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Killing Nigeria’s sports

How it started, those behind it and the way forward Toni Urhobo goes memory lane on the past, efforts of Ogbemudia and officials who inflate sports budget for selfish interests Today, we continue the interview with one time national coach and President of Athletics Federation of Nigeria, Toni Urhobo. Excerpts:
By Jacob Ajom
You were talking about Hussey College and how you were admitted there  Hussey College was one of the best schools in the nation at the time. There is something remarkable about what this man(the proprietor of the school, Alfred Rewane) did, which inspired the paper I presented in Delta State last year on Sports and Education. The paper focused on what sports can do for education. Unfortunately, successive administrations in our country have failed to take a cue from what happens in the advanced world. If you don’t give sports its due place, it kills the educational system. Sports is a fantastic motivation that keeps the youth happy; a big source of income for them. Any government that neglects sports is doing a great harm to the youths of this country.

As far back as the sixties, Rewane keyed into this and was awarding scholarships to budding athletes from all over the country. You had the Popoolas from the west, you had myself from the mid-west and another from the east. Hussey College team went on to win the Manuwa Cup. This was a competition that involved teams from all the zones in the country: North, West, Mid-West and East. It was a major event and Hussey College won it. We were about seven of us who represented the school. That made the school very popular and every child all over the country wanted to attend Hussey College. So if only the present administration understood the value of sports they could have changed the lives of our youths. They could have started something new.

Toni Urhobo

When I finished my higher school, I didn’t have money for my university education. Because I was so prominent in sports, the then military Governor of Mid-West Region, Late Dr Samuel Ogbemudia, a great motivator who gave me a lot of inspiration came to my rescue…I won a lot of laurels for mid west. Of course, I wanted to go to the university, my father was late and my brother said he had no money. I sat for and passed the Ahmadu Bello University entrance. I was admitted to study Fine Arts’- I am a fine artist. It happened that Dr. Ogbemudia came there for the convocation. I walked to him and wanted to talk to him. He looked at me and then recognised me. He exclaimed, “Toni, what are you doing here?” I told him, “Sir, I have a problem. They will soon send me out of school because I don’t have money for my school fees.” Immediately, he called one of the earliest commissioners of Education, Chief E. K.Clark. He instructed Clark to put my name down and I was awarded scholarship with immediate effect. This was in 1969. Eventually, I completed my course at ABU under the Mid-West scholarship.

How then did you become an Athletics coach?

I graduated in 1973 and we were the first set of Youth Corpers. The first National Sports Festival hosted by Lagos State held in 1973. The Youth Corps law then stated that you will represent any state you are serving in. So, I represented Lagos State at the sports festival and won a gold medal for Lagos in the Pole Vault. During my service, I was a personal Assistant to the Late Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya. I was going to his house everyday and he was a fantastic man. As soon as I finished my service Mid West came to me and appointed me coach, their chief coach. I told them I had never been trained as a coach. But the Director of Training, the Late Jimi Omagbemi who was recruited by Dr Ogbemudia, said to me, “Toni, I have watched you train, I have also watched you giving instructions to younger athletes. The knowledge you have some other coaches don’t have. So I was employed straight away as a coach and was made the chief coach of Mid-West State. I started understudying and coupled with the experience I had from my old school, I was able to face the challenge. That is why I said what we are experiencing now is a systemic failure. Our Games maser then, E. A. Awala, was a trained Physical Education instructor from the UK. Most of the games masters posted to Government Colleges in those days were highly grounded. Awala later became the Director of Sports at the University of Ibadan and much later, he became the Director of Sports in the Mid West.

The training we had at that time, was given to us by some of the best coaches who were our games maters then. What is happening now is that some of the coaches don’t have the prerequisite knowledge to handle athletes, particularly the upcoming ones. Games masters in secondary schools around the country have little or no background in sports. And so, the result has been a degenerating learning process for young athletes in the country. Standards started dropping after the colonial masters left the educational system. It went into the hands of local administrators. The facilities we had at Government College Ugheli were first class. The quality of training we had then cannot be compared with the quality of training athletes get today. Then, we were operating at the same level with our foreign counterparts, It’s a systemic failure.  That was how I became a coach without going into any formal training.

I was chief coach of the Mid West when we went to the National Sports Festival in Kaduna in 1977 and won all the trophies on offer. When we returned, Ogbemudia called me and said, young man, name anywhere in the world you want to go to for a coaching course. I said US. I told him US because America was the domineering force in world athletics. I left for the US in ’77 and was there for three years. I returned ’79 with a diploma in coaching, specialised in track and Field

You rose to become the President of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria, what were the problems that made it impossible for you to restore some of these things you are telling us about the past?

That is a very important question, which was part of the reasons that made me retire voluntarily from service. I came back in 1979 with a very wide view of how to effect change in athletics in Nigeria. I had wanted to be a world class athlete, but because I was not given the opportunity that dream did not materialise. America today is called a land of opportunities. They are great today because America has gone through terrible times. At the end America has created a tradition where all the best men(and women too) in all spheres of life find it easier to excel in their chosen fields. Once you are good in any area, be it science, sports or whatever, they attract you to their country because you have something to offer, you would add value to their system. That is why they recruit the best athletes and give them scholarships. That was what my mentor, Alfred Rewane did in those days.

When I returned from the US, I came back with that determination to raise the best athletes. And I did raise some of the best Nigerian Athletics have ever seen. Some of the athletes who passed through my hands include Chioma Ajunwa, Fatima Yusuf, Falilat Ogunkoya, Olapade Adenikan. the Ezenwa Brothers, just to mention but a few. I came back and became the national chief coach of Nigeria. It coincided with the 1980 Olympics when Nigeria returned with so many scandals and they removed the head coach.

The Director of Sports, Late Babayo Shehu wanted to appoint me a coach in his state. I told him it was not possible because I had just come back from a 3-year course on the scholarship of Mid West, I could not turn my back on Mid-West because of money. But when he eventually became the Director of Sports, National Sports Commission and coupled with the scandals from the Moscow Olympics, the national chief coach, Jimi Omagbemi was removed. I was then made the chief coach.

After bringing up world class athletes, we were preparing for the 1990 Commonwealth Games. The AFN then was under the late A K Amu. They prepared a budget for the National Sports Commission in respect of the Commonwealth Games. They wanted to go and camp for about 6 months in Europe from there they will go straight to the Games. I would have benefited from the trip, but I wasn’t privy to the plan and the explanations surrounding the budget.

The DG, Babayo Shehu called me Toni, I have a budget here to defend before the Supreme Military Council and it is a huge amount of money. You think it is appropriate? Are you aware of this? I told him I was not aware of it. And God knows I wasn’t. It was done by the administrators. Under normal circumstances, the chief coach should have been in the picture. So it was not a desperate attempt by me to obstruct whatever plan they had. When I was called in I gave a professional opinion. I said in the past, our athletes went for such camps in Europe and because of the cold weather, they remained indoors and wouldn’t train. At the end they would come back home without training. They lose the quality of their training and that is why we were not performing. Meanwhile the Games were in the summer and we had better conditions back home than embarking on such a fruitless trip. And the amount of money meant for those trips was enough to give our athletes the best training they could possibly get, give them the right diet.

So they now called the head of AFN and asked, what was going on. “Your head coach said he was not privy to this. The answer the Director of Sports got from the AFN was that, the plan was not the business of the head coach. Babayo Shehu then said, I am a PE man, how can you tell me that it is not the business of the head coach who is going to train the team. Amu and co said they were Olympic athletes who had represented the country before, there was nothing the coach would say that they did not know. So Babayo said, if you think the head coach is not important, then go and defend the plan to the Supreme Military Council. My administrators were very angry and they vowed they were going to teach me a lesson. I thought they were not going to go that far. That was the year I trained some of the best Nigerian athletes. Ogbemudia then called me and said, “Toni, I have defended this thing for you. Do you think you can train Nigerian athletes who can defeat their foreign-based counterparts — Chidi Imoh, Yusuf Ali and co used to come here and beat our athletes anyhow.. I said we can train them here and they would do better than the foreign based athletes. I said I had been to the US and I saw how they train, just give them the right atmosphere, right diet, we will beat them. He(Ogbemudia) asked “are you sure of what you are saying? I told him I put my name and reputation at stake. He told me he stood against Generals in the SMC, defending things like putting athletes in first class hotels and so forth. He said they asked him why athletes should be in hotels and not hostels. I then asked him, when athletes go to compete internationally, where do they stay? Is it not in hotels? Athletes are no longer treated like babies. It is their profession, treat them well, give them the right conditions and they will perform. Added to that, they are well paid. They do not run for fun anymore. When they run, they win $10,000, $20,000 American dollars. So when the likes of Chidi Imoh and co come, they check into hotels like Sheraton, Eko Hotel because they already created a standard. They won’t come and stay in a camp where a contractor brings pounded yam and the like.

So I put all the knowledge I had into that training and when the foreign legion came, that was in 1989, our home based athletes floored them. Chidi Imoh was beaten in the semi-final and he refused to run the final. That was the first time a Nigerian boy, Davidson Ezenwa ran under 10 seconds. Our athletes excelled. I went to Zaranda Hotel, Babayo shook my hand because all of us were happy. I went and enjoyed myself in a disco. That night, the AFN President Amu said they held a meeting and I was not there. When I returned in the early hours of the morning they asked me why I was not at the meeting. I told them I was not aware there was going to be a meeting. The next day, they said I was indisciplined, and they dropped me from the team going to the Commonwealth Games, Auckland ’90.

When they came back, they initiated a strange policy and said, they no longer needed head coaches. Coaches were now to go to the grass roots. I was in the National Sports Commission on secondment. I returned to the Mid-West and put in my letter for voluntary retirement. The Mid-West Director of Sports then, Dr Arutoye Eleaya and some top officials of the sports commission were always coming to plead with me to drop the idea of retiring. I stood my ground.

I was on my own when my friend Temi Ejoor was Military Administrator of Enugu State and he made me Team Manager of Rangers International FC of Enugu. The creation of Edo State coincided with the year I retired voluntarily. They again came to me to rescind my decision. I told them my mind was made about working for government, but the only condition I could work with government was on contract basis. So I was the technical adviser to Edo state government on a consultancy basis. Abroad, coaches are not given employment on permanent basis. It is by contract. That is the only way a coach would always be reminded that his stay is dependent on his productivity. Here, coaches work like civil servants, perform or not, pay must come. There is nothing like permanent job in sports. Your job can only be permanent for as long as you continue getting results.

A lot of things are wrong here. Government has no business in the business of sports management. It has business in putting down the structures. When it comes to management take away politics, get professionals to manage things. They are the only ones who will talk and sponsors listen. They can bring in money.

The state of athletics in Nigeria is pathetic. Where did we go wrong?

A long way back. 1980s and early 1990s were Nigeria’s brightest days in sports. Right from the time when some of us left, the slide began. Top professionals were leaving the job because they were not catered for. The world was moving towards professionalism. Things started going wrong when we refused to key into things happening around the world. For instance, government officials would defend why government should continue to manage sports.

The politics in the AFN, where there are a lot of misgivings among stake-holders, making claims and counterclaims were all not helping athletics. Where can we have a meeting point?

It’s not just sports alone. We are getting to a point in this country where persons who have been involved in the system over the years, are getting worried because they see that the systems they created are now failing. For those who have ruled us over the years, if they are not ready to make that sacrifice and wait for the state when the youths of this country would become impatient, nobody can predict the outcome of what is going to happen. It will be extremely explosive. There was a time when we were less that 50 million people, nobody expected that the population would double or triple. In the advanced world leaders were planning for the future while we remained stagnant out of selfishness. The world is not going to wait for you. You must take that radical action. We pray that God gives our leaders the wisdom and the youth the patience, if not, it is easy for anyone to predict what is going to happen in a few years to come; not too long away.

Records created some twenty-thirty years ago still stand today. How do we produce athletes that will surpass these records

By the Grace of God I was also part of this record breaking era. The former record holders were also my athletes. The home, like the National Institute of Sports, where trainers come from must be looked at. Just like when you want to build a house. The foundation of a two-storey building is different from that of a three-storey building. You want to catch up with the world and you are using a foundation of a two-storey building. That is why we are having building collapse. Weak foundation. You know the finishing of a product through the foundation. We need to train, over-train and retrain the trainers. That is the foundation. Once we are able to do that then we will start bringing back the glory days. Some of us are ready but let me put it in plain language: You cannot give peanuts if you want to produce a world champion. Hussain Bolt and other top athletes in the US are not cheap products. Go find out how much they invested in them. And you ask yourself, what is their gratification level? If you want Olympic champions you have to invest. The Jamaicans did it. Jamaica has the same college programme like the US. What happened was that a lot of them who had taken part in the Olympics and trained in the US decided to go back home and replicate the same programmes like they had in the US. Asafa Powel was the first home-based world champion created out of this process.

You cannot give what you don’t have and sponsorship is a key factor in raising funds; not government because government has so much to do to now turn to sports. There are credible corporate bodies around the whole place that have the financial muscle to sponsor sports. But if you put administrative executives from government, they will find it easier  to get funds from government than going out to search for funds. That is the major problem.

 


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