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COVID-19 and the many setbacks of National Sports Festival

By Gowon Akpodonor
27 March 2020   |   4:17 am
The introduction of the National Sports Festival in 1973 played a major role in cushioning the effect of the Nigerian Civil War, which had dealt a devastating blow to what had existed as Nigerian sports.

The introduction of the National Sports Festival in 1973 played a major role in cushioning the effect of the Nigerian Civil War, which had dealt a devastating blow to what had existed as Nigerian sports.

With the entire fabric of national cohesion broken down by the 30-month crisis, there was the need to arrest the drift towards intertribal morass.

The idea of having multi-purpose games in the mould of the Commonwealth and Olympic Games as replacement for the Empire Days Celebration soon paid off, with the Sports Festival, a biennial event, becoming a fertile ground for the discovering of sporting talents. And within a few years, top stars like Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Henry Amike, Yusuf Ali, Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond), Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Faith Idehen and Beatrice Utondu, among others, sprang up. They used the Sports Festival as the pillar to stardom at the early stage of their career.

However, the Sports Festival was soon hit with endless setbacks caused by postponements.
After the first edition of the National Sports Festival was hosted in Lagos in 1973, the stability continued through the next four editions (Lagos ’75, Kaduna ’77, Ibadan ‘79 and Bendel ’81.

However, while the athletes were looking forward to another exciting game two years after Bendel ‘81, the Sports Festival suffered its first postponement in 1983 due to what sports ministry officials described then as ‘unclear political atmosphere’ after the military coup of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Since then, the National Sports Festival became unstable.

The Sports Festival did not hold in 1983 as scheduled and there was also no Sports Festival in 1984. Kwara hosted the 1985 edition, but another one-year gap creped in, as the Sports Festival failed to hold as planned in 1987. Rather, it took place in 1988 in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. To bridge the gap, Lagos offered to host the fiesta the following year (1989).

The city of Bauchi played host to the National Sports Festival for the first time in 1991. It turned out to be a bloody fiesta, and the Games were nearly marred by religious violence.

After Bauchi ‘91, the National Sports Festival suffered its worst postponement. It didn’t hold in 1993, 94 and 95.

In 1996, Makurdi, Benue State capital hosted the Sports Festival. There was stability thereafter, as the fiesta was hosted biannually from Imo ’98, to Bauchi 2000, Edo 2002, Abuja 2004 and Gateway 2006. The only postponement was the one-year gap solicited for by Kaduna State to put the Mundo track facilities in place at the Tafawa Balewa Stadium. Instead of hosting the event in 2008, KADA Games took place in 2009.

The baton returned to Rivers State for the ‘Garden City Games in 2011, while Lagos hosted Eko 2012 (just one year interval) to honour the agreement it entered with the sports ministry during the biding process in Kaduna.

Of the setbacks witnessed by the National Sports Festival since 1983, the postponement in 2014 was the most painful for athletes and their officials.

After Eko 2012 in Lagos, the baton was handed to Cross River State ahead of the 2014 Games. It was the first time Calabar, which was Nigeria’s first capital city, bided to host the Games.

Former Governor Liyel Imoke stated then that he wanted to use the 19th National Sports Festival to showcase the rich heritage and hospitality of Calabar to the rest of the World.

Everything was going on smoothly and Imoke even unveiled the Sports Festival’s logo later that year, declaring that his administration would host a National Sports different from others since the inception of the Games in 1973.

He fixed November 2014 for the fiesta, which he tagged ‘The Centenary Games’ to commemorate Nigeria’s 100 years. It was also tagged the ‘Paradise Games.’

Imoke had wanted to host the Sports Festival in 2014 to crown his effort as ‘the most sports-loving governor’ of the era. The Games mascot ‘Bamba’, according to Imoke, was a gorilla from the rainforest of Boki, a landlocked area surrounded by tourism destination centres like Obudu, Ikom and Ogoja in Cross River State. But for four years, the wait for ‘Bamba’ (the gorilla) to appear from the rainforest of Boki did not see the light of day.

After Governor Imoke’s promise of delivering ‘the best festival in Nigeria’s history’ failed in 2014, all attention shifted to his successor, Governor Ben Ayade, to actualise the dream.

The belief by many sports-loving Nigerians then was that Ayade, who also came on the platform of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), would do everything within his power to host the festival, which has eluded ‘The People’s Paradise’ since 1973.

After several postponements, the Sports Festival was scheduled for November 8 to 21, 2016 in Calabar. It was not to be.

Till this moment, the failure by Calabar to host the 19th National Sports Festival still remains a mystery. The Federal Government became tired of the waiting game and decided to strip Calabar of the hosting right, thereby paving the way for Abuja 2018.

To nip in the bud another postponement of the Sports Festival, four states, Edo, Delta, Imo and Akwa Ibom, bided to host the 2020 edition. Edo State got the nod with a promise that the Games would hold as scheduled (March 20-April 3, 2020).

Since the commencement of the National Sports Festival in 1973, only two states in the South-South, Edo and Rivers, had played host to the festival. While the city of Benin was venue during Bendel ’81 and Edo 2002, Port Harcourt hosted Rivers ‘88 and Garden City 2011. One state in the South-East, Imo, hosted the fiesta in 1998.

In the South-West, Lagos has hosted the festival four times -1973, ’75. ’89 and 2012, just as Oyo State hosted Oluyole ’79 edition. Ogun State played host to Gateway 2006.

In the North-Central, Kwara State hosted the fiesta in 1985, while Benue played host to Makurdi ’96 edition.

Kaduna in the North-West hosted it twice in 1977 and 2009, while Bauchi in North-East hosted the Sports Festival on two occasions (1991 and 2000).

The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was picked as venue in 2004, a year after the Abuja National Stadium played host to COJA 2003 All African Games. Abuja also hosted the last edition in 2018.

The Abuja 2018 Games opened a new ray of hope for Nigerian athletes after virtually everything about the Sports Festival was knocked to comatose following six years of inactivity since Eko 2012.

After a date was fixed for Edo 2020, the contractors moved in. And for two years, Governor Godwin Obaseki, his Deputy Philip Shaibu, and other top government officials worked day and night in their bid to get the facilities, including the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, ready for the festival. They actually delivered on their promise.

Over 11,000 athletes and officials from all states of the federation were set to hit the ancient city of Benin City. Some of the foreign-based stars contacted by states were already on ground waiting for the Games to commence.

Unlike some past editions of the National Sports Festival, the build up to Edo 2020 was massive as both local and some foreign media organisations focused their attention on the sports fiesta for the simple reason that some of the athletes were looking up to the Games to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.

Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki (left), NFF President Amaju Pinnick and two other officials of the state inspecting the football pitch of Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium ahead of the Games

With less than 48 hours to Edo 2020, the setback came. President Mohammadu Buhari ordered the postponement of the National Sports Festival Edo 2020 as a precautionary move against COVID-19 spread.

The news of the postponement sent shock waves around the country. “Postponing the National Sports Festival with less than three days to its commencement will surely affect the athletes psychologically,” was how former Nigerian hurdler, Gloria Alozie reacted to the news.

Alozie, a gold medalist at Makurdi ’96 edition of the Sports Festival remains one of the greatest athletes to emerge from the continent of Africa.

On the other hand, Alozie said the decision taken by the Federal Government to stop the Games was also good saying: “it is only athletes, who are alive that take part in competitions.”

“The coronavirus is actually spreading dangerously across the world and it is good for our country to take a precautionary measure. The only problem I had with the cancellation was that it was too close to the commencement of the festival. They should have done that some weeks ago. I am sure a lot of athletes will be disappointed with the sudden postponement of the festival. But as I said, it is better to stay alive than to come in contact with the disease while competing at the Games. Our health should come first,” Alozie said.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics now moved to 2021 due to the spread of the coronavirus, many stakeholders now believe that the zeal of holding the National Sports Festival so soon could be a mirage even if the virus disappears from Nigeria in a couple of days.

They believe that the hosts, as well as the athletes would need a special grace to return to the mood they were in just days before the postponement.