By Patrick Omorodion
The first eight years of the 16 years the People Democratic Party governed Nigeria with retired military General, Olusegun Obasanjo as president was not too good for Nigerian youths who saw sports as a way to survive the economic hardship.
Before 1999 when the military were forced out of power, sports was used by them to gain legitimacy with the people. Money was voted for sports development and participation of athletes in international competitions.
A typical example of the military as a success in sports development and management was through one of its own, the late Brigadier-General Samuel Ogbemudia, who not only had the passion for sports but was also a trained coach who transformed sports in the then Midwest State as a military governor.
The legacy he left for the state which later metamorphosed into Edo and Delta state remains unequalled in the country as the two states have continued to churn out sports talents who make impact nationally and globally.
The military at the federal level latched unto the success of Ogbemudia in Midwest and later Bendel and virtually took over the administration of sports nationally. They however, didn’t get it right like in Bendel where Ogbemudia did not only provide infrastructure and money for athletes participation, but ensured the talents were products of grass-root development which he achieved through school sports.
Athletes were not only rewarded with physical cash, as bread winners of their various families but got scholarships to further their education in both secondary and tertiary institutions. This became an added impetus to motivate the youth to take to sports.
The emergence of Obasanjo who introduced the policy of handshake in place of cash reward for athletes who are mostly from poor homes changed all that. Athletes lost interest in participating in sports while the budding talents who saw how older athletes earned a living through it and respect for themselves and their families and wanted to take to sports started having a change of heart.
However, the major cause of the decline in grass-root sports was the desire of the administrators to win at all costs because of the reward from government. Instead of taking pains to groom talents into budding stars, administrators and coaches in particular started using over aged players to win competitions. Emphasis then shifted from development to competition which was a quicker way to easy money for the administrators.
Even when the Obasanjo regime recanted on the handshake policy, the athletes were no longer too keen in representing Nigeria in competitions as most European and Asian countries had started enticing star athletes from Nigeria and other parts of Africa with offers which changed their life status.
The dip continued all through the PDP regime although Dr Goodluck Jonathan tried to boost athletes’ welfare. Even then, it was limited to those who competed as no concerted effort was made to go back to school sports which served and will continue to serve as the reservoir for talents in sports.
So when the wind of change in the governance started blowing at the tail end of the Jonathan regime and eventually swept his regime away and ushered in the APC government of no nonsense ex military head of state, Muhammdu Buhari as president, hope for the revival of the sector within the sports family was rekindled.
Unfortunately as was typical of the past governments which appointed ministers on sentiments of party loyalty and closeness to the power brokers, another round peg was posted in the square hole of sports.
The man on whose shoulders sports was put since 2015, Barrister Solomon Dalung, whose only claim to sports was secondary school football, where he claimed he earned the sobriquet ‘small pepper’, because of “the way I peppered defenders”, confirmed the fears of the stakeholders that sports was in for a hard time.
He came with vengeance, swearing to clean up the “rotten and corrupt sports ministry”. He claimed he was cheated out of some US dollars as a member of the Federal Government delegation to the 2002 Africa Nations Cup in Mali. But has he been able to ‘clean’ up the system? No.
The first wrong salvo Dalung fired and showed he had no clue about the sector he was assigned to manage was when a few days to the 2016 Rio Olympics, instead of sourcing funds to keep athletes in training, preparing for the Games, he told the world that athletes didn’t really need long term training to excel but just the winning mentality.
Not knowing how his athletes would get to Brazil for the Olympics, he was quick to jump into the plane to Brazil, not even once, to inspect the facilities they would use at the Games. Surprisingly though, more so when he was not a coach or technical man of any of the sports.
Worst still was when some of the athletes took to the social media to beg fans and friends alike to help them raise funds to pay their way to Rio to represent their fatherland. And yet the government voted money for the event.
The way and manner he disowned the football team handled by Samson Siasia who got stranded in the US where they had gone to prepare for the Games before they were bailed out by an American airline, Delta airline, was shocking and embarrassing.. Even the Japanese billionaire who offered to reward the team for winning the only medal the country had, following the pains they went through to achieve that, was derided and his gift questioned.
If the sports ministry was known in the past to concentrate mainly in sending athletes for competitions and ignoring grass-roots development before the emergence of Dalung as minister, he has taken it to an abysmal level in the short two years he has been in the saddle.
Nigerian athletes no longer attend competitions even though the federal government keep budgeting money for sports annually. It was a big shame that Nigerian youths could not attend the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas for lack of funds but the minister found money to visit the country for a competition he was not certain his athletes would attend.
After the Bahamas embarrassment, the ministry once again bungled the IAAF World U-18 Championships in Kenya. After training for some months, the young athletes were eventually decamped and told to go back home, again for lack of funds. A youth competition for that matter, from where replacements would have been gotten to replace some of the older ones who are retiring now.
The national embarrassment continued this month. Athletes were holed up in the country because logistics for their visas were bungled. When they eventually got visas few days to the opening of the IAAF World Championships, flight tickets became another issue and thus they arrived London late. Any reason the failure is so monumental?
Dalung has no programme on ground as to how he intends to revive sports. Even the committees he set up to seek ways to revive sports have either been ignored with their report thrown aside like in the case of the committee headed by Ibrahim Galadima to restructure football or their recommendations interpreted upside down as he did with the Godwin Kienka committee on Sports Reform.
Unless the present government will be man enough to replace this party loyalist who has really under performed and look for a real technocrat to head a reformed sports commission to be supervised by a board that will seek support from the private sector, sports will remain in the doldrums under Solomon Dalung. This is because he has shown he has no clue to reviving sports in the country and making Nigeria take her rightful position in the world of sports.