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Still a long way to greatness in sports

By Christian Okpara and Gowon Akpodonor
01 October 2019   |   3:18 am
Nigeria, by all standards, should be one of the best sporting nations of the world. Going by the physiological make up of the people, the large human capital and the many internationally acclaimed administrators...

Nigeria’s U-23 national team celebrates their gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. The victory made Nigeria the first African team to win an Olympic football gold medal.

Nigeria, by all standards, should be one of the best sporting nations of the world. Going by the physiological make up of the people, the large human capital and the many internationally acclaimed administrators and trainers at its disposal, Nigeria should rank among the top 10 countries in major international championships.However, after 59 years of independence, ‘the country is just there.’ It is neither a success story nor an abysmal failure.

Stakeholders in Nigerian sports believe the country should by now be the leading sporting nation in Africa, as well as a serious contender for laurels in every international meet. That it has only managed three gold medals at the Olympics since 1960 and has not crossed the second round of the FIFA World Cup is a testament to its inability to harness the enormous human capital to compete successfully among the comity of nations.

Recently, Nigeria came back from the African Games in Morocco, where it placed a distant second to perennial champions, Egypt. Nigerians celebrated the second position because the country, in one of those rare occasions, also beat South Africa to the third position. The celebrations did not consider the fact that most of the other major contenders like South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia did not feature their A list athletes, who they prefer to reserve for the on-going IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar.

The World Championships in Doha, which features all the best athletes from across the world, is seen as the major dress rehearsal for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which is less than a year away. The World Championships is seen as a more serious test of a country’s sporting prowess than the Africa Games. A country’s performance in the competition gives an insight into what it is likely to do at the Olympics.

The question most people ask is: ‘Is Nigeria ready to shed the toga of a one-athlete country and become a contender for laurels in multiple events at the Olympics?’Since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where Nigeria won a silver and three bronze medals, the country has relied on Blessing Okagbare for success in international competitions. And so, since the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where Okagbare’s best efforts could not earn Nigeria a medal, the country has won only a bronze medal, from football, at the Games. This is the outcome of long neglect of athletes’ development and inadequate infrastructure in a country that once boasted five of the 10 best runners in the short and long sprint events.

Recent events show that the country may fare slightly better than it had done in the last 12 years. In Divine Oduduru, Tobi Amusan, Raymond Ekevwo, Ese Brume, and the wrestling contingent led by Odunayo Adekuoroye, Nigeria is gradually turning the corner, albeit with little or no major investment in the development of these athletes. The success of the basketball teams, men and women, in recent international competitions has shown that if well programmed, Nigerian teams can hold their own against the toughest opposition in the global arena.

The reality is that Nigeria is a country that celebrates success even when it made little or no contribution to that success. And so today, Tuesday, October 1, the country will role out the drums in celebration of another year in nationhood.It is trite to note that even though it has not lived up to its potential, sport is still one of the country’s most potent agents of unity, just as it is a serious diplomatic tool.

In Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who while still a student gave Nigeria its first Commonwealth Games’ medal in high jump in 1954, Hogan Kid Bassey, who emerged World Featherweight Boxing Champion in 1957, as well as Dick Tiger Ihetu, who won the Middleweight title and later moved up to become the World Light Heavyweight champion, Nigeria has had some athletes, who at different times ruled the world.

The creation of the National Sports Commission (NSC) peopled by technocrats in 1963, as well as the setting up of the National Sports Festival in 1976 created an avenue for the hidden talents at the grassroots level to come to national attention.

More than 6000 athletes participated in the first National Sports Festival in Lagos. The biennial festival has helped to create sports facilities across the country, as the host states were compelled to build structures for the game.

On attainment of independence in 1960, Nigeria set out to build structures for sports development. This it did by entering into bilateral agreements with more developed countries, which helped in training Nigerian athletes and officials. These agreements helped in exposing Nigerian teams to the best training methods and organisation of athletes.

With the latest trends in scouting and training of athletes, it took Nigeria only seven years after independence to qualify for its first Olympic Games’ football event, which was the Mexico 1968 edition of the competition.A look through the decades shows that Nigeria actually blossomed in the 1970s up to the late 1990s.

Three years after the Civil War, Nigeria hosted the second edition of the All Africa Games, where the Green Eagles won the gold medal, which was their first major continental football laurel. Team Nigeria also finished second in the over all medals table.

Three years later, the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan became the first Nigerian club to win a continental trophy when they won the Cup Winners Cup. Enugu Rangers replicated that feat the following year. Also, in football, Nigeria won the bronze medals at the 1976 and 1978 African Nations Cup and capped it all with the Nations Cup title in Lagos in 1980.

That was also the period when such Nigerian athletes as Charlton Ehizuelen, Bruce Ijirigho, Dele Udoh and Ajayi Agbebaku, among others, were among the world’s best in their events. In fact, there is the belief that had Nigeria not boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games in protest of the Apartheid rule in South Africa, Ijirigho, Ehizuelen, Dele Udoh and some others, would have given the country its first gold medals at the games. Nigeria’s first global relay medal, indeed the nation’s first ever medal in athletics at the Olympics, came at the Los Angeles 1984 Games in the men’s 4×400m. The duo of Sunday Uti and Innocent Egbunike, who already conquered Africa, went to the world stage to prove their mettle.

The duo gave Nigeria heads-up with great display in the 1st and final legs respectively for the 4x400m Bronze-medal run, and were joined by Moses Ugbesien and Rotimi Peters on the 2nd & 3rd legs – their medal winning time of 2:59.32 was an African Record which would stand for the next 16 years. Nigeria qualified for its first FIFA organized event in 1983 when the Flying Eagles bagged the ticket to the U-20 World Cup in Mexico. The team won one game against Russia, drew with Holland and lost 0-3 to Brazil to fail to move to the second round of the competition on goals difference.

1985 was also a glorious year for the country, as the U-16 team became the first African side to win a FIFA trophy when they won the Kodak U-16 World Cup in China. Their senior counterparts, the Flying Eagles in the same year got to the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Russia, where they bagged the bronze medal. Four years later, the U-20 team had their finest moment at the Junior World Cup when the Flying Eagles beat Russia in the famous Damman Miracle at the quarterfinals of the 1989 edition of the competition and went on to win the silver medal after losing to a Luis Figo-inspired Portugal in the final.

The 1980s was a fruitful period in Nigeria’s athletics development too, as it threw up such iconic stars as Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Tina Iheagwan, Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Yusuf Alli, Henry Amike, Adeniken Olopade, the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond), Moses Ugbesien, Peter Konyegwachie, Ikpoto Eseme, Ironbar Bassey, Mary Tombiri, Oluchi Ogwo, Brown Ebewele, Christy Opara-Thompson and Gabriel Okon.

Others are Segun Toriola, Funke Oshonaike, Olusoji Fasugba, Fatima Yusuf, Bose Kaffo, Hakeem Olajuwon, Nduka Odizor, Atanda Musa and David Imonite, among several others. These were some of the stars that gave Nigeria its best outing till date at the Olympics at the 1992 and 1996 editions of the competition.Nigeria won silver and bronze medals in the male and female categories of 4 x100m at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 to pick its place among the best teams in world athletics.

Four years later, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the country recorded its best performance in any global multi-sport event when it won two gold medals through long jumper, Chioma Ajunwa and the football team inspired by Kanu Nwankwo.

Unfortunately, Nigeria has not been able to replicate such feats. The closest the country has come to glory at the Olympics was at the Sydney 2000 Games where an Enefiok Udo-Obong inspired 4×400 team won the silver medal, which later became gold when the U.S. that originally came first was disqualified over doping offences.

Nigeria’s number one sport, football has fared slightly better. In 1994, the Super Eagles won their second African Cup of Nations title at the Tunisia 1994 edition of the event and took their third crown in 2013 in South Africa. The Super Eagles also made their first World Cup appearance in 1994 in the U.S. and have since featured in all editions of the competition except the Germany 2006 edition. Nigeria has also become the record winner of the U-17 World Cup with victories in 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015 coming after the triumph in the maiden edition in 1985.

Nigeria has also made giant strides in basketball with the male and women national teams, D’Tigers and D’Tigress overtaking Tunisia and Angola as Africa’s best teams.Last year, the women team made history, as they became the first African side to get to the quarterfinals of the FIBA Women World Cup. Their male counterparts, D’Tigers last month also made history as the first African team to win three games at the FIBA World Cup, a feat they achieved at the China edition of the championship. They also became one of the earliest teams to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with their performance in China. Nigeria won the continental male title at the 2015 Afrobasket in Tunisia, while the women, D’Tigress recently retained their title in Senegal this year to become back-to back champions as they also won it in 2017 in Mali.

However, when compared with less populated and endowed African countries like Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia in international championships, Nigeria can be said to have failed to live up to its potential.Looking at Nigeria’s performance in sports since it became an independent state in 1960, former tennis great, Dr. Sadiq Abubakar said sports like all other aspects of life in the country has failed to fulfill its potential.

According to Dr. Abubakar, “Nigeria in 1959 was at the brink of attaining independence and full of high expectations politically, culturally and economically. Nigeria in 2019 is still dealing with serious political, social, cultural and economic challenges.

“When Nigeria attained its independence in 1960, she inherited some social stability and sports was a beneficiary of facilities that accommodated everyone interested in recreation. Most of our institutions were functioning. Even when we competed in the Olympics in 1952, Nigeria competed on the strength of amateurism.

“Nigerian sports development was disrupted during the Civil War between 1967 and 1970. After the war, the Federal Government used sports to unify the nation by organizing events including the 1973 National Sports Festival. During this period, most sports had continental and global representations in Commonwealth and Olympics, including All Africa Games. The representations resulted in podium performances and the country was recognized as a super power in sports in Africa and the world.”

Dr. Abubakar rates the 1980s as the golden era for Nigerian sports, saying, “The key sports: athletics, weightlifting, boxing, wrestling, football, table tennis and tennis were prominent in World Championships, Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games.

“The 1990s was a continuation of the successes of the 1980s and it appeared as if the nation has finally gotten together in terms of sports administration and management. Our vision and priority for sports were evident. Then came the decline in the 2000s.

“For almost 20 years, Nigeria could not explain what went wrong. Poor sports management and administration began to show its ugly face, and this constituted the biggest challenge facing the sports sector,” he said.He is of the opinion that Nigeria could return to greatness in sports if stakeholders did the right things.

According to Dr. Abubakar, “The future shows promise only if the fundamental problems facing sports development are addressed. The role of governments at the three levels must be clearly defined and articulated. The shift should be on grassroots development and this will require partnership between governments and the private sector.

“It is an understatement to say that sports is big business around the world. Nigeria must organize itself to tap into the global business.”Respected academic and sports consultant, Professor Patrick Omo-Osagie, says although the country could have done better, the last 59 years has not actually been bad for Nigerian sports. He added, however, “it could be argued that the country has not really fulfilled its potential. But it has not been really bad or really good. We just have not reached there.”

He believes that Nigeria will begin to get things right again when it learns how to manage the resources available to it prudently for sports development.Sports analyst, Sabinus Ikewuaku argues that Nigeria began to get things wrong when it gradually dismantled the structures left behind by the colonial masters.He said the destruction of the school sports system and abolition of boarding houses in public secondary schools have also led to a steep decline in sports development.

“As children, most of us had the first taste of organised sports in primary schools through the activities of students on teaching practice and our games masters.“We learnt cricket, handball, netball and other sports from the teachers. In the boarding house in secondary school, there were periods mapped out for sports and students were made to choose any of the numerous disciplines.“But now, all these things are no more. Most schools these days don’t have sports grounds. All the open spaces are built up such that a student can spend six years in school without learning the rudiments of any sport. Things cannot change in such situations.

“However, I will say Nigeria is a lucky country because despite the lack of planning and maladministration, we continue to see talented athletes emerging in the country. This shows that Nigeria would be more successful in sports with a well-structured developmental programme.” Reminiscing on the days before the first Independence Day celebration, former national team goalkeeper, Joe Erico said October 1, 1960 was a day every Nigerian looked forward to. He revealed that the preparations involved every Nigerian because the people thought that being free from colonial rule would usher in prosperity to the country.

“I was a boy then, but I can recollect the colourful preparation and the events that led up to the Independent Day. It was a different kind of Empire Day because in this case Nigeria was preparing for a government by their countrymen.

“There were competitions from August up to late September with finals at the Old King George Stadium on the Independence Day.“School children dressed smartly marched to the sounds of drums and cymbals, everybody was happy.”Erico said things started changing in Nigerian sports after the Civil War when people became more selfish and no longer cared for what would benefit the country.

“All the things we used to do in the past have all been dismantled. I wonder if anybody marches again on Independence Day. May be they still march in Abuja, but things have really changed for the worse.“They have destroyed sports, which was the main unifying factor for Nigerians. On Independence Day I will find something to make myself happy because we have lost it in all aspects of our life.”

While Nigeria’s sports profile has continued to dwindle, notable sporting monuments and infrastructure have sprung up across the country over the years. Among them are the National Stadium, Abuja; the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State; the new Adokiye Amiesiemaka Stadium in Port Harcourt and other stadia in several parts of the federation, which had been upgraded.Besides, the country has spent some money in hosting international sporting events, thus enhancing the nation’s image and national prestige.

Among these competitions were the two All Africa Games in 1973 in Lagos and 2003 in Abuja, two editions of the African Cup of Nations in 1980 and 2000, both in Lagos, the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup finals and the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup finals. The country also hosted the African Women Nations Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

In the area of sports politics, some Nigerians have at one time or the other been elected into sporting positions internationally. Some notable sports administrators, who rose to become leaders at various times include the late Orok Oyo, Habu Gumel, Amos Adamu, Sani Ndanusa, Violet Nwajei-Odogwu, Awoture Eleaye, the late Abraham Ordia, late Patrick Okpomo, Solomon Ogba and Amaju Pinnick.