inhibitions will not let us do it, despite the fact that we used to do it before, an example being you yourself as a product of when we were serious and focused.
So why did Nigeria fail, or rather, why didn’t Nigeria win more than just the one bronze medal in the soccer event? Unfortunately, it had precious little to do with the Sports Minister Dalung! He is just the man who inherited a sabotaged and already sunk boat as I discovered…we have deeper problems than the beret wearing activist! In fact, recent revelations revealed that the Minister did his best to alleviate the problems faced by the athletes, but at every turn, he was sabotaged by both the Sports Ministry officials and the Nigeria Football Federation, including the coach of the bronze-winning football team himself (I refer to the Atlanta hotel accommodation fiasco and the airplane debacle).
“Research shows that investment into sport in developing countries is much less than in developed countries, as sport development is usually not a top priority in the national budget or in the education system of most developing countries. Studies show that a ‘vicious cycle’ is emerging as a result of the underdevelopment of sport in developing countries, in which lower investment in sport decreases the potential for athletes to build their talent. It also means that there are fewer prospects for athletes to continue their sport training or pursue professional sport careers in a developing country. In turn, the lack of talent-building opportunities in a developing country leads to less return on the little investment put into local talent, further debilitating local sport development structures and sport career pathways. Less developed countries are unable to utilise the talent of their strong performers and/or tend to lose them to more powerful nations in global sport. Sport regulated by global processes can thus contribute to the underdevelopment of a developing country’s talent”. Underdevelopment of sport in developing countries.
To his credit, ex-President Jonathan funded a high performance structure that was established in 2013. The chaps at the corruption-ridden, indolent and mediocre-packed National Sports Commission ensured its death. They worked against it until it ultimately failed. They drove the then Sports Minister Bolaji Abdullahi out. They strangulated the programmes of the various identified sports federations; the usage of the billions earmarked for the project cannot be explained; they didn’t pay the foreign experts on time and hardly followed their advice. They didn’t build and utilise the high performance centre projected as at when due. They refused to fund the preparatory programmes of the sports federations even after asking them to submit their 2016 Rio Olympic roadmaps. Many sports presidents are said to still be owed monies for international programmes they had to raise money to attend dating back many years. To top it all, the defunct NSC and now Ministry of Sports routinely hijacks the role and powers of the Nigerian Olympic Committee, NOC in preparing and disbursing funds for the major events. They did not do this for altruistic reasons or to save funds for other projects, but mainly and solely to divert the money into other purposes. Where are the billions said to have been set aside for Rio since 2013?
Frustrated, in November 2015, the hired American High Performance Director, Angie Taylor predicted that Team Nigeria could record a disastrous outing at the 2016 Olympics Games scheduled for Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, maintaining that no proactive step was being taken by NSC leadership to avert a fresh no-medal show during the 2016’s most glamorous sporting showpiece, adding “You go and ask the leadership how prepared they are because with what I can see, there is no preparation in place. Nigeria will have to qualify first before talking about going to the Olympics. You have to ask them why they couldn’t make the athletes go for qualifiers which they ought to go since early this year.”
The NSC it seemed was made up of powerful and untouchable Civil Servants who are very much opposed to new ideas, and do not tolerate reformists. They don’t like anyone getting in the way of their business as usual pipelines. Even at the Presidency it was rumoured that Minister Dalung’s request for funding for Rio 2016 was “delayed” for several weeks until he could see President Buhari in person. What this indicates is that those who corruptly benefit immensely from the previous government’s style of “see me first” are still at the upper echelon of civil service.
Various committees that were established to prepare for the Olympics were all scrapped one after the other by succeeding henchmen at the defunct NSC who the media says would have produced the goods, and the new Ministry of Sports continued in like manner.
In most of the countries that excel in sports, especially football, it is business. In countries where there are restrictions or the sports are in rudimentary stages, individuals of those countries look abroad and invest in other countries’ sports. Examples are Chinese, Russians, Middle East sheiks who have invested heavily in the English Premier League. However, the problem in Nigeria is the centralization of everything. Sports should be taken out of the hands of government somehow (I will admit there is a lot of business risks involved here), but with government creating an enabling environment, erecting and providing infrastructures and providing incentives to private investors.
The truth is: it is Government’s responsibility to show the way. Three sports ministers in three years and a lack of financial independence of sports federations are hardly confidence-giving. When, as occasional as it happens, they get private or corporate sponsors, it is still government account that the corporate or individual sponsors will pay this money into, and the elected president is not a signatory to the money, so he chases the civil servants up and down to get access to the money; in most cases they don’t get it, or if they do, only in trickles which negates the effective use of such funds. There is therefore a system where Government doesn’t fund sports yet controls the funds raised externally. However, for the big Games it is Government’s first responsibility to finance the preparation and participation of athletes and teams. Britain spent £4million for every medal they won in Rio 2016! That’s reality.
The role of governments in sports development in every country in the world is well documented, easily available and adaptable to our special circumstance, but the challenges the government should address are as follows:
- How to address the recent decline in sports performance excellence in the country, and deliver a long-term sustainable increase in participation and success at international level;
- What type(s) of sports areas should be encouraged and how should they be measured;
- How to ensure that funding goes to those who can best deliver results, and not corruptly mismanaged;
- How to specifically target under-represented and under-privileged groups across the country;
- How to develop, encourage and sustain grass-root sports as well as “catch them young” programs;
- Understanding the role of the private sector, and how public sector bodies, sports federations and other sports bodies should work with the private sector to help deliver sporting excellence or improvement;
- How to best support new and/or non-traditional sports and activities;
- How to maximise the potential of new technology to increase sports performance;
- How to use the power of sport to achieve broader positive social outcomes and whether some funding should specifically be spent for that purpose.
So, can we hope we will start preparing for future international tournaments and games? We can only hope. Like Bobby Knight, coach of the U.S.A. men’s basketball team that won the 1984 Olympic gold medal said “The key is not the will to win. Everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.”
We need dedicated and totally incorruptible officials; we need knowledgeable and skilled officials; we need motivators; we need funding and very heavy investment from the federal government; we need the federal government to be very much interested in sports and the benefit and goodwill it brings to them, as a government and to the people of this country; we need to separate sports from politics, tribalism and religious intolerance; we need infrastructures to be rehabilitated or constructed; we need to start treating our athletes and other sportsmen and women right; we need to start identifying the right people to run sports in this country and not allowing opportunists and charlatans from getting into the sports federations; we need private and corporate sponsors who will be given all the incentives and conducive environment to enable them recoup their investment or at least, be appreciated nationally for doing so.
We need grassroots sports to be revived or invigorated – schools sports, national sports festivals, university and polytechnic games, corporate-sponsored sports tournaments, etc.; we need overseas scholarships for potentially successful athletes; talent hunting and management of sportsmen and women in areas of sports that we want to concentrate and excel on.
The Ijaws and Ilajes are known for their swimming prowess; why don’t we talent-hunt them, pick the best, educate and train them in the finesse and skills of international swimming? The Igbos are supposed to take wrestling as a virility test for men; can’t we exploit this talent and potential? The Hausas are known for their ability to fight with their feet, so why not pick some at a local festival; and train them in taekwondo? Edo and Delta boys are good footballers; I don’t care if the entire Nigerian teams are made up of them, as long as it is Nigeria that is written on their kit.
Nigeria used to excel or at least perform creditably in sports like table tennis, football, wrestling, boxing, weight-lifting, taekwondo, and used to occupy the top international rankings in the men’s and women’s 100, 200 and 400 meters; let us concentrate on these sports that we can excel in or has reasonable chances of winning laurels, and let’s fund and motivate them. Kenya and Ethiopia discovered a long time ago that long distance running is their forte, and they concentrated on providing the world’s best athletes in this area of athletics. This is what UK Sports and the British Olympic Committee have been doing to get them their recent success. They rated each sports area and measured their chance of success in each and funded them accordingly. For example, they went for these three events – swimming, sailing (rowing) and bicycling events – funding the athletes and facilities more heavily than some other sports, and they got many medals of various colours to show for their investment. The next sports they funded more heavily were in athletics, and only in selected events.
I might sound so optimistic or perhaps, unrealistic here – where is the money, where are the facilities, where is the commitment, where are the officials, where are the athletes, etc.? But, we have to start somewhere; something we are always saying we are going to do, but never does.
But start somewhere, we must!