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Obaseki receives unity torch as National Sports Festival begins

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Battle for medals have already started at the Edo 2020 National Sports Festival PHOTOS: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI

• Delta in early lead as states, sports federations disagree on affiliation fees
• Oyo, Taraba reinstated after COVID-19 debacle

After three postponements laced with anxiety over the 20th National Sports Festival will ever hold, Nigeria’s biggest inter-state sports fiesta will officially kick off today inside the magnificent Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, Benin, Edo State.

The competition, earlier billed to hold in March 2020, was first postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus early last year. Since then, the organisers have had to keep moving the date following the non-conducive COVID-19 conditions until they finally settled for April 2, 2021.

The festival began on Saturday with the opening of the Games Village.

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The organisers told The Guardian that athletes and officials would only be admitted into the Games Village on presentation of their certificates and documentation of COVID-19 tests and vaccination.

They said athletes at the Games Village would also took the PCR test 72 hours before the commencement of the games, adding they will not compromise on the protocol agreed with the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19.

Edo State Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu said at a press briefing heralding the Festival, “from about 14,000 athletes that we were expecting, we have been able to reduce it to about 8,000 athletes. We have a facility prepared for about 18,000 persons, which has now provided opportunity and space for social distancing even in the accommodation. We will have a game that is COVID-19 free.”

Competition in some of the events began on Saturday with some already concluded, but the festival proper will officially kick off today.

Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki yesterday received the Torch of Unity, which signifies the commencement of the 20th National Sports Festival. The governor received the torch at about 3.30 p.m. from the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Sunday Dare, who was represented by the South-South Director of Sports, Peter Nelson.

Speaking at the event, Obaseki described the National Sports Festival as a rallying point for the country, which must be sustained.

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“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 that in spite of 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 this torch and we will keep it alive and will pass it on to the next generation and the next state that will be hosting the 21st edition of the festival.

“On behalf of the citizens of Edo State, I received this torch from the Federal Minister of Sports,” he said.

Obaseki later handed over the torch to Shaibu, who doubles as the Chairman of the local organising committee (LOC), for onward movement to the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium.

Shaibu assured athletes and their officials that Edo State would give them a good time as they vied for honours in the festival.

Speaking on Team Edo’s preparation for the Games, Shaibu said: “The 20th National Sports Festival is homecoming as Edo is the home of sports.

“Edo is hosting to win and win clean. Our athletes are set and we are in top spirit and I can assure you that we won’t disappoint the state.”

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On the standard of facilities for the games, the deputy governor said: “The idea is not to bring world class equipment for the National Sports Festival, the idea is to expose our young ones in Edo so that by the time they get used to this kind of facilities, if any of them is invited for any national or international event or other opportunities to participate in any other event, they won’t be looking too native because these are facilities they are already used to and we want to give them the best.”

Meanwhile, defending champions, Delta State has taken the lead on the medals table with two gold medals in cycling and swimming.

Ukpeseraye Ese won the first gold in cycling team road race before Akiayefa Timipame-Ere added another gold in 200m women butterfly in swimming.

The female swimmer, who will compete in 10 events at the festival, boasted yesterday that she would win at least five more gold medals.

“My dream is to win six or more gold medals for Team Delta in the sports festival,” Timipame-eres said after winning the gold in 200m women butterfly event yesterday.

Governor Ifeanyi Okowa had on Friday promised to reward each gold medal won at Edo 2020 sports festival with the sum of N1 million.

While athletes are battling for medals, the states and sports federations may be on a collision course over alleged demand of affiliation fess by the federations.

The Guardian learnt that the Main Organising Committee (MOC) told the state’s not to listen to sports federations demanding payment of more than one year affiliation fee at the festival. The organisers met yesterday with the federations to address the issue.

In another development, Oyo and Taraba states have been reinstated to the 20th National Sports Festival after initially being barred over their failure to produce evidence of COVID-19 vaccination for its athletes.

At the weekend, Chairman of Edo State Sports Commission (ESSC), Godwin Dudu-Orumen welcomed athletes to the state ahead of what he expects to be keenly contested games.

Dudu-Orumen in a statement signed on his behalf by Nnamdi Okosieme, his Special Adviser on Media and Communications, said Edo State was welcoming athletes from the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with open arms, adding that the state had prepared extensively for the festival by putting top class facilities in place to deliver a Games that will linger in the minds of Nigerians for a long time to come.

He stated that the people of Edo State, known for being very accommodating of visitors, would show hospitality to athletes and officials the Edo way.

“We are happy to welcome all athletes and officials to the Games. We have taken steps to ensure that every state contingent competes in a way that brings out the best in them. That is why we have gone to great lengths to ensure that they are comfortable both in the accommodation provided for them and at the facilities available to them for training,” Dudu-Orumen stated.

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He noted that as much as Edo State was hosting to win, it was not going to do so at all cost.

“As the host of this Games, we are going to be guided by the spirit of fair competition. We will not capitalize on our status as host to place ourselves in a position of advantage over other participating states. This is because in Edo State we have a track record of excellence and fidelity toward due process.

Having gone the extra mile to provide qualitative training and preparation for our athletes, and providing for them every needed equipment to excel, we are counting on them to emerge the best overall when the festival ends,” the ESSC boss stated.

He called on all athletes to compete fairly and eschew attitudes that would cast their states in bad light and bring the Games to disrepute.
He also enjoined them to be mindful of the existing rules and protocols regarding the COVID-19 virus urging them to comply strictly with them.

“I welcome you once again to the heartbeat of the nation and wish you a jolly good stay in this ancient and historical city of Benin. In your spare moments I encourage you to take a tour round the savour to behold our historical monuments and artifacts, and also to savour the culinary delicacies of the Edo people,” Dudu-Orumen said.

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