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More heartbreak for Nigeria’s Para athletes

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Elite level sport is difficult enough, but when you introduce physical disability into the mix, it is quite a daunting prospect. To most, it is something to be hidden away, a consignment to a life of unproductiveness. Not to Nigeria’s Paralympians, who have, in recent times, brought acclaim to the nation from the unlikeliest of places, excelling where their “able-bodied” counterparts have repeatedly underwhelmed.

However, the appreciation for their effort and service to their nation has tended to be thin on the ground. If society scorns them for their disadvantage, should the nation they serve with distinction?

Nigeria’s para-athletes have not participated in any meets at all since returning gloriously from Rio in 2016. This means they are not ranked – they need to attend these competitions, like the just concluded World Para Athletics Championship in London, to get on the board. Similarly, they missed out on Grand Prix in Dubai in March and in Paris in June.

Lauritta Onye, a shotput T40 gold medallist at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships (AWC) in Doha, as well as Nigeria’s first ever Paralympics gold medallist in athletics, had to watch the woman she beat at the Paralympics, Rima Abdelli, win gold at the London meet with a throw of 7.57 metres on Monday. Lauritta presently holds the world record of 8.40 metres, and had been throwing well beyond that in training, preparing for this competition.

“I’m happy for Rima, but sad I couldn’t be there,” she admitted tearfully. There may be some camaraderie based on common African heritage, but at the end of the day, personal glory is as much the drive in competitive sport as anything else. She has also not yet been rewarded for her gold medals in 2015 and 2016, a fact that is even more infuriating in light of the present situation.

The African record holder in wheelchair racingT53, Olajumoke Olajide, has also been denied the chance to be in London. Only last year, she destroyed an African record that had stood for over 10 years in her discipline, with a time of 18.51 seconds over 100 metres to eclipse the former 18.59 seconds mark. Incidentally, she did this at an IPC meet in Dubai, precisely the sort of event she has now been denied the chance to attend this year.

Someone like Hannah Babalola, who holds the African record in T54 wheelchair racing in the 200 metres, and has long declared her passion for representing her country, has not been able to get ahead this year whatsoever.

The official line from the Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, is that he was unaware of the desire of these athletes to attend these meets. To begin with, this is Nigeria. No one is going to go represent the country as a lone ranger. According to the athletes themselves, they did inform the Comrade well in advance of their plans, only to be told that there was no funding available for them. The official line is, in that light, probably a means to save face and stave off the massive backlash coming his way at this moment.

How long can we continue to treat these athletes in this manner? They were hailed as heroes after Rio, but now are facing neglect. Nigeria is a nation with very little by way of social welfare schemes, and a crippling unemployment problem. The system has now failed these athletes, who have surmounted remarkable odds to get where they are today.

They train all year round, almost always with substandard facilities and no financial incentive or acknowledgement from the government, at the rundown, decaying National Stadium Complex in Lagos. Those not based in Lagos do likewise closer to home. All their lives, they have faced various impediments, natural and socio-economic. Now it turns out that, having conquered those, the very nation they seek to honour elbows them. It speaks, not only to their plight, but also to that of a country where, often, it seems as though the greatest obstacles are not natural, but man-made.



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