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War and the lame

By Ray Ekpu
09 August 2016   |   4:20 am
Some Nigerian athletes may find themselves on the podium, medals on their necks, at the quadrennial festival called the Olympics which is currently offering five-star entertainment in Rio, Brazil.
Solomon Dalung, Minister of Youth and Sport.

Solomon Dalung, Minister of Youth and Sport.

Some Nigerian athletes may find themselves on the podium, medals on their necks, at the quadrennial festival called the Olympics which is currently offering five-star entertainment in Rio, Brazil. If we have that gift of serendipity that harvest will not be a product of early planting and dedicated watering of the farm. It can only happen because of one or more of these four reasons. One, some athletes have voluntarily disqualified themselves from the games for fear of the dreaded Zika fever virus. Two, some athletes particularly from Russia have been disqualified for doping offences. The above two reasons mean that the strength of potential medal winners is depleted and the no-hoppers may now find themselves on the podium.

The third reason is that every contest carries in its womb a certain amount of luck or ill-luck: an unexpected cold, or cough or fever, an injury by you or your opponent, some unfair officiating, a strong wind, poor weather and a million other intangibles that can make the difference between a victory and a defeat. When Chioma Ajunwa made that hefty leap in the air and landed in the sands of Atlanta in 1996 picking the long jump gold, Nigerians were ecstatic because the preparation for the games was abysmally poor. Four, a major competition pumps any athlete’s adrenalin and the desire to beat the world. So for any of the four reasons some Nigerians may come home with medals dangling on their necks despite the exceptionally poor preparation for the competition.

In terms of poor preparation for this event, we have handily won an Olympic gold medal. Whether we win medals or not the shame we have brought to our country is Olympian in size. Segun Toriola, the 42 year old table tennis star who is taking his ping pong bat to an Olympic event for the seventh time, an African record, is thoroughly dismayed by the non-preparation. He said a couple of weeks ago that most of our opponents are rounding up their preparations now while we have not even started. He added: “We have never had it so bad.” Daniel Igali, President of the Wrestling Federation, won an Olympic medal in wrestling in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 for Nigeria? No, for Canada, yes: after that success Nigeria wooed him back as a coach and I am almost certain that the man is regretting giving Nigeria a second chance. He says that our preparation is “the worst in the history of our Olympic participation.”

Regina George, one of Nigeria’s sprinters, was thanking Nigerians who contributed money for her trip based on her appeal for help. She and the other athletes were simply told by our sports officialdom to fund their training and trips to Rio and a refund will be made to them in due course. George said she had gathered $3,750 from some Good Samaritans. What a country!

The story of the under 23 football team (men) called Dream Team is like a bad dream from which we have not woken up. Some months ago, its coach Sampson Siasia, was complaining of poor preparation. Instead of looking into his complaints, our football Pharaohs simply told him to shut up, that he was talking too much, he should just face his job. You would think the coach was complaining that Ebola had resurfaced in Nigeria when it had not. The guy was just talking about preparing for success at Rio. The team was stranded at Atlanta where it went for final preparations.

There was no money to take care of the players and one of the players who, luckily, has a deep pocket and the willingness to wipe tears from our eyes and shame from our faces came to the rescue. We owe an unquantifiable debt of gratitude to our midfield lion, Mikel Obi, who stood like the Rock of Gibraltar to bind the wounds of players who were about to lose the first match before playing it. They arrived Brazil on the eve of their first match and even with the jet lag stupor they still defeated Japan 5 – 4.

The public queried why the players were left stranded at Atlanta. We were told there was no money to hire a plane for airlifting them to Rio when athletes from other countries had already arrived and mastered the Rio environment. The Minister of Youths and Sports, Solomon Dalung, who wears a trade mark red beret replied with unsolomonic wisdom to enquiries about the stranded boys that he was unaware they were camping in Atlanta. I hope his red beret will not be the physical equivalent of a red card for our sports.

If this Minister knew his onions wouldn’t he have pleaded with President Muhammadu Buhari to authorise a release of one or two of the 10 aircraft in the Presidential fleet for a major national assignment like this? That way our athletes would have arrived in comfort in a plane marked with our green white green colours hugging a huge dose of national pride, and confident that it is a grateful nation that has sent them on a worthwhile errand. When you treat an athlete like royalty, the reward you deservedly expect is reciprocity in full measure. When you treat him like a piece of rag your expectation should be nothing but rag-like.

This is not the first time we have fumbled, bungled and brought shame to our country. Our footballers, men and women, have been stranded in foreign countries – Mali, South Africa – because of money issues. Our players have even played a match with track suits cut into shorts because someone forgot to pack the shorts into the aircraft. Sunday Oliseh and Austin Eguavoen are complaining of salaries being owed them many months after their tenure had ended. So our problems are a combination of inefficiency, corruption, a lack of world class management skills and the assiduous cultivation of the philosophy of “awoofism,” that is reaping where you didn’t sow.

Some years ago, I was invited to join a team of eminent private sector persons labelled VIP volunteers to help in making the COJA games hosted by Nigeria a success. I accepted the invitation because volunteerism ennobles society and enhances the nobility of humankind, being service that is selfless. It is anchored on patriotism and devoid of any profit motive. In other countries, particularly the advanced ones, volunteerism has taken a deep root especially in the political and social spheres. I was enthused by the idea because it was novel here. I didn’t know I was courting trouble. I was assigned with a team of young, hardworking persons to take care of Cameroons, a country with whom Nigeria was having problems because of the Bakassi controversy. There was no love lost between the two countries so my team and I had the difficult duty of keeping them happy and comfortable despite these political differences. On arrival day, we waited for them at the airport for 12 hours.

They kept changing their flight schedule but we were determined to receive them warmly whenever they would arrive. For me to get buses for them it was war. I took their Minister of Sports to Transcorp Hilton Hotel where accommodation had been reserved for him but there was no arrangement with the hotel for food or drinks. The hotel was not ready to serve these things except cash was paid. No COJA official could help me. I had to pay – from my pocket.

To get tickets for the Minister and his contingent for the opening ceremony it was, again, war. I was lucky that my team members accepted that we needed to bend backwards to please them but the frustration we went through was unprintable. I saw incompetence and corruption walking on four legs. A few years later, when some sports fellows were pushing for Nigeria to bid for the hosting of the world cup, I knew it was a scheme for “awoofism.” They all knew that the incompetence and corruption in our sports administration are monumental, but they only wanted a slice of the corruption.

The huge corruption in the industry is the reason for the dog fights they regularly have for positions. That, too, is the reason many private sector organisations refuse to support them for sponsorship. Besides, what ideas are they putting on the table? Samuel Ogbemudia, Military Governor of Bendel State, created a sports haven called Afuze, an exquisite venue for training athletes. The Ethiopian and Kenyan long distance athletes that excel are trained under high altitude environments. Don’t we have Mambilla Plateau and Obudu Cattle ranch as high altitude environments? Are we using them? No. Niger Delta boys and girls are born into water, they swim from early childhood. Who is training them for the Olympics? Nobody.

The next Olympics will take place in 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. We already know that just as we knew the date of the Rio Olympics more than four years ago but we did nothing by way of preparing for glory. There is an African proverb that a scheduled war never kills the lame, because he can crawl out of harm’s way before that date. In Nigeria, every scheduled war always kills the lame. It is killing our Olympic lame now as it did in 2012 in London.