By Helen Ovbiagele
A news item appeared on the internet during this year’s Olympic games in London, which exposed the length some countries, notably China this time, could go to grow sportsmen and women for success at competitions.
“Chinese Diver Wu Minxia’s celebrations at winning a third Olympic gold medal were cut short after her family revealed the details of a devastating secret they had kept for several years.
Her parents decided to withhold news of both the deaths of her grandparents, and of her mother’s long battle with breast cancer until after she won the 3m spring board in London, so as to not interfere with her diving career. ‘It was essential to tell this white lie, ‘ said her father, Wu Yuming.
In China, athletes are often taken away from their families at a young age and placed in specialist training schools where they practise for hours every day. Wu began training daily at a diving camp at the age of 6. By the time she was 16, she had left home to be installed in a government aquatic sports institute.
She has become one of her sport’s all time greats, but her father says the success has come at a high price to her personal life. The story of Wu’s family secret has generated huge discussion in China, where the pursuit of success has been chased by the government-backed sports national sports programme with unshakeable zeal, over the past two decades.
Now, there seems to be a backlash against the win-at-all-costs mentality after the revelations about Wu followed fierce criticism from a national newspaper when a 17 year old weightlifter failed to medal.
The Chinese government’s attitude towards the performances of its athletes is now coming under greater scrutiny than ever before. Messages of congratulations from the government to athletes through the State News agency have been sent only to gold medalists, not those winning silver or bronze.”
This piece appeared at a time when China was leading at the medals table at the London games, so, maybe the writer was trying to explain what drives Chinese athletes to perform well. However, China was later overtaken by the U.S., who went on to place first in the number of gold medals their athletes won, and China took the second place.
Comments on the Chinese government’s attitude towards winning at games at all costs, was roundly condemned by many of those who read that piece on the internet.
Personally, I saw pulling young promising athletes away from their families to place them at specialist training schools, where they practise for hours every day, as cruel, as they lose their youth fast, when they miss the normal growing up of young people, and excellence at their chosen sport replaces family and social life.
But on second thoughts, I must admit that I admire to some extent, the Chinese government’s attitude of preparedness, in catching its athletes young and grooming them for success. Some may say they’re not using the healthiest methods to achieve this, but then, this is no longer that golden age of long ago when most people took life so seriously that they were willing to put themselves through the paces in order to achieve excellence, without anyone sitting on their necks. These days, there are so many frivolous distractions for young people that a hard stance is needed to get them aim for the top.
This year’s Olympic games have come and gone. Nigeria participated in many of the events, but we didn’t win any medal. Naturally, we’re not happy about this at all. In our early years at school, teachers told us that ‘taking part in an event is the important thing, not necessarily winning.’ Maybe they said that in order not to make us feel too bad at not winning at inter-house sporting events, but that saying has no place in these modern times. You take part in a competition with the aim of winning; and not only that, winning well.
We should now go back to the drawing board to analyze what went wrong for Nigeria at this year’s games. Questions that we the non-experts would ask are :- Did we have enough time to pick the best for each event? Where did we get them from? Private individuals, or scouts from the government’s Ministry of Sports? What sporting background and experience did they have? Who made the final selection of those who will represent the country? What was the criteria for this?
Did those selected have time to train for the games? What was their form in the events they were put down to compete in? What were the terms negotiated with them or their agents, for their participation? How active are the scouts for talents in sports? Do they catch them young, going to sporting events in schools, colleges, universities, etc., pick those with talents, and recommend them to the Sports body for grooming? Or, do we hastily put together a team, just before an international event? I’m sure there are other relevant questions that the experts would ask, in order to pinpoint the reasons for our dismal outing.
There’s of course the hiccups about money. I read a piece ‘Nigerian official bitter over N2 billion Olympics money – Begs President Jonathan to restructure sports.’ In the piece, the anonymous official was alleged to have urged the President to restructure sports in Nigeria and make it more result-oriented, adding that the N2b was released so late that it didn’t help Nigeria’s preparation for the London Games. That means that bad-handling of the release of money was a lack of preparedness which contributed to our no-show.
Well, this should have been part of the decisions made long before the games. The sum of money to be given should have been worked out, and the date/dates it would be released, to meet the relevant expenditure.
More importantly, we should do what China and some other countries do about sports people they intend to field for competitions; that is, we should grow them so that they would have enough time to perfect their skills before qualifying to represent the country.
Once the scouts find a young person with talent, the government should step in and take over his/her education, and train him/her for the event he/she shows promise in. Arrangements should be made with parents to release their wards for training in camps, so that they can be adequately groomed.
This would ensure regular practice for many months, during which they compete locally and in the sub-region/continent, until they’re ripe enough for international competitions. This way, we would always have a reservoir of qualified sports people to choose from. Grooming sports people for selection for the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, should start immediately.