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That awful outing at Tokyo Olympic

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Photo: AFP

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, concluded 48 hours ago, was a small leap for gallant Nigerian athletes; but a giant flop in team performance and Nigeria’s representation at the global sports’ fiesta. The most populous Black Country in the world won two consolatory medals, certainly not enough to assuage the administrative fiasco that trailed build-up to the games and disillusioned the team in-tournament with attendant shame on the country. Besides the complete overhaul and reform now overdue in sports, all those complicit in the disastrous outing should not go unpunished.

Tokyo was an embarrassment to the Nigerian image abroad as shoddy preparation complemented unsavory news from Japan. There was the $2.7 million Puma kit scandal that has caused Puma to cancel the deal and threatened to sue Nigeria for breach of contract. It led to the team appearing in mismatched sportswear during the opening ceremony walk-out. Alternative kits arrived late and were inadequate, causing sport stars to wash-and-wear; followed by the Samsung phone-gift rumpus between greedy officials and athletes. Nigerian sportsmen even carried placards in protest against poor treatment by fellow countrymen. If these are disgraceful, the landmark disqualification of 10 Nigerian athletes, out of the 22 listed for the track and field events, brought the country to full glare of ridicule.

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The elite athletes, who should know the rules, allegedly violated Rule 15 of the anti-doping regulations, which mandated three out-of-competition tests before a major tourney. Pointedly, the Athletic Integrity Unit (AIU) of the World Athletics disqualified a total of 20 athletes from 205 countries participating at the Olympics with half of them from Nigeria! News of the disqualification naturally threw the Nigerian camp in chaos, and almost everything went south on the field of play.

Olympics definitely are not a place for the fruitless improvisation of athletic roles that Nigeria consequently resorted to.

Blessing Okagbare, the brightest medal prospect, was handed a provisional suspension for testing positive to Human Growth Hormone substance, and now awaiting a final verdict that is not looking good for her or the country. Gloomily, all Nigerian athletes are now dope suspects just a year after AIU dumped the country in Category-A position of countries with the highest risk of doping.

It was a huge relief for the Team when Ese Brume won bronze medal, and Blessing Oborududu afterwards doubled the tally with silver in the freestyle wrestling. Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Sunday Dare, in a veiled attempt to rationalise the debacle, said the team had an “impressive outing,” better than previous editions. He reminded Nigerians that the Olympics are highly competitive but “we have learnt our lessons for better outing at the next Olympics.” Nigerians know, however, that the road to Tokyo was an institutional failure, and it was by sheer individual brilliance that Nigeria won medals.

All the 36 Sports Federations in Nigeria are all in shambles. The Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) is the most popular and saddled with assembling the best athletes. Embroiled in a leadership tussle and broken into factions months before the competition, AFN was not in any shape to encourage sportsmen. The pre-Olympics’ Athletics trial in Lagos was fraught with technical errors and malpractices that disqualified some of the elite athletes. Celebrated Bronze medalist, Ese Brume, was for months injured and abandoned by Nigeria until three weeks to the Olympics. It was hardly surprising that the Giant of Africa posted a dismal 74th among 93 countries that won medals in Tokyo – far behind Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Morocco.

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Indeed, Nigeria’s poor preparation towards global tournaments is a shame that keeps repeating itself. More than anything else, sports readily bond most Nigerians, irrespective of ethnic or religious divides. Nigerians expect more in team performances at competitions from their country that fizzes with sport stars in many areas and across the globe. Sadly, sport has neither lived up to its potential nor ignites the right felicity among teeming followers. The country has participated in the Olympics for 60 years and won a total of 23 medals – one medal short of what Canada won in Tokyo. This is a startling lack of success for a nation with such a strong sporting culture, not to mention Africa’s largest economy and a population of 200 million-plus.

To change the narrative, elected public-officeholders and politicians need to accord sport and its practitioners their deserving respect. There is no doubt that youth and sports’ development is symptomatic of the disarticulated state of the nation. However, performances of individual sportsmen and women should be an inspiration for other walks of life. It is incumbent on relevant officials, starting with President Muhammadu Buhari, to complement sporting culture with the right administrators, not square pegs in round holes. Presidents have often used sports ministry to compensate loyalists that have no experience or competency in that area. Hence, it has been governed by all manner of shady characters and even charlatans.

Yet, sports administration is a specialised terrain meant for tested sportsmen and women that are equipped in business and technical acumen.

By extension, the country needs to reform sport, as a global business worth billions of dollars in annual turnover and make it enterprising. This is why sports’ governing bodies are statutorily shielded from government’s influence and its transient nature. It is unacceptable that this logic is standing on its head in Nigeria. While sport federations claim independence, they are all dependent on the Federal Government for funding and bailouts. The 36 federations are simply avenues for wrongheaded freeloaders to cash-in easy money and that explains why most of them are distressed and only visible during Olympic-year.

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Nigeria needs a clearheaded Sports minister who will reform and institutionalise sports beyond the shortsightedness of four-year political appointments and incompetent state officials. If government stops funding mediocrity and indolence in the name of sports federations to outings, it will open doors to genuine administrators with experience in sport management. Sport is a business concern that requires complementarity of investment and achievement. It can attract corporate sponsorship, give good value for money and ward-off opportunists that are turning destroying the country’s huge sport potential on the international stage.

Tokyo Olympic silver medalist, Blessing Oborududu, as one of those wrestlers adopted by the Olympian medalist turned Bayelsa States’ Commissioner for Sport, Dr. Daniel Igali, trained for months in Bayelsa. She reflects how much Nigeria can achieve when the interest is genuine and focused across the sports’ federations. Such efforts are imperative to encourage athletes, honest sports’ administrators and sponsors to stick out their neck ahead of the next Olympics, only three years away.

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