By Onochie Anibeze
I once wrote that I was yet to see serious efforts to change our London Olympics poor performance to a medal-winning one at the Rio Games in three years time.
I wrote that the sports minister Bolaji Abdullahi appeared to be making more news in settling disputes than in actual sports development.
The minister, through his aide, Julius Ogunro, reacted, saying that he was on the track to reviving sports in Nigeria.
Well, I still stand by what I wrote with regard to action-loaded programme for the Rio Games. However, I saw the minister in Moscow, sourcing information and making contacts on how to move our sports forward.
I saw him hold meeting with our athletes to find out what the problems were and sound them out on the way forward. I have sincerely seen a courageous man with genuine interest to develop our sports. I commend him for that.
But I’ll be reluctant to describe as “serious effort” all that I have seen and heard about the plans of the sports minister until he begins to implement them. We should, however, give the man the benefit of the doubt for Bolaji Abdullahi, as a person, appears serious but I cannot say that of Nigeria as a whole.
I’ll make this clear. What happens to all his efforts and plans if he lacks the funds and manpower to implement them? For me to describe “as serious” our efforts to transform sports, I must see a collective action.
The government must change in the area of funding, the staff of the sports ministry must be transparent and professional in their duties. The sports federations must also be transparent, professional and must drive their sports optimally. The athletes must realise that it will only pay them to achieving results in Rio and beyond.
So, it’s not only about Bolaji Abdullahi. It’s about Nigeria. Bolaji Abdullahi is pulling some strings but he cannot do it alone. Yes, as sports minister, he is the chief driver.
But if Okonjo-Iweala, the finance minister, the overseer of our economy, the strong woman of the Jonathan administration, continues to drop envelops to the sports ministry and not allocate what is in their approved budget, then I can bet you that government may want to hold another summit after the Rio Games because failure will be our name again.
Nigeria has not done enough for now to expect so much at the Rio Games. Blessing Okagbare is being sponsored by Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, the governor of Delta State. Delta has given us Okagbare. They have given us Regina George who may win a medal in Rio if she gets adequate support in terms of funding, coaching and planning. Okagbare may also give us a medal in Long Jump. For now, I see only two medal hopefuls. I want to see more in wrestling, boxing, weightlifting etc.
This brings me back to Abdullahi. In Moscow, he was making effort to engage a High Performance Director for Nigeria. The man will be a foreign coach who could direct athletics in Nigeria and hopefully change our fortunes at the Rio Games and beyond. Good. But there should be more to this.
What happens if there’s no fund to execute the programmes the man may come up with? We all know that we lack the structures to accommodate elite and scientific programmes. We may begin to do something before the man arrives. And this is where the Athletics Federation of Nigeria may help in their own way.
The foreign coach will be disappointed that sports doesn’t exist in our universities. He will even be more disappointed with our secondary schools. While a long term measure can address this rot, the AFN can organise local and national competitions, relays etc to select new athletes who may pass through the programmes of the High Performance Director.
AFN should also have a structure in their coaching department if they have any. Who are the youth and elite coaches that the man will work with? Who is the national head coach? What about the sports medicine department? Nigeria is lucky to have Dr. Ken Anukwueje in AFN. He needs to make our athletes healthy, strong and enlighten them on the implications of doping. Nutrition is very important in sports medicine. But go to any Nigerian camp and you may know why our local athletes really look local on and outside the tracks. Some feed on puf puf and pure water after training.
With the professionalism and experience of the likes of Falilat Ogunkoya, Professor Makonju, Ken Anukwueje, Kayode Thomas and the support of Jide Josiah and Eniofok Udo-Obong, Chief Solomon Ogba, the AFN President, should be able to run a federation that will not only win Nigeria medals at the Olympics but also transform track and field in Nigeria.
Ogba has been spending his personal resources to fund athletics. He is doing well. But there’s a limit to everything. I don’t see him continuing this spree especially when the authorities appear to be taking undue advantage of that. But he should also re-engineer his board in the area of planning and management of athletes. That’s for athletics.
The minister should also look into Boxing, Wrestling and Weightlifting. These are sports that can win Nigeria medals at the Olympics. I admit it is already late for Rio but something can still be done.
It pains me that we don’t appreciate the potential we have in boxing. We allowed the sport to die. But boxing is one sport that you may turn somebody into an Olympic medal hopeful in two or three years. First is to identify the potential and the next is adequate
training with good nutrition and exposure. I challenge Abdullahi to do this and see if a medal will not come from boxing in Rio.
And for the staff at the National Sports Commission, I will tell Abdullahi one thing. You may not sack everybody to achieve results. Those you know are the cogs, you avoid them. Those on the same page with you, you engage them. And if there’s nobody to engage from the ministry, you and the Director-General can set up a body that can execute your programmes for the Olympics.
If you have the authority to hire foreign coaches or High Performance Directors, you should have the authority to hire or set up a body to execute action plans for Rio. That’s on the interim basis while you develop the structures for long term plan for our sports.
I suggest this because we are running out of time for Rio. You must not allow the bureaucracy of government to weigh Nigeria down.
Bolaji may not be able to do all these without the support of Okonjo-Iweala. I understand she has interest in sports. The Abuja Sports Summit, I heard, was her idea. But why she keeps on dropping envelops to sports, is what I don’t understand. I want Nigerians to begin to attribute any failures and successes to all the key factors. For us to succeed in sports, we cannot ignore Okonjo-Iweala. And that’s why I will still return to her on another date.