By Tonye Princewill
AS an adjective satellite, “Olympian” means, among other things, “great” or “majestic” in bearing—which makes it perfectly applicable to the national psychology, our self-deception as the Giant of Africa prior to Nigeria’s dismal performance at the recent London Olympics.
Any expectation that things would turn out differently was illusory. But for Nigeria, this was not an ordinary illusion.
It was a very costly one: Believe me I know, I was there. I struggled to ignore the laughter that greeted my dressing as I walked by with my green white green T-shirt proclaiming “Up Nigeria”. I can swear I heard someone joke, “Of course.
The only way is up for Nigeria. You can’t go down any further!”
Nigeria’s image, as Black Africa’s leading nation, as the “giant” of the continent, was also part of the ante plunked down on the table, when we decided to go off to Europe and participate in the world’s most competitive athletics event, half-cocked, half-baked and ill-prepared – 160 million people and not one medal? Haba! Stop looking for jokes. It’s not funny!
Among those who raked in the stake, after we played our poor hand, were some of the most nondescript African nations, including Botswana, Uganda, Gabon and Mali–all of whom won at least one Olympic medal. Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Algeria and Tunisia all maintained their consistent presence high up on the medal table as they do every four years.
The games were watched by several billion people. The most watched event ever, that is the greatest show on earth and we were a disgrace. Kai!!!
For us this was an expensive joke. And I am not referring only to the N2.3 billion price tag. We invested, and lost, a lot more than money in London. The cost goes far beyond that. Our national prestige has been damaged globally. Nigeria doesn’t belong to the Nuclear Club; and we are light-years away from launching a man into space or orbiting a probe around Mars or the Moon. Even if we tried it, only Boko Haram types would dare enter.
So until we can develop the capacity to compete in these areas, the various international contests, particularly the Olympic Games (and sports generally), will remain important arenas for us—arenas in which we at least have a fighting chance to gain a bit of recognition and respect. Add Miss World to the list as well, even though that is a topic for another day.
Having said this though, I must throw in a caveat and confess to some misgivings about Nigeria investing or should I say spending too heavily in sports. We should not lose sight of our long-term objective of becoming competitive in the other crucial global arenas—in military prowess, industrial power and space-technology. Iran and North Korea understand this well.
They came 17th and 20th on the table and are climbing up more than just the Olympic table. Sports if properly managed can be a custodian of private funding. I for one will be looking for an Olympian or two to fund come 2016.
Informing my concern, is the fact that, as we spend billions flying footballers, sprinters and weight-lifters around the world, the vitally important steel industry is moribund, our educational system has collapsed and the highly strategic Ministry of Science and Technology is teetering on the brink.
It is no secret for those who understand the language of business that if you have systems in place, individuals will invest. A lack of investment will speak volumes.
In so much as we must participate in international sports competition, we should make every effort to emerge as winners. After all, what is worth doing is worth doing well—an adage that ought to be etched deeply in the psyche of sports policy-makers and administrators.
Emerging as winners, especially in the world’s most fiercely fought sports competition, requires fundamental changes, both in policy and administrative practice—a message that reverberates very loudly in the media fallout from our embarrassing London escapade.
Almost in unison, editorial and post-mortem analysis in the print and electronic media single out specific problems that need urgent attention. One is our “fire-brigade” approach to Olympic preparation: The practice of waiting until the Games are virtually upon us to start recruiting and training.
The consensus among sports analyst—in which I concur—is seemingly that preparation needs to be continuous: Beginning at the end of the past Olympics, after the athletes have had a break, and keeping straight through to the next one.
The British Prime Minister has just committed to the same level of funding for the next Olympic team for 2016 the day before the closing ceremony of 2012. He may not even be Prime Minister then! See nation building?
School-level sports, they suggest, is another area that requires immediate attention. The point has been made more than once, that our Olympic debacle is merely a symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive malaise—that the problem is systemic.
Young athletes are not being groomed and fine-tuned at school levels, to provide replacements for ageing veterans. Many private schools do not encourage sports the way public schools used to do. Consequently, many analysts argue, the country is over-reliant on older competitors, many of whom have either peaked or simply are not top flight Olympic candidates.
A sad case in point is Blessing Akagbare, Nigeria’s finalist in the 100 metre sprint, on whom the nation hung its hopes for a medal—quite unreasonably and most unfairly. As a US-based Nigerian told Vanguard’s Onochie Anibeze, Akagbare had never competed at the level required to win at London.
“Blessing,” Pat Itanyi noted, “had never run 10.8 seconds in 100m and from the times athletes were returning in the months [leading up] to the Olympics, track and field followers knew the winner would [need to] run about 10.8 seconds”. Will somebody now help her lift her game? Or will we keep repeating the joke about “Warri no dey carry last”?
But while school sports need to be re-invigorated, we actually need to look beyond educational institutions, to the community-at-large, for athletic talent. Anyone who has ever seen a highway hawker sprint alongside moving vehicles, for instance, would agree that this is fertile recruiting ground. I don’t need to tell you about shooting and canoeing talent in the creeks or weightlifting talent in Abuja considering the number of “big” men we have there.
The late release of funds for sport-related agencies and departments is another widely registered complaint. This may be the underlying cause of what many athletes term, the “failure of the Government to help us”.
Whatever the cause, competitors deserve full financial and material support from the country they are expected to represent. If we do not support them, there is no reason to believe they will do their best for us. Morale is a very important factor in any competitive activity. Nigerians love Nigeria when it is working.
In the meantime, policy-makers should take a very critical look at the structure of Nigerian sports. It is overblown and top heavy.
As one of my Facebook friends highlighted, “The cost of the administration being several times the cost to the athletes can’t give you results!” Nigeria simply doesn’t have the resources to develop and support first-rate competitors in all sports categories with the pressure that exists on funds – legitimate or otherwise. Priorities need to be established, taking into consideration what some commentators call our “competitive advantage”.
The criteria ought to be cost, combined with our past performances and the distribution of talent in the population. Add it to the political will to make things happen and talent + resources = medals. Quod Erat Demonstrandum (QED). This Olympic shamble must never happen again.