A year after, sports offer promise
A year is a long time in an individual’s life. For a toddler, it is expected that within this period he will start showing signs of the person he will become in future. For an organization, it is also expected that it would deploy its first year to lay the foundation of its character through its attitude to the prevailing situation in that society.
While some individuals display signs of hope from their first steps in life, many show early on that they are not capable of doing anything that could elevate society no matter the circumstances they find themselves. Prior to the beginning of President Muhammadu Buhari’s second tenure in office, Nigerian sports was at crossroads, with infighting, scandals and allegations of corruption dogging every step it made before May 29, 2019.
Aside failing woefully on the international stage, the country’s sports at home was reeling from a lack of a defined objective, such that the sector was living only on competitions without a clear path to the development of athletes and facilities.
Save a few events like football, basketball, wrestling, and to some extent handball, most of the others were near comatose. They suffered from a lack of or inadequate sponsorship from the private sector and a sports ministry that barely managed to meet its obligations to staff.
One other issue that dogged Nigerian sports prior to President Buhari’s second tenure was the bad publicity the country got from the action or inaction of some administrators, who failed in discharging their duties honourably.
There was the World Athletics’ $130,000 scandal, which rocked the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) from 2018 to late last year and unearthed other cans of worms such that the body has not recovered up till now. Although the current sports minister finally settled the issue, Sunday Dare, who refunded the money to World Athletics Federation to save the country from further opprobrium, the image deficit it brought the country would take a long time to defray.
So, when the current Minister of Sports, Dare, came to power on August 21, 2019, the country’s sport was at crossroads and required a change of strategy to get it on the right path.
On assumption of office, Dare outlined a four-point agenda he would deploy in the task to rescue the sports sector.
Among these was grassroots development, which will involve the states’ governors and educational institutions, including primary schools. He also listed provision of facilities, a clear business model for the sector and an Athletes’ Sustenance Fund, which will ensure that Nigerian athletes are always well funded for training and other activities in and out of competitions.
Dare said his regime would invite wealthy Nigerians to ‘buy’ into the national facilities by helping in rehabilitating them and getting suits in such arenas.
He also revealed that the ministry’s agenda for sports development in Nigeria would be in three key areas, which include facilities maintenance, upgrade, and management. He disclosed that the Youth and Sports Ministry was looking at ways to maintain, upgrade and manage the existing facilities, adding that he had gone through some of the stadia to get a holistic assessment of the arenas.
“There is political will on the part of the president this time to make sure that national monuments are not neglected,” Dare said. “For this, we will find out an option at which we can restore back to glory Nigeria as a football nation.
“We should have up to 10 or 12 international standard stadia and pitches up to FIFA standard. So, there is a renewed political will to restore the stadia.”
The minister admitted that the systemic neglect of sports development at the grassroots despite the lip service by administrators is at the root of the dearth of talented athletes for the country and promised to pay enough premiums to the area.
Dare revealed that he had read all the documents on sports development written by the various committees set up by his predecessors, including the recent Godwin Kienka report, adding that all the documents have the same theme and would have solved some of the problems if they were implemented.
“What I have discovered is that Nigeria is not short on ideas,” he said. “The problem is that efforts have not been made to implement these ideas. Our aim is to ensure that we get things right. We may not solve all the problems within the available time, but we want to begin the process that would change the narrative.”
How far has he gone in implementing these programmes? To some experts, the current regime in the sports sector has done relatively well. They believe the minister has started on a good note, taken some right steps, which if maintained, could lead the country back to reckoning in world sports.
Assessing the performance of Nigerian sports in the past year, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Port Harcourt’s Sports Institute, Professor Ken Anugweje, said the era could easily be separated into two distinct phases: From May to August, 2019 and from August to May, 2020.
He said, “The first phase was a continuation of the past, a sheer repetition of previous years. The sports system was on auto-regulation. Decisions were hurriedly taken and then hurriedly discarded. There was no properly articulated framework, no funding model, and a complete mutilation of the concept of sports development.
“The second phase is ongoing and has shown a deluge of activities because there is a lot of catching up to do to revamp sports. Roles and responsibilities have been identified and it is gratifying to see that various committees are working on various aspects of sports development, even in this COVID-19 situation.”
Anugweje said government could make the sports sector better by first enacting a comprehensive sports policy that would be fully implemented.
According to Anugweje, “The organizational structure for grassroots sports should be bottom-up, not just by organizing school sports but by returning sports to the schools. These are two different strategies. High performance sports must key into sports science like other countries are doing. We can’t afford to be indifferent.
“Coaching needs to be significantly improved. As things stand, I don’t think we have any coach that currently possesses the highest level of certification by the international federation in any sport.”
He also posited that sports officers must regularly update their knowledge to be in tune with the modern trends in the discipline.
A well-trained and disciplined work force, Professor Anugweje said, would aid government realise its objectives and make good the National Sports Commission (NSC) if it is eventually brought back to run the sector.
He noted, “As desirable as the Sports Commission Establishment Bill is, the commission will still be run by Nigerians. I assure you that there will not be any significant change.
“It is the problem of the singer and not the song. Fifty percent of persons touted to be stakeholders in our sports have no foundational or theoretical basis to be involved in high performance sports. Yet many of them are opinion influencers, groomed by the media.”
He agrees that the current minister’s scorecard after one year is quite impressive, adding, “I will score him an ‘A’ for innovative ideas and diligence.”
Professor Anugweje, however, adds that the current minister of sports will be a success story if all the elements were on same page with him, adding, “Unfortunately, the only measure for sporting success is podium performance. It would be disheartening if his support staff does not complement his commitment to sports development. His efforts should be assisted with flawless advice.
“I read the other day that the Mambila Altitude Training Centre will be reviewed. That is welcome news and a good development. However, the conceptual bases for the establishment of the centre many years ago are no longer tenable. It is beyond altitude and coaching.
“The Americans invested millions of dollars in Colorado Springs and still have not been able to upstage the Kenyans and Ethiopians. American middle-distance running legend, Jim Ryun, has not made any impact with his Jim Ryun Running Camp.”
On available materials to make for a great sports nation, Professor Anugweje said the size of Nigeria’s sports farm has shrunk considerably, adding that the country has not made any reasonable use of its size advantage.
According to him, “We are no longer a feared footballing nation. In athletics, we have conceded supremacy in every event to South Africa, Botswana and Cote d’Ivoire. Kenya has produced a world champion in the Javelin; there are no jumpers anymore in Nigeria. Boxing is dead.
“It must be recorded that out of the 86 Olympic medals that have been won by Kenya till date, 56 were in the middle and long distance running. The rest were from boxing. Our own boxers are struggling to qualify for the Olympics.
“If things were done properly, it will take us at least 15 years to catch up with the leaders. The time to start is now.”
To the founder and president of Football Coaches Association of Africa Nations (FCAAN), Dr. Terry Babatunde Eguaoje, it would be unfair to start grading the state of sport in Nigeria at the moment since the current minister, Dare, has only been in office for about a year. He added, however, that there is always room for improvement.
“I understand that the minister is working hard on several initiatives and programmes to help improve sports in Nigeria. I am rooting for him to succeed. So, we as Nigerians, can claim our rightful position as a power house in sports in the world.”
Eguaoje wants Nigerians to give the current minister time to fully develop and implement his priorities and policies, adding, however, that there are certain things the government should do to make the sector better.
“These are several sport initiatives, policies, and programmes that we need in Nigeria,” he said. “We don’t have problems in creating policies and programmes in Nigeria. However, where we struggle is in the implementation and maintenance phase.”
Eguaoje listed four things the country could do to make the sector better, including “the privatization of the sports sector – partially or fully; the development of a National Training and Coaching Education programme for all sports similar to what we are doing in Football Coaches Association of Africa Nations (FCAAN) in the area of educating football coaches in Nigeria; the creation of Athletes Development programmes, starting in every primary and secondary school in Nigeria, and the development of a database for athletes, coaches, and administrators just like Football Coaches Association of Africa Nations (FCAAN) is doing at the moment.”
To former national tennis champion, Dr. Sadiq Abdullahi, the state of Nigerian sports in the last year could be described as resurgence and healthy. He said sports has never received so much attention under any minister of sports since Sani Ndanusa in 2008 tripled as president of the Nigeria Tennis Federation, President of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and Minister of Sports.
Dr. Abdullahi disclosed that his direct involvement with the Ministry of Sports and Development (FMYSD) started when it was called the National Sports Commission under Ndanusa, while Chief (Dr.) Patrick Ekeji was the director-general.
He said, “There were high expectations for sports to develop and improve. It has happened to be the darkest period of the sports development, although some achievements were recorded under former President Goodluck Jonathan and Former Minister Bolaji Abdullahi with the organization of the 2012 National Sports Retreat to address the menace in the sports sector.”
Taking a historical look at the state of Nigerian sports, Abdullahi said, “It is important to note that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ruled the country for 16 years beginning with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and we had five sports ministers (Sani Ndanusa, Ibrahim, Isa Biu, Yusuf Suleiman, Bolaji Abdullahi), who did their best but failed to lay a solid foundation and enabling structures for sports development and improvement.
“Since President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressive Congress (APC) gained control of government, there have been attempts to find lasting solution, beginning with Solomon Dalung in 2015. Dalung restructured the National Sports Federations and set a ministerial committee to move sports from recreational to developmental.
“The current minister, Sunday Dare has picked up where Dalung stopped in an unprecedented speed with his four priorities – infrastructure, Grassroots, Athletes, Welfare, and Sports as a Business. All the areas have received some measurable attention. We are monitoring and assessing all as pronouncements and declarations are made.”
Picking up Dare’s Adopt-an-Athlete programme, Abdullahi said, “The programme has been criticized by many as being ill-conceived, but the attention was good. The development of an athlete is likened to an art where coaches are involved in complex orchestration of planning, executing training and competition.”
He also gives the minister a pass mark for his Athletes Relief Fund, where over 220 sportsmen and women have benefitted from it.
According to Dr. Abdullahi, “This programme was also criticized as being poorly executed. The minister wanted to provide financial assistance to the needy athletes under the Athletes Welfare agenda because he promised to recognize current and former athletes who have made the country proud (we saw this gesture recently extended to Yekini and Okwaraji’s parents). The palliative was in response to their inability to earn income as a result of disruptions to the sporting calendar by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Another area Abdullahi believes the minister has done well is grassroots sports development, noting that under “his grassroots agenda, Minister Dare has made plans and charged Track and Field coaches to come up with a plan to develop the Mambila Plateau area and turn it into a training ground for our long-distance runners who are mostly from the North. There are discussions to extend the grassroots agenda.”
He said he was glad that the minister appears to want ‘Sports as a Business’ as his signature accomplishment.
According to Dr. Abdullahi, “He has partnered with several private sector organisations, notably the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, and work is ongoing. But there are challenges and threats that may undermine these gains.”
Abdullahi lists the crises rocking the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF), the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) as real threats to the growth of Nigerian sports.
“I understand that Minister Dare is looking at how to solve the conflicts once and for all,” he said. “The sport sector must coalesce around the minister and support his programmes. I have made a commitment to him to provide technical support whenever it is needed. With limited time and limited resources, accomplishing these noble agenda will be daunting. I wish him well.”
Nigeria Olympic Committee’s (NOC) former Public Relations Officer, Tony Nezianya, believes the country still has the human resources to build great sportsmen and women, adding that the administrators only have to design a development plan that will add value to these resources.
According to Nezianya, “There are many volunteers in the persons of chairmen and members of national sports federations, from whom he can draw ideas from. They are willing to sacrifice time and energy to serve their country.
“Nigeria is also endowed with vast opportunities for sportsmen and women to improve the image of the country. The minister should ensure an effective mechanism to tap into how best he can get good feedback from them.
“Fortunately, he has the garb of good and effective communication and this will stand him in good stead to impact the lives of sportsmen and women and galvanize it for national development.”
According to Nezianya, Dare has done well by identifying with the families of some of Nigeria’s late heroes to show that the country has not forgotten their contributions to national development. This gesture, he said, would send a message to athletes that their efforts would always be rewarded by Nigeria.
According to Nezianya, “His visits to the families of Okwaraji, Rashidi Yekini and Alli Jeje, among others, will motivate the young ones with all their might, knowing that their efforts will not be in vain. Apart from this, the minister and his people must always be open in their dealings with the public to avoid the fate that befell others before him.”