By Eddie Akalonu
Former president, Nigeria Swimming Federation and 2nd vice president, Nigeria Olympic Committee, Chief Olatokunboh Thomas is both the vice president of CANA, Africaâ€™s governing body of the sport and FINA, the world governing body of the sport.
He made his presence felt by all duringÂ the recently 1stÂ Swimming Classics, organised by the Authentic Friends of SwimmingÂ at the University of Ibadan, and he spoke extensively to this reporter on the â€œ chronic problems facing the sportâ€Â in Nigeria.
Well, Iâ€™m sure it must be a blowÂ that the National Sports Commission, NSC, excluded swimming from those approved to take par in the two multi- sports Games this year, the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India?
Well, people make the mistake by saying that swimming is a lesser sport. It is one of the major sports in the world. You will be surprised to hear that the biggest audience at any Olympic Games is aquatic sports. The reason people misconstrue it is because at the Olympic Games, itâ€™s cut into five sports disciplines, swimming, open water, diving, water polo, synchronised swimming and they are regarded as individual sports instead of joining them together as we have under FINA. But we have now said no, that all of these are aquatic sports and if joined together, we have the largest audience during the Olympic Games,. Even people watchingÂ live on television are the largest around the world. At the Olympic Games, we have never had any seats available during the course of the Games for people to buy tickets because they are all sold out before the Olympic Games begin. Why?Â Itâ€™s because of the popularity of the sport. If in Nigeria the government does not believe that swimming is a major sport, itâ€™s a mistake, very sad and should not be encouraged.
And here Iâ€™mÂ not talking about Singapore because swimming has been excluded from participating, yes. The NSC used itâ€™s fiat to say that we should not go. We cannot fight with them, but we have a right to attend all these Games. After all, they send the football team out now and then, but they donâ€™t win all the time, all the events they attend but they keep giving themÂ money and all logistics to keep traveling out. We hope to move swimming away from what it is now to something better and bigger. Since we set up Authentic Sports, weâ€™ve been holding meetings and holding competitions all the time. We â€˜ve been doing all we are supposed to do without the support of anybody but with contributions from our individual pockets. But I hope that they will change from the positions they hold about swimming, get back to us and carry us along with whatever programmes we have for sports in this country
Can Nigeria raise a swimmer to a higher level in a wayÂ that such swimmer can go out there, compete and win a medalÂ at such events as the Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games?
Yes! Nigeria can.
So, what is stopping Nigeria from doing exactly that?
You can see the poor state of facilities all over the country, can we conveniently train in them? Go to other countries and see.Â In Egypt alone, they have overÂ 60 ofÂ 50 metre pools in Cairo. In Moscow, they have over 80 of 50 metre pools. How many do we have in Lagos? How many do we have in Abuja? How many do we have in Ibadan and other cities?
The Governor of Rivers State is building a pool in Port Harcourt but he did not consult the federation for advice, and I think that unless you consult the body in charge, things will continue to go wrong. And if it is not done the right way, it becomes problematic. Now, back to yourÂ question. To train to the Olympic standard and be a star swimmer and win a medal, it takes eight solid years to achieve such target and the athlete has to train 24 days a month and all 12 months in a year. Swimming is becoming professional. So, one cannot just go to sleep, wake up and say he wants to take part in any competition just like that. You must be ready at all times. Itâ€™s a sacrifice you must make to succeed. And by that I mean you cannot just bundle people together for one month and claim you want to go and win a medal in a competition as big as the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games and even the All Africa Games that we hold in our continent here. Each one of these Games hold every four years, meaning there is allowance givenÂ for every country to get the athletes ready by way of planned and regulated training. So, the athlete is under supervision, there has to be monitoring of progressÂ made, training will be combined with competitions, bothÂ local and abroad to test and put to practice what was learned in training.
In-fact every aspect has to be well calculated, programmed and co-ordinated. We need facilities all over the country, we need funding to be able to put the swimmers on a year round training, take care of their personalÂ needs, like health and education. To attend competitions, we need trainers, we need the enabling environment that a sport like football has and by extension, we are also asking for an improved welfare for the swimmers. In fact, for them to be doing or performing the way they have been doing and performing,Â I must give them kudos, because it has been done in the absence of facilities but through the personal effort most of the swimmers.