National Sports Festival: 39 years after

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By Osaretin Emuze

The National Sports Festival began 1973 with the sole aim of promoting unity amongst  the ethnic groups in the country after the Civil War as well as to discover hidden talents that can be harnessed and groomed for the future. Thirty nine years down the road, the aims and objectives of the  founders have been truncated.

These days, the National Sports Festival has been bastardized. States now poach athletes, cheat and use ineligible athletes. Because of the win-at-all-cost syndrome, the junior and intermediate cadres have long been discarded. State coaches no longer want to discover hidden talents and young and talented athletes are no longer given the chance to excel, as ready-made athletes are often times brought back to compete from Europe and America.

The last time juniors and intermediates took part in the National Sports Festival was at the 1985 edition tagged Kwara ’85 in Ilorin. The uproar that followed the disqualification of members of the Golden Eaglets from participating in the festival after they won the FI FA  Kodak Under-16 Tournament in China put an end to the junior and intermediate cadres of the national sports festival.

Going down memory lane, after the Nigerian Civil War in 1970,  the unity of the country was seriously threatened, then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, came up with the idea of a National Sports Festival that will help bring the needed unity among the people.

That was how in 1973, the very first National Sports Festival was born and stagged at the National Stadium, Surulere, in Lagos. For the first in about seven years, athletes from the nooks and crannies of the country came together to felicitate and compete under a peaceful atmosphere.

Bendel State under their then sports loving Military Governor, Brigadier Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, won the inaugural edition, beating the host Lagos to emerge overall winner. The Sports Festival made a great impact on national integration. The unity long dreamed about  by General Gowon, started manifesting. Athletes discovered during the festival formed the bedrock of the country’s national teams and majority of them represented the country in the third All Africa Games in Algeria in 1978.

The festival legacy continued in Kaduna ’77, Oluyole ’79, Bendel ’81 and kwara ’85 as many talented

young men and women were discovered and sponsored to the United States where they grew into world beaters. Some of those athletes did not only represent this country in the All Africa Games, they went further to paint the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, and World Championships scarlet with their scintillating performances.

Some of the athletes that came through the Sports Festival in athletics were Peter Okodogbe, Charlton Ehizuelen, Esther Ogbuji, Gloria Ojukwu, Janet Omorogbe, Bunor Uwabor, Helen Okwara, Felix Imadiyi, Hamid Adio, Rotimi Peters, Late Dele Udo, A.J Jampido, Henry Amike, Yusufu Ali, the late Oluyemi Kayode,  Ezinwa brothers, Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya,  Faith Idehen, Beatrice Utondu, Patience Itanyi, Tina Iheagwam, among others.

Others were Emmanuel Igbinosa, Gabriel Gold, Patrick Okena, Sule Mohammed, Palmer Okundaye,

Bashiru Mohammed, Alfred Ilekhuoba, Osaze Owen  and Friday Noruwa in cycling.  Babatunde Obisanya, Atanda Musa, Sunday Eboh, Kuburat Owolabi, Funke Oshonaike,  Segun Toriola, etc in table tennis. In boxing, we had Jerry Okorodudu, Peter Koyengwachi,  Monday Omoruyi, Christopher Ossai, Sabo Mohammed, etc. We can go on and on.

These people brought us honours across the globe but today the story is different as the Sports Festival is now for the highest bidder. There is no more competition and States no longer believe in raising athletes. Coaches, administrators and state governors believe in ready made athletes, they will rather poach, cheat and bring back ready made athletes based abroad to compete in the games, than waste their time on  long term venture of discovering and training of athletes.

They connive with some officials of the National Sports Commission (NSC) to use ineligible athletes at festivals instead of going to the interiors of the country were budding talents can be discovered fresh from the villages . This trend started in the early 90s after the juniors and intermediates were barred.  That decision has today ruined the country’s reserves and Nigeria now re-cycles athletes over and over again.

States like Delta, Edo, Kano, Borno, Ogun, Rivers, to mention but a few are guilty of this. Again, the  hosting-to-win syndrome is causing most states to want to host and in an attempt to win they  introduce all manner of cheating, which includes poaching of athletes from states that can not pay high salaries. They forge certificates, falsify ages, smuggle athletes names into their  employment list and pay vouchers to beat the festival rules of 12 months state of residence for them.

To sustain the aim of setting up the National Sports Festival 39 years ago, we must go back to the basics and pay less attention to winning at all cost. The NSC should bring back the junior  and intermediate categories in the festival and stop the madness of hosting to win. States must be monitored to stop them from poaching and they should be mandated to showcase at least 10 new athletes discovered during the last two years at every Sports Festival.

As the 18th edition comes up in a matter of nine days, all hands must be on deck to check all manners offrivolities. I trust Lagos to be a good host as they are not apostles of win-at-all cost. They areamong the few states that have never poached. They believe in developing athletes from the grass-roots. Sports Festival should be a breeding ground for new talents and not an avenue for States to show of their wealth.

To build a virile sporting Nigeria, we have to go back to those good old days where States play a greater part in the discovery and development of athletes. In the late 70s and 80s, States used to have their own Sports Festivals. First all the local government areas compete and the talents discovered there represent their local government in the State Sports Festival final. It is from the State finals that those to represent the State at the National Sports Festival are selected.

This system, worked because so many hidden talents were discovered and they later represented the country. Today, the reverse is the case. It is because we abandoned this great system, that Nigeria sports suffers internationally. Without this noble system, 100 retreats will not take us nowhere. Except the right pegs are put in the right holes, Nigeria sports will continue to fall by the way side. We are blessed with talents waiting to be tapped.

Finally, States should not see the Festival as the only time the sports council should have activities. They should seek sponsorship for competitions. Sports is a veritable tool to achieve international recognition.  State governors should use their positions to attract sponsorships for the different sporting associations in their states. This, will in a long way, help to eradicate poaching and cheating  which has crippled Nigeria sports.

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