Lethargy and the spirit of Olympics
Let me start with a confession. In all my life, nobody, no matter how uncharitable, has ever accused me of being an expert in sports. Throughout my days and years in school, from the elementary, through secondary to the university, all I could lay claim to was a nodding acquaintance with sports, especially football. And that, most often, as a cheerleader or an apprentice commentator mimicking Ishola Folorunsho, the legendary football commentator of the NBC fame. Some other times, as reporter for school newspaper, recording how Oro Grammar School team, coming to Okene for a friendly football match, would arrive in an unfriendly manner, fully kitted in their jersey from the bus. They would proceed into the field, wallop us and return home from the field without the courtesy of allowing their hosts to play the normal hospitality for a visiting team.
In Okene, my performance in sports was exceedingly beyond anybody’s imagination that the school authorities had no choice but to give me a medal, which was neither gold nor silver, not even bronze. Now wait for it. On graduating from secondary school, any school for that matter, you were given a testimonial of your academic performance and general conduct. In my own testimonial in which the principal had paid glowing tribute to my academic prowess and good conduct, he smuggled in what would today look like padding – something extraneous. It said and I quote, “but in the field of sports, Mohammed was rather lethargic.” Lethargic? I never heard the word until then, despite all my reading. And when I checked the meaning, I discovered it was not flattering at all. But I accepted this tribute with my two hands.
Till date I still regard it as the sports medal I got from Okene more than four decades ago.
This is by way of declaring my qualification for being a sports enthusiast, critic and patriot hankering after glory and pride for my country when it takes on any other country in sports competition. My lethargy has been cured sufficiently for me to be able to engage in shouting and screaming and kicking my legs in the air when Nigeria’s Super Eagles are in a do or die battle with any other country, either at African Cup of Nations or in the World Cup. Like other Nigerians, my spirit is up and the heart is pumping when we are doing fantastically well. Like when the Samson Siasia led Dream Team trounced Japan 5-4 in the just concluded Rio Olympics, and when the team beat Denmark to qualify for the semi-final. Though our team played well, they lost in the battle for final when Germany defeated us by two goals to nothing. Our spirit went down considerably but we made it up when the Dream Team beat Honduras to win the bronze, the only medal Nigeria won at the Rio Olympics.
Nothing unites this country like football. We are one, united Nigerians, while the game lasts, especially when we are on top, our patriotic spirit gets fired when national pride is at stake. Our sports administrators do not appear to appreciate this sufficiently enough and this, in my view, accounts for the lethargy (this word again), planlessness and lack of foresight that cause this country some great embarrassments. It accounts for our ability to sustain brilliant performance, to keep the best team and grow them into a force to be reckoned with. This accounts for the country’s last minute struggle to qualify for any international engagement, the Nation’s Cup or the World Cup. We have no reason to resort to mathematics of possibilities and do the permutation of goal aggregate and depending helplessly on favour to be done by one team defeating another one for us to qualify when proper preparation and coordination would easily have seen us through.
I don’t know how our sports handlers, especially the Nigerian Olympics Committee, NOC, feel when the country’s image got some battering in Rio because of shoddiness bordering on ineptitude. Nigeria’s football team, the Dream Team, arrived late to Manaus in Brazil from Atlanta where they were reportedly stranded. The team got into Brazil about six hours to their first engagement against Japan. Despite the logistics mix up that caused their delay, they did the nation proud. This is despite the fact that they had little time to practise and put themselves in the groove for the encounter. On the field, however, the country suffered its first globally televised embarrassment when the national anthem of another country, some said, Niger, was played instead of that of Nigeria. One could see John Obi Mikel visibly disturbed and embarrassed.
We followed this up, the following day, with another embarrassment. At the march past by all of the 206 countries competing at the Olympics Games with about 11,000 athletes, Nigeria was conspicuously outstanding for wrong reasons. Instead of the national attire prepared for that day of glory and national pride, our athletes and team officials were forced into their track suits because the attire meant for the occasion had not arrived in Rio. The attire eventually arrived in Rio only three days to the end of the two weeks fiesta.
National pride is of utmost importance. This, more than the desire to win medal, accounts for the presence of so many countries, some of them not up to the size of an average town in Nigeria. Take the case of Tuvalu, easily the smallest country in the world. Tuvalu is one of the island nations in the South Pacific with a population of 10, 640 people. I was looking out for its athletes and team officials as a matter of personal curiosity. In 1990 I was on a Commonwealth Foundation mission in Britain and the Caribbean Islands nations in company of other participants from Commonwealth countries. The participant from Tuvalu, a young man from the Prime Minister’s office, was proud to introduce himself as having come from the smallest country in the world. He put the population at 9000 people then. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to see the Tuvalu contingent to the Rio Olympics comprising gaily dressed men and women officials accompanying only one athlete, Etimoni Timuani. He participated in athletics but won no medal. The important thing was that he was there and Tuvalu national pride was satisfied.
Nigeria has been going to the Olympics since 1952 but one cannot say the experience garnered over the years has been put to use in such a manner as to avoid national embarrassment and scandal arising from shoddy preparation and coordination. Some may want to argue, as Pierre Coubertin, second president of the International Olympic Committee has done, that the most important thing is not to win at the Olympics game but to participate. There is pride in taking part. And I want to add that there is also great pride in winning, not once and not twice but winning all the time as USA, China and others are wont to do. Since our dramatic outing in Atlanta 96 when Nigeria won two gold medals, one by the football team and the other by Long Jumper Chioma Ajunwa, our subsequent performance has been on the low side. We came from the London Olympics in 2012 empty handed.
All this boils down to preparation and motivation and the desire to win and win again. Where other countries take four years to prepare for Olympics, Nigeria would rather wait until it is around the corner before we wake up. In October 1982, I was in Seoul, South Korea for about two weeks. The South Korean capital was agog with Olympics preparation and I had to wonder aloud if the next Olympics was going to hold that year. Of course not. The next Olympics was the summer Olympics in Los Angeles, in U.S. 1984. The Seoul Olympics was the 1988 Olympics and that was the one that got every Korean, male and female, young and old, into frenzy, six years away.
Nigeria did not start preparing seriously for Rio until some six months ago. No matter how good our athletes were and no matter how determined, they would, at late hour, be put to grave task to give their best. It is perhaps with this handicap at the back of his mind that the Japanese plastic surgeon, Katsuya Takasu, pledged to motivate our Dream Team players with 30, 000 dollars each if they won gold or 20,000 dollars, if silver. We won bronze against all odds and he made good his promise by giving out 10, 000 dollars per player. That is the spirit that propels and motivates sports men and women to do their country proud.
That was the same spirit that M.K.O Abiola, of blessed memory, displayed and was honoured as the pillar of sports in Africa.