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20 Aug 2017

Nigeria’s woeful outing at London 2017

Nigerian athletics is in tatters. To cap it all, the country’s 17-man contingent to the 2017 World Athletics Championships returned home without winning any medal.
Not even Blessing Okagbare could save Nigeria’s blushes as the world’s best gathered in London, England for the biennial event organised by the International Association of Athletics Federations. For a country once regarded as headed towards global athletics powerhouse status not to have made it to the podium, at least once, is shameful.

At best, Nigeria scraped into some finals, including the women’s 4×400 metres relay and the women’s long jump. Unlike in 2013 when Okagbare won two medals in the long jump and 200 metres, this time, Nigeria’s biggest medal prospect flopped in the sprints and the pit. The country’s last hope was extinguished on the final day of the championships with the women’s 4×400-relay team finishing fifth, but the men at the London event fared worse

Nigeria has produced remarkable male athletes like Chidi Imoh, Olapade Adeniken, Innocent Egbunike and the Ezinwa brothers. But that is now history. The IAAF championships abysmal outing is rooted in a culture of poor preparations, politics, meddlesomeness of the Ministry of Sports, and reduced private sector sponsorship. The shambolic preparations were defined by the delay in securing visas for the contingent with less than a week to the championships. A member of the women’s relay team, United States-based Abike Egbeniyi, almost missed out completely as she could not secure a British visa more than a week after the competition had started. With good planning, this ought not to have happened.

Pre- and post-election wrangling in the AFN contributed to the chaos as the federation broke up into factions at a time preparations were supposed to be in top gear. As a result, the camping of athletes was disrupted. The contingent to England arrived in batches, some well into the championships. This damages athletes’ morale and, ultimately, performance. The malaise is partly why Nigeria returned home empty-handed in succession from the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Administratively, the country’s athletics is living in the past. Because of the glaring deficiencies, the cycle of production, an integral element between success and failure, has been severed. In 2017 alone, Nigerian athletes have missed three major international youth development championships: the Africa Junior Championships in Algeria; the IAAF U-18 Championships in Kenya; and the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas. All the AFN and the ministry offered were incoherent excuses about visa denial.

So, what does the future hold for a sport that has produced the likes of Modupe Osikoya, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chioma Ajunwa (Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medallist), Beatrice Utondu and stellar men performers like Yussuf Ali, Sunday Bada, Dele Udoh, Ajayi Agbebaku, Enefiok Udobong and Henry Amike? It is absolutely bleak. Worse, there is little hope that the situation will improve in three years when Japan hosts the next Olympic Games.

Citing opacity and inconsistent government policies, a host of private sponsors have withdrawn their support for athletics. Regular competition is vital to the nurturing of talents, but reduced sponsorship is demonstrated in the termination of top annual events like the MKO Abiola and Wahab Folawiyo championships for youth development. Similarly, the National Sports Festival, inter-collegiate competitions and school sports are irregular. Indeed, the Ministry has failed woefully in youth development. Sport opens the door to youths to fulfil their potential and eradicate poverty. This is obvious in the new world record €220 million transfer of Neymar Da Silva Santos of Brazil from Barcelona (Spain) to PSG of France.

In terms of funding, Nigeria is lagging far behind others. In 2017, Nigeria budgeted only N9.4 billion for all sports. This is puny. Without adequate investment, it is not easy to nurture athletes to stardom. Poor investment in the welfare of athletes accounted partly for the defection of Francis Obikwelu to Portugal and Gloria Alozie to Spain.

Conversely, in the 2017-2020 Olympic Games cycle, the United Kingdom, in partnership with private sponsors, will invest £27.13 million in athletics, according to UK Sport. The sponsors provide funding, assist with technology, insurance cover, camping, medicals and data management, intelligence and analysis. For the 2009-2012 Olympic cycle, the US Olympic Committee invested $795 million.

However, money is not the sole determinant of success. Kenya and Ethiopia have consistently recorded sterling performances in middle and long distance races; South Africa is turning heads, while Ivory Coast has picked up the slack in the sprints in Nigeria’s absence. They have been helped by ensuring rigorous standards, performance centres and stable administration. To join them, Nigeria needs a strategic overhaul to revive its athletics.

With a population of 180 million, all hope is not lost but school sport at every level is very vital; it should be revived and the talent discovered nurtured by well-motivated coaches. The AFN should discuss the modality of school sport with the ministry of education to make sporting activities an integral part of the curriculum.

To regain its glorious past, the AFN has a lot of work to do. The federation should return to the formula that awarded scholarships and grants to budding athletes to study in American universities by establishing a fund for this purpose. Each of the federal, state and local governments should start with a seed fund and hire professionals to manage it independently. This will spur the private sector to contribute to it. The fund will be deployed in athletes’ management before, during and after major competitions.

The Federal Government should give the AFN more independence and grants. The weird devotion to exerting control over every aspect of the federation is obsolete. The AFN should be unshackled to conduct its own election as and when due.

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