By Bisi Lawrence
The forthcoming Police Games recalls the role of the police force in our sports development.
It also brings to mind the sterling contribution of various civil service sports units and various sports clubs sponsored by the private sector to our sports consciousness and progress.
The way it used to be was that we had several clubs in the various branches of sports like football, cricket, table tennis, boxing, and even swimming.
The clubs had their own championships at various levels, followed by the grand festival known for short as the “All Nigeria”. It could be the “All-Nigeria” Police Athletics, or of the UAC (United Africa Company), or some other sport club. At the end of the season would then come the grand “All-Nigeria” athletics or hockey, or whatever in which all the clubs would compete against one another, their representatives having been drawn from their internal contests.
Among the various national club competitions in athletics, the All-Nigeria Police was by far the grandest. It was held at the Obalende Sports Grounds in the early days, but was then moved to the Police Training College, Ikeja— which was recently in the news for unsavury reasons. Among the competitors were several national stars and record-holders, who represented Nigeria in international competitions.
Since they came to the Capital, which Lagos then was, for the occasion, they attracted a lot of spectators. Only the Grier Cup, which was then the “All Nigeria” for Secondary Schools, was given any attention near the * All-Nigeria Police”.
Those stars of the late forties and early fifties included Joseph Adeola, who earned the nickname of “The Flying Policeman”, from none other than Nnamdi Azikiwe in the former President’s sports-writing days.
There were other sprinters like Titus Obi who combined his fast and furious “furlong” with a feisty 120-yard hurdles. Then there was Olotu scraping the skies in the Pole Vault, while Sam Igun held sway in all the jumps — high, flat and the step, hop and jump.
The arena took on a new sheen with the entry of the UAC into serious sports. They soon organized a formidable team which gave Adeola and his cops a run for their money. They were led by “Arrow” Arogundade ably supported by Jimi Omagbemi, a product and pride of the CMS Grammar School, Lagos.
These were former Grier Cup “graduates”, and the Prisons Athletic Club then grew out of the enthusiasm, experience and expertise of another of them, the venerable K.AB. Olowu, who was Omagbemi’ s senior at school.
He was one of the first Nigerians to be trained at the Loughborough College in England, and one of the first Nigerian Olympians. Along with him was Majekodunmi, who was the first Nigerian to win a Commomweath Games medal, and AK. Amu, “Baby” Akraka and Vincent Gabriel, all of who represented Nigeria at one international sports competition or the other, after passing through the tests and trials of the “All-Nigeria”.
Those annual events truly enriched the development of our sports from the enthusiasm of the organizers coupled with the quality of the competition. The competitors were usually rivals who had met one another on former occasions during the year, leading to that grand finale.
Varied as the antecedents were, it was undoubtedly the police force which provided the mainstay and served as a model for the congregation of athletes. But that was not a unique phenomenon.
Our West African sister-country, Ghana (then Gold Coast) also had a preponderance of their athletes from the police cadre.
In fact, throughout the world at that time, the strict amateur rules were also bent in countries like the Soviet Union and the United States, which hid the professional status of their athletes under the cover of the military or the academia.
In Russia, they employed sportsmen as military men and paid them wages as such, whereas the so-called “soldiers” did nothing but sports.
In the United States, the promising and champion athletes were covered by the umbrella of “scholarships” which amounted to lavish salaries. In Nigeria, we had policemen who were employed and openly promoted for their prowess in sports.
The amateur rules declared that no one should be employed or earn emoluments through sports. But thanks to our police force, we too were able to surmount such difficulties. Unfortunately, the rules became defunct before we could take full advantage of them, but the awareness of the importance of sports both in the well-being of the citizenry and the pride and place of a people in the comity of nations had been fully established.
The introduction of the National Sports Festival, following the success of the Second All-Africa Games, practically blanked out the normal annual national events in different sports categories, especially in athletics. In fact, it virtually removed a lot from the importance of the individual branches of sports, except in the case of football.
Though we recently came on top of Africa in football, that took us almost two decades to achieve. The enthusiasm for the game has been shifted to foreign teams in those parts of the world where there are worthwhile competitions featuring, in a painful paradox, so many of our own players.
The National Sports Festival did not, at one time, welcome any participation of our sportsmen plying their trade away from the country, but then admitted them again. That left our top sportsmen disillusioned and discontented over a period of time. I have now lost track of the situation but, whatever it is, that festival has blunted the edge of our sports development in no uncertain manner.
It is surprising that those who are in charge of sports could not think of a way to make our sports stars to stay at home anyway, so that we would be able to guide the progress of our sports development in a systemic manner. We cannot do that under the canopy of a “festival”, a carnival to which the National Sports Festival has degenerated.
It had no other way to go from the manner in which the organization was conducted, than in the path of a jamboree. That is the pattern which the Police Games too will have to follow, as different from the old glorious way directed by a sterling desire to promote and develop sports.
However, the Police Games can lead in the way to a return to the purposeful approach of the past.
Before the National Sports Festival acquired the status of a mere “shindig” with the proliferation of states within the federation, we had suggested a practicable method of restructuring the organization so that the gains of the competition might be profitable.
It was in the line of strengthening a series of competitions for each individual discipline in three tiers – at the state, the zonal and the national levels.
That would have made it possible to keep track of talents that showed some promise, and grant them encouragement and opportunities for improvement. It would also serve to keep them at home with the provision of adequate emoluments.
For instance, the late Sunday Bada, of fragrant memory, was able to serve this nation magnificently without recourse to living abroad, though more could probably still be done to encourage others to enrich the growth of sports by their remaining in Nigeria.
The Police used to be the leader in this country’s sports. The Inspector-General, Mohammed Abubakar, an old colleague in the higher echelons of sports administration, is indeed well-positioned to restore the reins of sports development to his foice at this time.
Justus Esiri seldom spoke about himself. In fact, he really never did. That means he was not conceited. Yet he had so much to be vain about. He always seemed to feel that several others were into efforts greater than or, at least, at par with what he was about. Yet he knew his craft and appreciated quality. What it all amounted to was a winsome modesty very rare among actors of his class, and uncommon in professionals of his laudable attainments. His delivery of the role of “The Village Headmaster’ was a palpitating mix of the urbane and the rustic, in a charming package that established firm control over self-confidence, and made it all real. That is the acme of thespian proficiency,
And so all, all, is gone,
Lost like the sun,
When day is done.
God grant him eternal rest.