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The underappreciated role of women in sports in Nigeria

It is arguable that a greater proportion of Nigeria’s sporting success is attributable to women. Both in terms of impact and sheer numbers, Nigerian women stack up immensely well against their male counterparts.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons PHOTO: CAF

It is arguable that a greater proportion of Nigeria’s sporting success is attributable to women. Both in terms of impact and sheer numbers, Nigerian women stack up immensely well against their male counterparts. In spite of this, there has been an almost systematic neglect of women in sports in Nigeria.

The most obvious example, and this only because the most populous black nation in the world is obsessed with it, is in football. Nigeria’s Super Falcons are the winningest national football team on the continent. They have represented Africa at every edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991.

Only Equatorial Guinea have interrupted the Super Falcons’ streak of dominance on the continent, and it took a very inorganic approach to team-building (including fielding ineligible players, for which they have been banned) to achieve this.

Yet, where their welfare is concerned, they are considered almost an afterthought. The last edition of the CAF Women’s Nations Cup was held in Cameroon, and at the end of it, coach of the team Florence Omagbemi became the only African women to win the competition as player, captain and coach.

This notwithstanding, she had to rush home to bury her father having not been paid by the football authorities. As a vignette, this emphasizes the wider problem. Even sadder is the fact that things are probably even better now than they used to be.

The likes of Mary Onyali, who dominated African sprints from 1987 to 2003, and was a two-time Olympic bronze medallist; Falilat Ogunkoya, who became synonymous with the 400m event; and Chioma Ajunwa, remarkably a member of the Super Falcons’ team to the 1991 World Cup, who is to date Nigeria’s only Olympic gold medallist in track and field events; have done the most to put Nigeria’s name on the map of global athletics.

Asisat Oshoala, still only 22, has twice been named Africa’s best player by CAF, and is now the highest-paid women’s player on the continent. This highlights the role of football in the empowerment of the girl child, if they are accorded deserved recognition for their efforts.

There exists still something of a traditional stigma around women in sports, with those opting for this career path usually having to do so against the will and approval of their parents and guardians. Often, their success – in this context, financial earnings – is their response to years of scepticism and criticism. Having braved all these odds, it is not optimal that they then have to suffer to get what is due to them.

Women like Princess Bola Jegede and Alhaja Ayo Omidiran have pitched in majorly to promote women’s football, founding and bankrolling female football clubsides down the years. Without their invaluable contribution, it is doubtful Nigeria would be the force it is in Africa. They may not be players themselves, but their contributions as women in football cannot be dismissed. That said, there is only so much they can do as lone rangers, essentially. This is a call for a concerted national effort to take women’s sports more seriously.

You lose what you do not celebrate. The cultures of neglect will, in the long term have dangerous consequences. Gloria Alozie’s defection to Spain in the mid 2000s was a cautionary tale, one that sadly has not been learnt from. It is no use saying that things have been done a certain way to this point, as it implies that success should be against the odds. It makes for a rousing story for spectators and the press, but never for the athletes who put their bodies on the line for their country.

As we begin to lose these female athletes to other nations, it is not simply our sporting sector that takes a hit. The lack of positive, driven role models for girls to look up to growing up is the catalyst for societal degradation. With nothing to aspire to, our adolescents will necessarily turn to less wholesome individuals, with devastating results.

With no dreams, there can be no positive growth. This is the clear and present danger with which we are faced, if we do not see the benefits of prioritising and uplifting our sporting women.