•Minister demoralises Team Nigeria
By Patrick Omorodion
The Olympic spirit is best expressed in the Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
That was the dream of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics. He must have said so to reduce the win at all cost syndrome among athletes and their countries.
This notwithstanding, no country consciously goes to the Games with this mentality in mind, otherwise they will not bother to budget money for discovering, nurturing and grooming athletes to stardom for podium performances. They will just send athletes to show their presence and enjoy themselves.
This was the reason the immediate past government of Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was thoroughly embarrassed when Team Nigeria returned from the 2012 Olympics in London empty handed when countries not as endowed as Nigeria had their names on the medals table.
A sports summit was held where stakeholders in the sector dissected the problems and proffered solutions to end the shame of the biggest black nation on earth not being able to make any impact at the greatest sporting event in the world.
That again was why President Muhammadu Buhari, on assumption of the political leadership of the country in May last year, graciously approved the budget brought to him by the defunct National Sports Commission led by Mallam Alhassan Yakmut.
President Buhari was astounded by Yakmut’s uprightness to scale down the budget prepared before he took over the mantle as director General of the NSC and which the president thought was too bogus. He didn’t hesitate to put his pen on paper to approve the sum of N2.9 billion which was for both Team Nigeria’s participation in the 2015 African Games in Congo and preparation of our athletes for the Rio Olympics which is only 12 days away now.
After the release of the money, Yakmut, as a true professional, having served the nation as an athlete and then administering it, went to work.
Athletes who represented the country at the Games commended his ability to ensure that their welfare was uppermost in his heart as they got the preparation they deserved. This paid off as Team Nigeria, which had placed third behind South Africa and Egypt in the previous Games in Maputo, Mozambique, reclaimed the number two sport in Congo.
There were plans for teams to participate in the qualifying tournaments of their respective sports and after qualifying, embark on an intensive training tour of countries with standard facilities to keep them in top shape and as well ward off the usual distractions athletes face from their acquaintances back home.
Before the Yakmut era, administrators who have handled Team Nigeria’s preparations for such Games in the past were not lost on the fact of late release of funds by government to prepare athletes and so had alternative sources of fund so that the athletes’ training regimes were not disrupted.
Funds usually sourced were refunded promptly any time government released the money budgeted for the Games.
However, Yakmut was prudent enough to save enough money from the N2.9 billion he got from the government. A total of about N640 million was set aside for teams towards preparation for the Rio Games. He had prepared his foot soldiers in the NSC to kick-start the various camps and then training tours.
That dream was aborted with the appointment of Plateau-born activist turned politician, Barrister Solomon Dalung.
He came dressed in an apparel suited for guerilla fighters with a mindset, that is, that officials in the sports sector are all corrupt. He cited a case of the 2002 Africa Nations Cup in Mali, where as a member of the federal government delegation, he was cheated out of his due estacode, warning that he was going to expose corruption in the sports sector.
Not too long after Dalung came, Yakmut was redeployed to another ministry while the NSC was scrapped.
That was the beginning of the trouble for athletes and their administrators. The minister alienated the sports officials and chose to operate from the Youth wing of the ministry holed up in the Federal Secretariat, far flung from the National Stadium, where past ministers operated from and where most of the top directors in the sports section of the ministry operate from.
Federations began to have problems as communication between them and the ministry became difficult. To worsen matters, files relating to team’s camping and training tours in preparation for the Olympics piled at the ministry’s offices.
Next was the news that the TSA, the Treasury Single Account introduced by the Federal Government had swallowed every money traceable to any ministry, department and agencies of government. Even the money federations sourced privately for their various programmes were transferred into the Central Bank on the orders of the Finance ministry.
One thought that after identifying with the various funds and its sources, the ban would be lifted to allow government businesses move on smoothly. The entire sports family was however, shocked when the sports minister told Nigerians that the N2.9 billion approved by President Buhari has not been accounted for and that there was no money to prepare Team Nigeria for the Olympic Games. In an advert he placed in newspapers in response to media criticisms, he alleged misapplication of the money.
The minister’s statement was shocking to Yakmut, who initially said he didn’t want to join issues with the minister as he has been advised to allow relevant government agencies handle it.
Dalung’s constant reminder that no one gave him account of how the N2.9 billion was spent and so didn’t know of any money left from the African Games fund, forced Yakmut to state that he handed over to the minister as he made to leave the ministry. That the minister instructed him to pay some money from the over N640 million left from the N2.9 billion to the Nigeria Football Federation to prosecute some of their programmes.
This the minister has, however, not faulted, making Nigerians to believe that there is more to the ‘missing’ money than the minister’s cry especially after the NFF paid back the loan from the ministry. Stakeholders have consistently asked why the minister has not called for a probe into the ‘missing’ money if he actually feels the money has disappeared.
As the circus show of no money or missing money for Team Nigeria’s preparation raged, federations whose athletes qualified for the Games lamented the state of affairs with the Olympic preparation which they all described as the worst in the country’s history.
The Athletics Federation of Nigeria almost failed to attend a qualifying championship but when they eventually showed up at the venue, the athletes could not stand their counterparts from other countries and had to make do with a sprinkle of athletes who qualified.
Boxing, the country’s stronghold in the 1990s, shockingly was able to qualify only one boxer who is still training in Nigeria with outdated equipment while weightlifting is equally going to Rio with only one athlete who managed, against all odds, to qualify.
The basketball male team, the first among most of the sports to qualify for the Olympics is not faring better as the training in the United States is anything but smooth. Officials had to squeeze themselves and borrow from other sources to keep the team going.
The worst is happening in football where the U-23 team unable to get funds from the NFF, got a willing sympathizer who offered to foot their bill to an extent. Rather than praise the players for going through hard times and commend the handlers who went out of their way to get the team to the US to prepare, the minister reportedly denied any knowledge of the team’s travail, surprisingly accusing the coaches of human trafficking.
This has angered football stakeholders who condemned the minister for embarrassing the country and putting the coaches’ integrity to question before the eyes of the international community.
Some stakeholders have blamed the poor preparation of Team Nigeria on the ignorance of the minister on the workings of the sports sector. They argued that instead of seeking ways to source funds to keep the various camps alive, the minister sat back waiting for government fund which he knew would come late.
However, when President Buhari finally handed over Team Nigeria, whether well prepared or not, to the Nigeria Olympic Committee, NOC on Tuesday with a charge for them to go for gold, he told them to do so as clean athletes instead of spiking their system with drugs, ostensibly because he is aware they have not prepared optimally for the crucial Games.
It is an irony that Dalung who felt unperturbed about the state of the athletes he wants to lead to Brazil, saying that Siasia was on his own in Atlanta and sarcastically saying a couple of months back that he came on board barely a few months ago, is assuring Nigerians that his ministry has done its best in preparing 78 athletes for the Games despite the non availability of funds.
“Lack of funds has dampened the morale of the athletes at this time. They could have suffered from psychological inconveniences including poor nutrition, non-payment of allowances and other social problems and may not give you their best.
The failure to release funds up till this time has placed us in great jeopardy. We have run out of goodwill because we haven’t even been able to pay back money borrowed in the cause of waiting for funds to be released” Dalung said.
If he knew this and had no clue about wriggling out of the mess, why did he not ask those who have been doing it in the past how they went about it? Why was he condemning those who went out of their way to seek support from external sources? These tears are cosmetic, mere crocodile tears.
Truth, however, must be told. The release of money less than two weeks to the Olympics is counter productive. We must say that we are ill-prepared and any money teams get now is for participation. Preparation has been very poor and no magic should be expected from the athletes. However, if out of the blues, with the usual Nigerian spirit, any athlete wins a medal, nobody should celebrate nor beat his or her chest and take credit for it.
President Buhari should not look beyond the man, Barrister Dalung, that he put in charge of sports if the team fails. This is because he was supposed to manage our sports properly, diagnose problems and proffer solutions but he has neither lived up to expectations nor inspired our athletes and coaches. Rather he has demoralised as demonstrated by his comments especially those on the Olympic soccer team.