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‘Scandalous’ medals bonanza blights integrity of National Sports Festival

By Guardian Nigeria
22 January 2023   |   4:15 am
For some of the world’s legendary sportsmen, winning a competition fair and square is not just something akin to a creed, but a way of life and culture.

Athletes set for Edo 2020 National Sports Festival. PHOTO: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI

For some of the world’s legendary sportsmen, winning a competition fair and square is not just something akin to a creed, but a way of life and culture.

This is because winning honestly and without cheating lessens the burden and grief of the vanquished while increasing the self-worth of the victor.

The euphoria of winning, some sportspersons say, is simply orgasmic, and this explains why they exert themselves, get drenched in sweat, endure pains, and train hard to conquer their opponents.

In summarising how he puts in the hard work and endures the pains in order to smile at the end of the day, the late American professional boxer and activist, Muhammad Ali said: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

Formerly known as Cassius Clay, Ali who was nicknamed “The Greatest” was also regarded as one of the most significant sports figures of the 20th Century, and frequently ranked as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.

“Winning solves everything,” is how American professional golfer, Eldrick Tont Woods, better known as Tiger Woods (who is widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time, and one of the most famous athletes in modern history) chose to summarise his understanding of winning.

When the National Sports Festival, a biennial multi-sport fiesta organised by the then National Sports Commission (NSC), and now by the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development was initiated, it was conceived as a “unifying tool” with the main purpose of promoting peace, national unity, and cross-cultural affiliation in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War, in 1970.

Started and staged in 1973, at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, the games, which was also to serve as a development and training event to aid athletes in preparing for continental and international meets, also had as its objectives, to build a robust talent pool of athletes; enhance and elevate sports at the grassroots; establish a standard programme for athletes’ succession; curb age cheating in sports; enhance cultural and educational development, and also engage young athletes in the Olympic Movement, skill development and social responsibility among others.

Whether the NSF has, of late, been realising these lofty objectives remains a highly debatable topic, especially given the cocktail of scandals that have characterised it.

A Litany Of Scandals That Appear Normalised
ONE of the most critical objectives of the NSF is to revolutionise sports development through the enhancement and elevation of sports at the grassroots level. In other words, the NSF presents state governors with the initial impetus to make massive investments in grassroots sports development so as create employment for the youths, and bring glory to the states.

But except in a few states, little or nothing is done about genuine and sustainable sports development at the grassroots. What most state governments are doing in the name of sports development is simply “money for the boys” using the Nigerian street lingo. They are never sustainable, neither are they result-oriented.

Consequently, as the festival approaches, a massive “purchase” of medal hopefuls, by states that have deep pockets takes centre stage, and hundreds of millions of naira that ought to have been sunk into sustainable sports programmes exchange hands seamlessly. These result in athletes switching states after each festival.

Promoting national unity, sporting excellence, and enhancing cultural and educational development rank among the top objectives of the NSF, but that is gradually becoming unachievable, as most northern states increasingly absent themselves from the festival. Whenever they show up, they only do so with a handful of athletes who are thoroughly ill-prepared, and always return home without medals. This trend has been on for years with the organisers watching almost hands akimbo.

One of the factors that have ensured that the country’s sports fortunes remain in the cradle, despite abundant human and material resources, is the fact that the country is yet to exorcise the ghost of age cheating among her sportsmen and women.

As a country that is very poor with data collection/preservation, tracking the age of citizens, including sportsmen and women has remained a Herculean task over the years.

Consequently, knowing the true age of athletes, or keeping a tab on them, their career progression has remained a mirage.

Cyclists preparing for the women 80km road race at the 20th edition of the National Sports Festival in Benin City, the Edo State

The fact that most of these athletes always present suspicious affidavits from courts, as proof of age, as against their original birth certificates (in a bid to conceal their actual age) makes a total mockery of using the festival to curb age cheating in sports.

It is, however, disheartening to note that all these anomalies have been normalised in the course of the festival, to the point that most sports managers/administrators no longer raise their eyebrows, neither does the sports ministry.

Be that as it may, the Rivers State Commissioner for Sports, Mr. Christopher Green, is one of those bothered enough to speak out over some of these anomalies.

A peeved Green said: “The NSF is supposed to be a platform to raise and groom talents, and to develop them into international athletes. But what we now have is like a trading post… An athlete can be with one state now, and the next day he or she will be competing at the festival for another state.

“It is so painful when you spend a lot of time and other resources to raise an athlete, only for another state to come and lure that athlete away with the money. This has made the festival become like an event for the highest bidder.

“The fact that the NSF organisers, the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, are not curtailing it makes it a big problem for sports development,” the commissioner said, while also calling for an amendment of the residency rule for athletes.

“The rule should make the number of years such athletes have to be with their new states five years, so as to curtail the movement of athletes just before festivals,” Green said.

Upping The Ante With Scandalous Medals’ Bonanza 
WITH last week’s medal padding allegation, the 21st National Sports Festival tagged, Asaba 2022, clearly upped the ante as far as sporting fraud is concerned. The alleged fraud also rubbished the compelling need to win a competition fair and square.

Team Delta won the festival with a total of 320 gold medals, 200 silver medals, and 128 bronze medals. Bayelsa State followed in second place with 132 gold, 115 silver, and 90 bronze medals.

In the sports meet where over 14, 000 athletes contested in 38 sporting disciplines, Edo State, which hosted the 20th edition, finished third with 78 gold, 94 silver, and 167 bronze medals thereby making the top three a South South affair.

Lifting the lid over the alleged medals’ sleaze, the Bayelsa State Sports Commissioner, Baraladei Daniel Igali, threatened to pull the state out of future National Sports Festivals, and other national games after unfolding the very troubling development.

In issuing the threat, Igali, a Canadian-Nigerian freestyle wrestler, who is also an Olympic gold medallist, insisted that the state would opt out of future sports festivals and any other games organised by the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development if allegations of medal padding surrounding the Asaba scam is not resolved.

The Olympic medallist, who is also president of the Wrestling Federation of Nigeria (WFN) alleged that medals won by Bayelsa State were padded, as the oil-rich state was gifted over 230 gold medals whereas she won only 109 goal medals.

Painting a picture of a rather shocking scenario, Igali said that a day before the end of the sports festival, the record of medals was about 96 per cent correct, but things suddenly went south all of a sudden.

“At that time, Delta had 219 gold medals and Bayelsa had 94 gold medals. We did our calcula­tions and concluded that there were less than 70 gold medals in total to be won. However, on the last day, in spite of the 70 or so odd gold medals that were at play, Del­ta won 91 gold medals. Edo won about 30 gold medals! When I saw the supposed final medal table where Delta had shot up to 320 and Bayelsa was at 132 gold med­als, I immediately reached out to a close friend who is an aide to the sports minister to alert them to the unspeakable corruption oc­casioned by the final medal table.

“I didn’t want the sports min­ister to announce the results as it would be a national embarrass­ment. But that was not immedi­ately heeded, and we are where we are now,” the Bayelsa State sports commissioner submitted.

Concerned by the gravity of Igali’s damning allegation, and as a face-saving strategy, the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, set up a five-man panel to unravel the mystery behind the sordid development.

The committee’s composition includes Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Okaro (head), Mrs. Hauwa-Kulu Akinyemi, and Madaki Elias Gora as members. A representative of the Delta State Sports Commission is also a member, while Lekan Alabi, the statistician of the sports ministry will serve as the secretary.

Latest Blunder No Honest Mistake, But Grand Fraud
FOR the non-initiate, the medals’ bonanza, which has made the National Sports Festival a laughing stock could have been a result of a computational error, which organisers failed to contain before it filtered out. But some of those that have threaded that path insist that there is more to the computational blunder than meets the eye.

A former state director of sports, who preferred anonymity explained that the well-executed scandal, allegedly done in active connivance with sports ministry officials, members of the Asaba 2022 Main Organising Committee (MOC), some states’ government officials, and other criminal elements within the sports circle, fetched everyone involved millions of naira after every festival.

“Early in the multi-sports fiesta, many stakeholders expressed concern over the late release of the medals table/delay in updating it. But those involved were quiet because they were neck deep in the abracadabra that they were conjuring. I make bold to say that sports administrators from states, officials from the sports ministry, MOC members, and others make a lot of money from this fraud, and to shock you, this is not just happening for the first time, and it will not end soon if decisive actions are not taken.

“A huge issue at the beginning of the festival was the late release of the medals table, which often placed competing states, officials, and athletes in a fix on how many medals they had won.

“Even if you want to listen to some of the insane excuses that are being bandied, the last festival was the 21st in the series, so how do you explain the wrong allocation of medals to states other than the winning states?

A state like Ondo had to write a protest letter at some point through its commissioner for youth and sports development. It was after the protest letter that the anomaly involving the state was corrected. Kogi was not insulated from the charade, as both the sports commissioner and the sports director had to shout to high heavens before the state’s two medals that were not captured were eventually registered in their favour.

The retired sports director continued: “Many still wonder whether it is true that state government officials bribe corrupt games officials to shore up their medals haul. The answer is yes. It happens, and it’s been on for a while now. This now tells you that there is a lot of sanitisation that needs to be carried out in the sports sector because some of the staff are as corrupt as those in other sectors of the economy. But the question that I keep on asking is, ‘why are state governments that are not interested in developing sports sustainably always interested in their states winning more medals than even states that are trying their best?” Let me conclude by saying that the Federal Government will lose its integrity, and the festival its sheen if the latest fraudulent practice is handled with levity.

NSF No Longer For Grassroots Sports Development
FIFTY years after the games debuted, many things have changed within and without the country, and these changes have affected not only the nation’s psyche, composition, and makeup, but also the socio-economic and sporting landscapes.

This explains why some persons are of the view that in line with present realities, a re-appraisal of the festival’s aims and objectives is in order, especially since the NSF is no longer serving the purpose of enhancing and elevating sports at the grassroots with that responsibility ceded to the National Youth Games (NYG).

One of those that share this sentiment is the former Chairman of the Lagos State Sports Commission (LSSC), Dr. Kweku Tandoh.

Asked to bare his mind on the apparent breach of the original aims and objectives of the festival in recent years, Tandoh, a medical doctor said: “As far as I am concerned, the focus of the National Sports Festival, for me is no longer what it used to be when it was initiated in the 1970s. The NSF at inception had three categories – junior, intermediate and senior categories. But right now, there is no longer age restriction or barrier. So, the idea of NSF helping to curb age cheating in sports is no more feasible. The National Youth Games has taken up that role because it is only there that there is age restriction or age barrier for competitors.”

Given this, Tandoh said it was important for stakeholders to sit back and outline what the new objectives of the NSF should be, and thereafter design a path to the realisation of the new set of objectives. “But one thing is certain, and that is the objectives of the festival are no longer what they were at inception because the NSF has ceased being a developmental event, the NYG currently is.”

On the fluid nature of athletes who oscillate between states with deep pockets that are capable of paying for their services, the former LSSC chair said the issue of poaching is not such a big deal. “As long as the athletes are competing within the country, I do not have an issue about what some are describing as poaching of athletes,” he said.

With many long knives out in the wake of Igali’s allegation of a medals’ bonanza at the 21st festival in Delta State, Tandoh refused to jump on the bandwagon, but play safe.

He told The Guardian: “I don’t have details of the allegation about medal’s table padding, but I think that the right thing is being done now with the setting up of a committee to investigate the matter, to make the necessary corrections. I believe that it was a computational error that would be sorted out.”