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*the Olympics begins

By Bisi Lawrence
The Olympic Games is the highest celebrations of sports in the universe, while sports have become the loftiest carnival of the human spirit on earth.

The idea of world peace through the engagement of young people in friendly athletic rivalry throughout the world begins its thirtieth quadrennial modern edition in London.

The name of the founder, Baron de Coubertin, a French sportsman and enthusiast, is now all but forgotten, but the rebirth of a Greek ancient custom in honour of their gods, has survived more than a hundred years—and counting.

That is quite a long time in human history, and a myriad of activities have created their own eras distinguished by the results of the events and the people who took part in them. The two pillars on which the Games was established were soon overtaken by world developments.

First was the Amateur rules which banned athletes who earned any kind of monetary benefits from participation,  With the enticement in professional sports, it became very difficult to keep good athletes from drifting into the forbidden area of monetary rewards, especially with the mounting expenses incurred by the athletes in preparing themselves for competition at that level.

What is more, the best athletes were thus beginning to opt for the professional terrain. In between the purely amateur and the strictly professional came the inclusion of the Communist countries who simply drafted their top sportsmen into the army where they did noting other than sports, but were paid good salaries as members of the armed forces.

This phenomenon, labeled as “shamateurism”, instructed the International Olympic Committee, IOC, to grant any international sports authority the permission to include professionals in its team if it wished. They almost all did. Indeed, only football still has restrictions in the number of professionals that could be presented in one team.

The other founding protocol was with regard to the position of politics. The IOC, from the outset made a declaration of abhorrence for the involvement of “nationalities” in the Games. Thus it decided to recognize “geographical areas”, or countries, as against nations.

But from the emergence of Spiridon Louis, a Greek, as winner of the Marathon in the very first Modern Olympics in Athens, the spirit of nationalism has held the Games in thrall. The athletes thereafter competed in their national colours, the national flags are raised at the victory celebrations while the national anthems of the winning nations are played.

The Games have also been used to score political points right from its inception in ancient times. It was commonplace for Greek politicians to canvass their political ambitions and preferences around the precincts of the arenas centuries ago, and this was revived in a most dramatic manner by the 4 by 100 metres Relay team of the United States, in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

The quartet had done well enough to win the race and waited patiently until they mounted the winner’s rostrum barefooted, and heads bowed. And as the National Anthem played, two black athletes, Tommy Smith and Jimmy Carlos, gave “The Black Power” salute – with a black-gloved clenched fist – to dramatize the deplorable racial situation which had existed for years in their home country.

It can be said that there has been a lot of improvement since then – that was in 1968 – with President Barak Obama now in charge. How much that demonstration in Mexico might have contributed to the civil rights movement in “the land of the free” must have been immense.

Beyond conjecture, anyway, is the effect that the movement of sports had on re-shaping the governmental structure and civil rights posture of South Africa.

The racist policy of “apartheid” had frustrated every effort to displace it, especially with the economic sanctions imposed, because they were mostly insincere. But when sanctions began to be administered through sports, the effect was almost immediate because other African countries now had a say in the movement against “apartheid”.Through the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, SCSA, every member of the organization was precluded from taking part alongside South Africa on pain of being sanctioned along with the racist nation.

The participation of the formidable East African long distance runners—Kenyans, Ethiopians and Tanzanians—and the emergence of Nigeria as a sensational sprinting nation gave notice that the non-participation of the Africans would compromise the quality of the Olympic Games appeal.

That notion was tested in the Montreal Games of 1980 when New Zealand continued to retain sports links with South Africa, although the racist country had been banned from the Olympic Games even before then.

The African nations, in keeping with the directives of the SCSA, refused to compete with the inclusion of New Zealand. And so the African sportsmen and women from all of 16 nations turned their backs on Montreal. It was devastating. Some people described it as an “abbreviated” games. That was what eventually broke the back of “apartheid”. It became a pariah in international sports.

Unfortunately, the magnificent role of Nigeria in this matter through sports has never been properly chronicled. In the first place, it was Nigeria, represented by Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, whose motion sent “Apartheid” South Africa out of the Olympic Movement. Sir Adetokunbh was representing Nigeria as the President of the Nigerian Olympic and British Empire Games Association (NOBEGCA) at the IOC Congress.

And then followed the attempt of South West Africa, later Namibia, to bulldoze its way into the Munich Games in 1972. This was also sturdily resisted by the SCSA, led by Abraham Ordia of Nigeria. The 16 nations which deserted Montreal were also led by Nigeria..

None of these efforts has been acknowledged, not to say even honoured, by South Africa, although sacrifices of one kind or another, were made by Nigerian athletes—but that is another story. However, it maybe at least mentioned that Nigeria had a crop of world athletes, like Modupe Sokoya, who had only Mary Peters ahead of her in the heptathlon event in the world.

She had to forego that once-in- lifetime chance of winning an Olympic Medal. So did the football team which was fairly rated in the world at that time. They were all at their peak and had to retire from the arena, but their remnants proved good enough to lift the gold at the 1984 Olympics.

The challenges of security have been heightened by a world faced with international terrorism. The Munich Games of 1972 described the extent to which the conflict in the Middle East has infiltrated into international functions. It also added, or highlighted, the dimensions of suicide operations.

The success of London 2012 may rest mainly on how the authorities are able to handle the security issues that may arise, because security on the scale called for by the Games may be truly unprecedented. Already, it has been proved that the authorities would need to tighten a few screws in this regard.

Two days ago, for instance, an 11-year old boy was reported to have boarded a plane in Manchester and flown to Rome without a passport, a visa or any travel papers. He went through all the security checks undetected until one hour into the flight. He was thereafter returned to an anxious mother in Manchester. Questions may still be ongoing, hours into the official opening of the Games.

Another challenge that has grown into monstrous dimensions is the use of performance enhancing drugs. Ben Johnson burst the balloon to smithereens in 1988 when he proved positive to the use of steroids. Since then, many a famous athlete, both men and women, have been exposed as cheats in the inordinate desire for Olympic laurels. Unfortunately, Nigeria has been more prominent in that number than one would wish. Even now, one or two Nigerian stars have come up for mention and disgrace.

The participation of Nigeria has declined with time. Up till now, all we have in terms of medals are two gold and a sprinkling of silver and bronze.

We could have done better. We all know that. We also know why we have not – poor administration, poor preparation, poor financial support but, above all and underlying it all, poor perception of government about sports and its importance to nationhood. Ostensibly, sports as a political consideration, has been “zoned” to the North by the PDP government.

And yet, it is in the South that sportsmen and women are mostly produced. The sports ministers appointed have successively demonstrated a profound lack of vision that demeaned their mission from the start, as their call to office showed a characteristic disinterestedness in their success.

But that should not stop anyone from enjoying “the thrills and the spills” that start today I earnest on the way to the pages of history from London.

 * john atta mills

The death of Professor John Evans Atta Mills, the former President of the Republic of Ghana, uncomfortably draws a line of comparison between Nigeria and her West African neighbour. Atta Mills had been indisposed for quite a while, so it was not entirely a surprise to many that he departed at this time. In fact, there had earlier been a rumour widely peddled about his death, and he had to make a public appearance to clear the air. All the same, the timing appeared unwelcome because of its abruptness. The Ghanaian former President had sent a letter to parliament to inform the house of his intention to travel to Nigeria barely hours before he gave up the ghost. The soul-gripping announcement was not unduly delayed, nor was the succession arrangements which, in line with the Ghanaian Constitution, culminated in the swearing-in of the Vice-President, John Mahama, on the same day.

The purpose of President Atta Mills’ proposed visit to Nigeria was not specified, but it was speculated that it was not unconnected with his health problems. He was known to have visited the Synagogue of All Nations where he might have received spiritual healing from the celebrated pastor, Prophet T.B.Joshua. His ailment was said to be of a terminal kind.

There has been a touch of maturity in the conduct of the sad incident that makes one wonder how our country, Nigeria, would have reacted. We too had lost a President in office not long ago, though not exactly in the same manner but with similar features. President Umar Yar’Adua died after a protracted illness, but his passing was shrouded in uncertainty for a while. The succession of his Vice-President, who was already acting as President, was seamless out of sheer respect for the law. It is also interesting that Ghana might have lost their past President away from Ghana, if he had traveled to Nigeria as he intended. The notion of seeking medical aid away from the home country is not confined to Nigeria, it would seem.

What heightens the doleful drama is that Ghana is expected to hold elections in a few months. The late President had already been elected as the flag-bearer for his party. Will John Mahama also inherit the mantle of the flag-bearer in the polls? Several people hope so, of course, but not the opposition who feel that Professor Mills himself got through by the skin of his teeth the last time around. Then there are aspirants, not yet declared, even within his own party, and one name whispered is that of Nanna Rawlings, wife of the former President. The face of Ghana has put on a somber look at the moment. But, come December, we are bound to see fireworks on the hustings, probably as never before.

Time out.


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