By Onochie Anibeze

AT the Beijing Olympics, I asked top officials of Jamaica what was the magic?  They had just taken the world by storm and everybody in China was singing their name.

Ann Fraiser had just won the 100m gold for women and Usain Bolt followed in a sensational manner, shattering the  world record which he was to lower again at the World Championships in Berlin. The Jamaicans told me there was no magic and that all they always do is to make events competitive at all levels.

And these levels start from local communities to regional, state and national levels. The schools hold the ace. There are competitions from primary  to secondary schools and tertiary institutions. There are regular age-grade competitions at all levels. Physical Education is compulsory in primary and secondary schools. The system also provides incentives like scholarships to students who excel in sports.

I was excited and wished our sports minister was around to hear the story from his Jamaican counterparts who granted me interview at the Mixed Zone while we were all struggling to meet their athletes.  Tony Nezianya of News Agency of Nigeria and then spokesman of the Nigeria Olympic Committee was there.

Our own sports minister was in his hotel room and hardly knew what was going on in Beijing. Well, I wrote a story on this then for Nigerians to know some of the things drawing us back in sports. Nothing has changed with those running our sports. From President Olusegun Obasanjo to Umaru Yar’Adua to Goodluck Jonathan Nigerian sports has never had it good with those appointed as sports ministers.

Today, I want to doff my hat for the  salient moves Cross River State is making to emulate Jamaica in the area of sports development. Yes, they may not be anything close to what is in Jamaica   but,  at their own local level, they have started something remarkable. They engage Local Government Areas in sports development.

There are competitions among primary and secondary schools in the state. Each Local Government Area produces representatives and they compete in a state finale. They have started with track and field.

One event, Cross River State Primary and Secondary Schools Athletics Championships just ended. Kids had a field day. I commend Bruce Ijirigho, the sports consultant to the state for this novel. Bruce told me that they plan to extend this to other sports and that boxing would be the next.

Bruce, you will remember, was a great national athlete who ran the 400m with panache before securing scholarship to read in the United States where he bagged a doctorate decree and lived for more than 25 years. He only returned two years ago and he is now a sports  consultant to the Cross River State government.

If all states can begin this way and the national federations have the fund to raise the stakes Nigeria will be hot in sports. We will only need better coordination and international exposure from  the national level. I commend Cross River.

Just last week too, they signed a contract with the Athletics Federation of Nigerian, AFN, to host All Nigeria Open for the next five years. This will increase awareness and boost the interest of many kids in the state in sports. In a way, it is a development programme from the context of the state because of the impact it will make on their local athletes.

The best Nigerian athletes (including US-based) will compete in Calabar for the next five years. Calabar will, therefore, host trials for All Africa Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, the Olympic Games and more. What a great step. Well done Governor Liyel Imoke. Thank you, Bruce.

That  narrow escape in Ethiopia!

I don’t know if we will qualify for the Nations Cup final in Gabon and Equitorial Gunea next year. But I think we may have a chance as one of the two lucky losers if we fail to lead our group. We should, therefore, fight on and never give up until the last match.

But it is bad that we are struggling,  computing and permuting points, goal differences etc in a group that many expected us to sail on. It is now becoming a tradition for us to struggle even when we are grouped with minnows. Do we still have them in football? I think you may be in a better position to answer this.

I just wish to recall what I went through in 1997 when I followed Eagles to a World Cup qualifier in Kenya, a high altitude zone like Ethiopia. While on the stand I was choking as the game went on. My throat dried up so badly and my tongue turned white.

I was compelled to beat security to get to our bench for a bottle of water. You could then imagine what was happening to the players on the pitch. Tough.  We conceded a goal in the first half but Jonathan Akpoborire rescued the team then coached by Amodu Shuaibu. We spent two to three days in Kenya training before the match.

Many years on we took a chartered flight to Ethiopia and arrived about few hours to the match and expected results. We were lucky we escaped defeat from one of the weakest teams in Africa. It was a clear case of ignorance. But for ignorance the football federation would not have subscribed to the advice to fly into Ethiopia on match day.

They were told that it normally takes about 24  hours before the weather could affect visitors and that it was, therefore, better to arrive hours before the match, play and take off. It didn’t work for Eagles. The advice was wrong. They scored first and the effect of the weather started taking its toll on them.

The truth was that the weather contributed to the players not giving their all. It affected them even if one would not blame it all on weather. Arriving  about eight hours before the match was poor planning. What with fatigue following jet lag? The federation meant well. They chartered a flight for the team but fell to a wrong advice.

I hope that next time we’ll be better informed. But I want Samson Siasia to know that he should begin to be part of the planning for matches. He should, therefore, advise the federation on many issues including flight schedules, home venues, hotels and even grounds.

It is the responsibility of the federation to fix all these but Siasia can make inputs. I have seen coaches make inputs on all these. If Christian Chukwu put his feet down and resisted playing in Kano because of its weather, Nigeria could have probably qualified for Germany 2006 World Cup. Kano’s weather was harsh to the Nigerian players whose base was in Europe. Again, Nigeria also ignored the warning of the team doctor who also advised against playing the match in Kano.

The players came to play in Kano from winter weather. After fifteen minutes, they were burnt out and the result was our failure to qualify for the World Cup. I hope we learn from the past and move on.

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