The day Nigerian sports scored another own goal
To err is human, but when the eraser wears out ahead of the pencil, you’re overdoing it – J. Jenkins
Wise men learn from other men’s mistakes, fools by their own – H.G. Bohn
Nigerian team heading to the forthcoming summer Olympics in Tokyo last week tripped over their own bootlaces and scored an own goal. Just days after the men’s team went flatfooted failing to qualify for Olympic finals, the women’s 4x400m relay team took to the track, ran a season’s best to get on the road to Tokyo. But while the women were still celebrating the feat, the World Athletics body flagged technical errors on the part of officials and summarily disqualified the team.
Before that, something more bizarre had happened at the Yabatech ground of the athletic qualifications’ meet. One of Nigeria’s fastest legs, Tobiloba Amusan, ran a personal best – a new African record in women’s 100m hurdles. However, she got to the finish line to find the electronic timer stuck on zeros. The timekeeper either forgot to turn on the device or the damned thing suddenly went blank! Poor Amusan was devastated. The 24-year-old wept like a baby. Her efforts had gone to waste and unrecognised by the World Athletics body that plays strictly by the rules. Someone even told Amusan to get on the tracks and race for the records. Really? But things are not that simple from an athlete’s perspective. And when World Athletics flashed the women’s relay quartet a straight red, the buffoonery that has become Nigerian sports and its management readily comes to mind.
Indeed, not too many people get to see athletes until the D-day. In the run-up are years of arduous preparations. It costs an athlete an average of four years to prepare for the Olympic Games. That is a cycle of self-denials, self-doubts, self-beliefs, hopes, pains, wear and tear, burnout, sheer determination, and huge resources. And when that day of glory approaches, it is unthinkable that some so-called professional sports’ officials would err so badly or sabotage their athletes, the country and still go unpunished. That is the malaise and a disincentive cloud that hangs over Nigerian sport in particular and the public service in general.
Winning or losing a game begins off the pitch. On the morning of Amusan’s 100mh fiasco, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) was a house divided and in tatters. Reason: full grown adults, supposed elders of the game and in ‘service’ to their fatherland, decided to break the AFN into two, and simultaneously held elections at two venues on the same day. Abuja and Kebbi centres emerged AFN two presidents and governing boards. Both rivals told Nigerians, World Athletics and potential sponsors that they are the duly-elected custodian of Nigerian Athletics just some days to the Olympics. Shame. Apparently smarter than silly shenanigans from people that have no rule over their own selves and ambitions, the world body has refused to acknowledge any of the factions. So, the AFN is a body without a head; and our poor athletes lost it right in the locker-room.
The comedy of errors in Nigerian sports didn’t start today. Where people don’t get punished for sheer negligence and bad behaviour, they tend to fester across the board. Very recently, a top official in the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) sent a memo regarding a scheduled game between Ifeanyi Uba FC and MFM FC. Curiously, the official gave two different stadia to the teams, which caused the game to be awarded against Ifeanyi Uba FC. NPFL later described the blunder as a “typographical error”. In 2017, a Nations Cup qualifier between Nigeria and South African in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, saw Nigerian officials arrive at the Stadium without balls! Nigeria borrowed balls from the Bafana-Bafana to prosecute the home game, which Nigeria deservedly lost two nil. The same national team had earlier gone for an international match but without the dedicated training kits and jerseys. And scores of NFF officials still got huge estacodes in reward.
It is therefore not a mystery that Nigerian sportsmen and women readily jump ship at foreign offers where people are held accountable and the system seamless. Of the hundreds that had represented Nigeria in one sport or the other in the last six decades, Chioma Ajunwa and the 1994 Nations’ Cup winning team stand out in modern memory. For the gold medal Ajunwa won 25 years ago, she only got her reward from Lagos State government last month. The Federal Government, only recently, remembered to fulfill its apartment pledges to the 1994 team, 27 years after! Rasheed Yekini and Steven Keshi received theirs in the grave. Where is the incentive and motivation to keep believing and stake it all for Nigeria where public office holders rarely keep promises or punish bad behaviours? And should the depleted Team Nigeria, already on the way to Tokyo Olympics, fail to bring home a medal, you already know why.
Though complicit negligence breeds lies in the fabric of public service, to keep glossing over malfeasance without any punishment is a disservice to the country. It is unpardonable that public officers that are paid from tax payers’ sweat would keep forgetting to do the basics for which they were employed. And that is the bane of our dysfunctional society. There is no doubt that fishes rotten from the head, but leadership is only as efficient as the quality of followers around it. A society is closer to collapse when its individuals, its weak links, fail to perform their civic duties and assigned roles in the interest of all. Yes, the timekeeper howla happened in sport and almost negligible. But such a fellow in a healthcare facility would as well forget to turn on the ventilator and kill the patient. As a driver, he would forget safety measures and cause a fatal accident. As a pilot, he may forget to deploy the landing wheels on approaching the runway. And as an Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO), he could sleep off on duty with resultant air collision. As the president (and some democracies do have them), the entire country is doomed. The point is, a misdemeanor is a misdemeanor and should be punished accordingly.
Lest we forget, reward and punishment is a two-way street by which a society grows morally. Our ambassadors across all walks of life, not only in sport or entertainment, deserve proportional and prompt rewards for their best conduct; to encourage others, especially youths, to get on the right lane. The corollary is that defiants and saboteurs of noble deeds should be thoroughly dealt with for deterrence. The duality is what makes an own goal what it should be; an error, a one-off and not everyday events that it has become in the Nigerian experience. Put together, reward and punishment help a society to race faster towards the finish line of progress. It is the only way to thrust our best-eleven forward to be world beaters, and reconfigure the psyche of the wayward. Unfortunately, that was not the case at the athletic event last week and we all have to bear the consequence as a country.
Thus, when the Olympic Games begin later this month and world relay teams file out, know that Team Nigerian should have been among them, donning our green-white-green, and even winning the prestigious gold medals, but for anyhowness of our local officials and the warp leadership that keep indulging mediocre performance. Ire o!
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