‘Nigeria can challenge Jamaica, United States in athletics but the structure must change’
Pundits analysing Nigeria’s continuous downward slide in sports usually end their submission with the need for the country to go back to the grassroots if it truly desires a change in results.
Recently, the Reform Committee set up by the Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, came up with the same submission, adding a caveat that only patriotic and informed Nigerians should be given the task of leading the effort at revival.
The agitation for change is not new. After the London 2012 Olympic Games, Nigerians, led by then President Goodluck Jonathan, began a process that was to lead to a radical change in the country’s sports fortune.
Jonathan summoned a summit, where all Nigerian stakeholders came to contribute their knowledge to what was supposed to be a new way of doing things in the country’s sports administration. But such efforts, including the inauguration of committees and such bodies as the Nigeria Academicals Sports Committee (NASCOM), whose duties were to identify and nurture talents from the schools across the country, were soon discarded. And so there is this fear that the current effort by the Godwin Kienka-led Sports Reform Committee might end like the previous exercises even with Dalung’s assurance that efforts would be geared towards ensuring its implementation with or without him in charge of the sports ministry.
Dalung has promised to change the architecture to ensure that Nigeria reaps from the skills of the teeming untapped talents spread across the country.
The ministry’s stance is one a former Nigerian sprinter, Dr. Bruce Ijirigho, who is also a grassroots sports development consultant, thinks will help the country reclaim its position among the best sports nations in the world.
But he wants Dalung to take a closer look at the Cross River State grassroots development model, which in less than six years, threw up many elite athletes, who unfortunately are now representing other countries.
Ijirigho, a geologist who taught petroleum engineering at the University of Ibadan, was Nigeria’s captain to the botched 1976 Olympics, which the country boycotted for political reasons.
An environmental consultant in the United States, Ijirigho says his experience as an athlete and grassroots sports coordinator has thought him that Nigeria’s problems have always centred on the management of its sportsmen and women.
He says, “As a country, we failed to find these talents and nurture them to the world level. That is why we have always had problems getting the right results at international sports contests, and this is disgraceful.”
In Nigeria’s recent history, the country was rubbing shoulders with the United States, Jamaica and Britain, but it has fallen so low that it struggles to qualify for major events, while these countries continue to dominate world sports.
Ijirigho says Jamaica is enjoying prominence in athletics because the country brought back its past athletes to build on the structures put in place by the colonial masters.
“Our contemporaries in Jamaica, guys like Don Quarry and Bert Cameron are the people behind the success that country has been enjoying in athletics.
“Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt are some of their products. I went there to interview them on three different occasions on how they were able to make gains in sports. I spoke to their sports minister, chairman of the Jamaica athletics association and their coaches. I took notes. What they told me was that the sports development structure, which the British colonialists left behind in Nigeria, we did not maintain them; we allowed them to crumble and decay. But they (the Jamaicans) continued on their own and even built upon the structure. Some of their top stars from that programme that went abroad even came back home and contributed their experiences into the development of the sport there.
“When I came back to Nigeria, I wrote a proposal in 2002 and handed it to then sports minister, Stephen Akiga. He invited me before the council of sports meeting and I did a presentation, and Akiga liked it because it was a grassroots oriented developmental programme. But before we could ptake the first step forward, he was removed from office and his predecessors were not keen to follow up.”
He revealed that he took the same proposal to places like Kaduna and Delta States without any tangible result. “But Cross River State embraced the programme in 2010 with its then governor, Liyel Imoke, ensuring that we had everything needed to make it work,” he said.
Ijirigho says the success of the Cross River programme was a “vindication that with a concise programme and the sports talents everywhere in this country, we can produce a pool of quality athletes who will meet world standards.
“For four years in a row Cross River dominated the schools sports festival and the national under-17 championships.
“At the 2012 National Sports Festival we had athletes in every final, with some of them achieving podium performances. That was where we had the likes of Edidiong Offonime Odiong, who ran for Bahrain in the final of the 2016 Olympics.”
He revealed that more than four athletes discovered by the Cross River grassroots programme now run for other countries, adding, “at the World Junior Championships in Bydgozcz, Poland, Offonime won a gold medal in the women 200m. If we as a country was taking care of those athletes, they will not go to Bahrain.
“There were many kids we discovered and are doing well. For instance, there was one Endurance, who was selling food at the museum in Calabar and also Mercy Ntia Obong, whom we picked up from selling food in the market and brushed up to the world level.
Even as we have produced these athletes, how can we stop other countries from snatching them?
“We have to find a way to keep them. But if we tell Nigeria to give these kids N100, 000 a month token will they do it? And how much is that compared to what these athletes are being lavished with in the countries they have gone to?”
He revealed that the Cross River programme also took care of the children’s education, which ensured that those who could not achieve the heights expected of them in sports, had education to fall back on.
“At end of our programme, we had 21 children in the University of Calabar, who we were paying their fees. We have four others, who are studying in United States Universities. We got admission for them as part of the programme.
“There were others we brought from the villages and we put them in schools in Calabar… we were paying these athletes allowances. Every athlete that met the standards we required, was automatically admitted into our programme, right from primary to secondary school.”
The Cross River programme was not only about athletics. According to Ijirigho, it also trained children in boxing, swimming and weightlifting, adding that the state had the best under-17 team in the country. But he lamented that the programme was stopped abruptly when it was just about yielding the required results.
“This is a country where there is hardly continuity. At the onset we convinced Governor Imoke to buy us all the equipment we needed to make Cross River a centre of sports in Nigeria and he released the funds. We bought equipment from all over the world.
“If you go to Calabar today, these equipment for athletics, boxing and swimming are rotting in the store room. This should not be so. The Cross River sports development programme should be the comer stone of the sports revolution in this country and we want to start it all over again.”
Ijirigho is unyielding in his belief that Nigerian sports can be salvaged, adding that what former governor of the defunct Bendel State, Samuel Ogbemudia, achieved in the 1970s could be replicated by all the states in the country.
“Ogbemudia was able to achieve it because he fell on the structures that the colonialists left behind. Sports was thriving in the schools.
“For us to get back to world reckoning we need at least four women running constant 11.1 seconds or even below, to be assured of a medal; the same with the men in the sprints. If we can’t have men and women doing good times in the sprints, we can’t even get into the finals let alone winning a medal in the relays.”