By Cosmos Okoli
On behalf of over 22 million Nigerians with disabilities, I wish to thank President Goodluck Jonathan for the unprecedented reception and recognition of the Paralympic athletes who represented and did Nigeria proud at the just concluded London 2012 Paralympic games.
The President has once again shown that he is a listening and responsive president. He has rekindled the flame of passion for sports in the paralympians and indeed, all athletes in Nigeria.
In 1996, as the president of Special Sports Federation of Nigeria (SSFN), we prepared the athletes that represented Nigeria at the Atlanta ’96 paralympic games, and the team won 3 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze medals. The team was accorded a heartwarming reception by the then head of state, Gen. Sanni Abacha who gave the medalists cash as well as National honours.
After that reception, there was a surge of new athletes, particularly athletes with disabilities. The Federation under my watch wasted no time in tapping into the opportunity and raised a lot of athletes who performed exceptionally well at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic games
. The team won 7 gold 1 silver and 5 bronze medals; the best performance by any Nigerian paralympic team to date.
On our return to Nigeria, hopes and expectations were high. The athletes looked forward to a well deserved reception and rewards. Weeks after our return, we did not hear anything from the government. I was very worried because when we got to Sydney, the athletes were poised to protest their inability to go on training tour before the games, and the shoddy treatment they received during their preparation for the games.
I counseled them to put all that behind them, and concentrate on performing very well so that the Nation would reward them for their hard work and probably compensate them for the slapdash treatment meted out to us during our preparations. The athletes took my advice and put everything behind them and performed brilliantly well.
Unfortunately, the then President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo failed the athletes and indeed, the Nation by not only refusing to receive and reward the athletes, but also by not acknowledging their brilliant performance at the games. I was forced to go on media campaign to sensitize the government and Nigerians on the need to give these athletes their deserved recognition and reward.
Mr. Dan Ngerem, responded to my call and organized a reception for the athletes. The government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo remained adamant and did not give the athletes the deserved reception. This killed the moral of the athletes and affected the development of sports in Nigeria.
In the light of the above, President Goodluck Jonathan’s reception and reward to the paralympians that represented Nigeria at the London 2012 paralympic games and the falconets that represented Nigeria at the FIFA under 20 Women’s world cup in Japan, will rekindle the flame of passion and commitment in the athletes and encourage the budding athletes. However, it is important that we find a way to institutionalize care and rewards to those who serve our country creditably, because not every president will have the kind of heart of President Goodluck Jonathan.
Mr. President’s gesture has set the tone for our preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic games to be held in Rio de Janeiro. The Sports Ministry and the various sports associations should take advantage of this opportunity to scout for new talents and start in earnest to prepare them for Rio de Janeiro 2016. Nigeria has in abundance, highly talented young men and women who can do this Nation proud if given the right support and encouragement.