Memories made of Edo 2020 National Sports Festival
Apart from providing insight into the qualities in sportsmen vis-à-vis their ability to compete, national championships also help measure the efficacy of certain developmental programmes over a given period.
When the idea of the National Sports Festival was conceived immediately after the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, the founding fathers of the competition wanted to use the championship to unify the ethnic groups and mend the fractured psyche of the people. It was also aimed at bringing out the best of talented Nigerian youths, who would then be nurtured, to compete for the country internationally.
Over the years since the Festival debuted in 1973, the original idea has shifted, with the championship now mostly meant to crown the best sporting state in the country. Rather than being a nursery for talents that it was initially created to be, the Festival now is an all-comers affair, where states can bring on board already made stars in their bid to win medals.
The recently concluded 20th National Sports Festival, tagged Edo 2020, was not different from the recent ones before it. But it still served a lot of excitement and intrigues of different shades in the 13 days it lasted.
After several postponements, the Festival originally scheduled to hold in March 2020, finally held in April 2021, with Delta State retaining the title it has held since 2012. The state garnered 158 gold, 116 silver and 110 bronze medals, totalling 384 medals to win its seventh festival title.
Host, Edo State came second with 129 gold, 104 silver and 108 bronze medals, while Bayelsa with 56 gold, 55 silver and 58 bronze medals finished third on the medals table.
On an opening day, the governor of the host state, Godwin Obaseki, reminded the participants: “As you are all aware, the National Sports Festival is a festival of unity, the festival that brings the entire country together.
“More than ever before in our history, we need to come together at this time. That is why Edo State government decided despite all the challenges and difficulties from the pandemic, to ensure that we still hold the 20th edition of the national sports festival in Benin City.
“I have received the Unity Torch and we will keep it alive and will pass it on to the next generation and the next state that will host the 21st edition of the festival.”
True to his promise, Edo State provided a good atmosphere for the participants to exhibit their talents. The facilities for the various events across different centres were topnotch.
However, the festival, which began on a smooth note with states already winning medals on its second day, was to court uncertainty, as the Local Organising Committee (LOC) threatened to shut down the games.
A release signed by the Project Manager, Media and Communications, LOC, Edo 2020, Ebomhiana Musa, cited the Federal Government’s lack of commitment in the exact amount it intended to put into organising the festival, as a reason for wanting to discontinue hosting the games.
But after meeting with the sports ministry, the LOC later agreed to go ahead with the festival, saying: “At the end of the meeting presided over by the Chairman/Deputy Governor Edo State, Philip Shaibu, the LOC had decided that the Games should continue.
“The LOC agreed that the presidential intervention is a very strong and direct commitment, which we must all respect, honour and take seriously. We strongly believe in and respect commitments from the Presidency. We take them by their words. It’s a strong message to us that they are strongly committed to redeeming their pledge to support us for the losses suffered arising from the three postponements of the games.”
Among dignitaries at the festival from the beginning to the end was former Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Solomon Dalung, who was at the helm of affairs when Edo State won the hosting rights of the 20th edition of the competition. He explained that he took the 19th edition to Abuja in 2018 when Cross River failed to host the festival due to a paucity of funds, adding that, “Edo 2020 is a dream come true because it is a product of our efforts to revive one of the national heritages, which is the National Sports Festival.
“Having revived it in 2018, my expectation should naturally be that it should continue. So, being here at the closing ceremony is evident that the festival has proceeded as contemplated by me, even though I met some difficulties. But I think the best is that young athletes, young Nigerian sportsmen and women, should have the opportunity to showcase and test their talents.
“In fact, arriving here also helped to scale up my respect for his person (Governor Obaseki) and personality. He has shown here, integrity, when he assured me that Edo State would do everything possible to put necessary infrastructure in place to host the game. And he said ‘even if you are in the office or not, we will live by our commitment to honour and respect your decision of putting this vote of confidence on us.
“Of course, the infrastructure here; when I saw them last night I couldn’t believe them because my last visit was on May 28, 2019, and most of these things were not in place. But today, everything has been completed.
“Now, the amazing aspect of it is that the infrastructure is up to standard and then the joy of it all was that local content was deployed in realising this infrastructural development. So, I think Edo has set a standard for others to follow. What we should learn in this country is that if somebody has something to offer, we should just give it to him,” he said.
Dalung, however, decried the attitude of politicians to sports, as shown by the state of some of the participating states.
He said, “The governor of Edo State has proved that he loves sports and believes that sports are the way to go to pull Nigeria out of its current quagmire.
“It is a problem not only limited to the states, but it is a Nigerian problem. The Nigerian government till today does not see sports as a critical sector that contributes positively to national development. Our leaders still treat sports as recreation and this attitude of treating sports or seeing sports as recreation is what explains why elected governors don’t even care about investing in sports.
“To them, sports is only necessary when they are having elections at hand. Then they will hurriedly go and repaint sporting structures and organise teams, football teams and buy players from anywhere to compete. If they win the trophy, they celebrate it as the achievement that would help them win the election.
At the Edo 2020 National Sports Festival, there were success stories as well as tales of woe, which nearly rubbished the organisers’ efforts to create a level playing field for all athletes.
One of such success stories is Rivers State’s gold medalist in judo, Cyprian Miracle, a street boy, who found joy in the national championship.
Miracle, like most of his mates on the streets of Port Harcourt, was idling away until he stumbled on sports. Today, he is one of the heroes of the National Sports Festival. But he is not done yet.
He told The Guardian, “Going abroad to continue with the sport has always been my dream. My aim is not only to become an Olympian but also to be an Olympic gold medalist. That is where I see myself in the nearest future. And I am working hard towards fulfilling that dream. I pray that before the next Olympics, sponsors will come my way so that I can test my ability against the best judokas of the world.”
Miracle, who confessed that it is already too late to aim for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, said: “I started the journey to qualifying for the Olympics, but I couldn’t make it for lack of sponsorship. I lost in the fight for the third position at the African Championship in Cameroun, which was one of the competitions that would have given me the ticket.”
He urged corporate bodies to invest in Nigerian youths as their contribution to ending the insecurity in the country.
“I don’t know if people can see what I see, through taking people away from the streets into the sport of judo and making them understand that this game is lucrative. It is not about discovering these talents and making them stay back in the country, but to get them exposed to better facilities abroad.
“Heaven knows that the sky won’t be their starting point, it won’t be their limit. The sponsor will also get returns on investment because that is how sports business is.”
One of the issues that have kept recurring in the National Sports Festival is the win-at-all-cost syndrome, which has made some states continually employ mercenaries to win medals.
A former Director-General of the defunct National Sports Commission (NSC), Dr. Amos Adamu, who commended the Edo State government for the state-of-the-art facilities it provided for the event, expressed dismay at the level some states were ready to descend in their quest for honours.
Adamu told The Guardian in Benin that using mercenaries in competitions does not augur well for sports development in the country.
“The Edo State government has tried by putting on these facilities and I am happy that they even went to some secondary schools and the University of Benin to upgrade the facilities there. What is very important is the availability of sports facilities and if you don’t have them, you cannot perform well.
“Manpower is not our problem, we have the population in Nigeria and you can get athletes at any time to compete for your state when the facilities are good. When you have coaches, then you have champions,” he said.
Adamu, however, described as unfortunate the alleged deployment of a Kenyan by one of the states to compete in the 10,000 metres race.
“You cannot stop athletes from moving to other states to compete during the National Sports Festival. There is a law against it. You know why you cannot stop it? It is because there are some states that do not show interest in sports, and that is why they don’t even train their athletes. It is only when the festival comes that they arrange athletes for the sports festival.”
Not happy with the win-at-all-cost deployed by some states, the Executive Chairman of Lagos State Sports Commission, Mr. Sola Aiyepeku, said the idea of states stealing athletes from states where they were groomed was inimical to sports development in the country.
“When the target is on win-at-all-cost, I must confess, we can never have a robust and attractive festival because people will do all they can just to win. This is very bad for Nigerian sports. We all saw what happened in some of the events at the Edo 2020 festival, it is so sad to see some of the scenarios at play all over. We need to sit down to do a rethink about how best we can organise a befitting sports festival in the country,” he said.
SHARING her experiences at the Edo 2020 festival, Anambra’s Chioma Elijah, who competed and won a silver medal in the taekwondo event, said she was wowed by the facilities on the ground at the various venues of the competition.
“Edo 2020 is awesome. Seriously, I didn’t expect to see the kind of facilities I saw here, it is amazing. Merely looking at this festival, I will say Edo State tried because they performed beyond my expectation. The organisation like in my event was good. I love the way they organised things, everything was good,” she said, adding that the COVID-19 scourge disrupted her state’s training plans for Edo 2020,” she said.
Speaking on incentives promised by some governments to their athletes to boost morale, Elijah said nothing of such was promised Anambra State’s athletes before they went for the games.
“We were not promised anything coming for the Edo 2020, but we are hoping that the government will do something, especially for the athletes who won medals for the state. Though the state government gave us words of encouragement before we left, they never said anything on what the athletes, who win gold, silver or bronze medal would get. But they actually said they would receive us when we return.”
Apart from the competition and medals she won, Elijah said she also made friends across other states during the festival.
“I made friends with so many athletes from other states like Nasarawa, Kwara, Edo, Delta and others. It was fun interacting with them just like we did together at the Abuja 2018 festival. We even ate and laughed together as one family,” she said.
To Salisu Yunusa of Team Bauchi State, who competed in weightlifting, the Festival came at a bad time for his state.
Yunusa lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic affected Bauchi contingent, saying they had only a little time to prepare for the festival.
“The postponements really affected my state, that was why I finished fourth in the Clean and Jerk event and fifth in the Snatch category. Yunusa won gold in the same event in the 2011 Festival in Rivers.
“Also, my state did not motivate my colleagues enough for us to perform well at this festival.”
Yunusa, however, relished the opportunity to meet his friends from other states in the weightlifting event. He said, “I am always eager to participate in the National Sports Festival because it gives me the opportunity to meet friends I made in past festivals. That is why when I hear people saying the different tribes should go their separate ways; I wonder why they want to separate me from my friends? I want Nigeria to continue as one. I don’t want separation; I want the country to remain as one Nigeria, one Nation,” he said.
He added that he would be happy if the Bauchi government invests more in sports the way some states are doing.
“I was at the festival hosted by Rivers State where I won a gold medal and at the festival in Lagos, I won bronze medal. But the sad thing about our state in Edo 2020 is that the state government did not do what we expected it, to encourage Team Bauchi in terms of welfare for the athletes.
“In my own case, I am a civil servant, but there are many of my colleagues who depend only on what they get at the end of the festival because they do not have jobs. They need that extra push to bring out the best in them.”
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