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Ekeji: AFN needs Egbunike

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By Onochie Anibeze
I should be directing this to the President of Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN but it may also interest Patrick Ekeji, the Director-General of the National Sports Commission.

I’m involving Ekeji in this matter on the grounds that money may be the problem. But I really don’t think so because no offer has been made yet. Is it true that the AFN cannot engage Innocent Egbunike because they cannot afford to pay him?

If it’s true I implore the NSC to assist the AFN. But is Egbunike expensive? I don’t think so. There are people who are crazy about this country. I don’t know if I should call it patriotism. They are ready to accept less than they are earning to coach Nigeria. Unfortunately, they don’t get the chance. Egbunike is one. Stephen Keshi is another.

I’m not sure that I will be impressing anybody to profile Egbunike here. But briefly put, Egbunike was, at a time during his career, the best in the world in 400m although this was in-between the Olympics. It is also on record that he was a member of the relay quartet that won Nigeria’s first Olympic track medal. That was in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

He held sway till part of the 90s. Egbunike has also impressed as a coach, variously appointed into US and British coaching crews. Last year, he was in Qatar and his movement continues. Why is he more respected outside his country?

The two times that he has had hand in the Nigerian teams were all on rescue missions, a kind of Fire Brigade  approach which saw him  joining the teams just before  the championships. It happened at the Sydney Olympic Games and the Beijing games.

That’s wrong. You don’t even build an Olympic champion in a year or two not to talk of a few days or weeks. It’s absurd.

What we do to our athletes is unbelievable. I really don’t know why we don’t give a hoot about development programmes and yet we all (including top government officials) sing it everyday. It is common to hear ministers say, at the end of every Olympic Games, that “the preparation for the next games will begin now.”

It never happens. Adequate preparation is not about camping athletes for long before games. It is also about taking decisions. Why has the AFN not hired coaches and also appointed a head national coach? Why has the NSC not assisted them in this direction? Who coordinates? Is the problem money? That’s why I’m referring to NSC. There was a time AFN tried to hire Olympic legend Lee Evans. Lack of fund stalled it.

That’s why I feel that their problem is fund but Ekeji wants results and I know that he can do something for AFN. Next month we will leave for the All Africa Games. I may not comment on this. But next year is Olympic year. Is there any rescue mission the new sports minister, Yusul Suleiman can do to help our sports?

Can he articulate some development programmes and come up with a way to implement them? Any sincere sports follower knows that we have not invested in any programme that could win us medals at the Olympics.  We would be in London hoping that some kind of individual brilliance can fetch us a medal or two.

I’ll dwell more on developing sports if that will not be repeating myself. I felt I should continue after discussing with Bruce Ijirigo, the sports consultant to Cross River State and reading the contribution of our Ben Udechukwu from Aba. He was reacting to my comments on the National Sports Festival. Read Ben:

My Editor,
When GLO hosted their GLO/CAF awards in Nigeria, you commended the organizers but noted that the speeches were way too long and almost marred the success of the event. I do not know if that observation was built into subsequent awards by GLO. I however know that our own sports officials have a reputation of repeating awkward styles.

So, when the mistake of Nigeria 99 was repeated in Port harcourt; I had expected you to protest and just look the other way. Recently in a football event, I was disgusted when the commentator in the state box was interrupted severally because he repeatedly (in his introduction of special guests and subsequent mentions), failed to address one official by his traditional chieftaincy title. What business does title have with a football that understands just one universal language? Again, that is the Nigerian tragedy.

We give a niche for absurdities. Such recognitions are only heard in Nigerian stadiums.  Reconcile this assertion with the present confusion being created by giving attention to persons who in flagrant disregard to universal standards are operating their own football governing body. Sorry for digressing too much. This is not the reason for this piece.

You have called the attention of Lagos to correct whatever anomalies observed in the Port harcourt outing. I however fear that we may soon be consumed in the passion of exciting opening and closing ceremonies. We may cultivate the habit of leaving substance to pursue shadow. The beauty of acts during sports events are not half as important as realizing the objectives for which such events are staged.

The central objective of staging National Sports Festivals is to promote grassroots development of sports. Any other benefit is attached to the original and can never overshadow it.

Beyond opening and closing ceremonies, I dare ask: is the National Sports Festival addressing the culture of poor planning and faulty implementation that had long denied our sports the desired growth? Are we satisfied with the quality of athletes that we had produced in the last ten years? If yes, can we rightly say that those who would be in London for us in 2012 grew from the ranks and were nurtured through the levels courtesy of National Sports Festival?

I was privy to some very humiliating discussions between athletes during the event. I had identified one as being from a State in the south east and wondered why he contemplated competing in the colors of another state. He quickly reminded me that quite a good number of them competed for states with the juiciest offers.

‘We are hungry and interested in delivering medals to states that would pay well’, he reminded me. In a sharp sequence of reminiscences, I recollected that most of them we ‘discovered’ in the past had vanished because there was no programme in the first place to sustain their development. Is that what our Sports Festival should represent?

I mentioned in this column that a once budding and supposedly promising athlete is now a truck driver because poor planning emasculated his prospects of being a star athlete. At least, he was a local champion doing well then in all jump events and shot put. He was training younger athletes and gave them hope of a better tomorrow. That tomorrow is here now. Where is the athlete? Truck driver!

I do not know if we have space to outline the matters arising from the National Sports Festival. Since, Nigerians are very creative thinkers with the most fertile imaginations; I urge us now to look in the direction of  more meaningful and successful sports festivals.

Ben Udechukwu

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