By Yemi Olus
The National Championship of any country is considered sacrosanct. It is a competition where the country’s best athletes (home and abroad) converge and rivalries are re-kindled, eventually leading to the emergence of National Champions who would have earned bragging rights until the next edition of the championships.
Over the years, just like with most things in Nigeria, the Nigerian Championships have gradually lost the glamour and excitement that made it the most anticipated competition on home soil. However, things took a sordid turn at the 2018 National Championships, also known as the All Nigeria Athletics Championships, which was scheduled to hold at the National Stadium in Abuja.
The championship was meant to be a three-day event, running from July 7th to 9th. Athletes had already found their way to Abuja for the competition, which was also meant to serve as the National Trials for the forthcoming African Senior Championships taking centre stage in Asaba, Delta State, from August 1st to 5th. And so it was expected that the Nigerian team would be selected, based on the performance of athletes at the National Championships.
Foreign-based athletes like Blessing Okagbare, Divine Oduduru, Seye Ogunlewe and Mike Edwards had also flown in to participate in the championships. Events commenced on the first day, which was a Saturday, and athletes took to the Track and Field respectively to compete in their various events.
However, on the following day, a number of athletes staged a protest targeted at a member of the current Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) board, Sunday Adeleye, who is serving as both Athletes’ Representative and Technical Director on the board. The athletes expressed their grievances, pointing out that Adeleye was not serving their interests on the board and that their welfare was being neglected. They also asked for the whereabouts of other board members as Adeleye had been the most visible member of the 13-man board this season. The protest disrupted the competition and at the end of the day, the All Nigeria Championships was cancelled – for the first time in history.
It should be noted that athletes had staged a similar protest a few weeks back, during the AFN Golden League in Ozoro, Delta State. However, following the intervention of some personalities, they called off the protest and eventually competed.
Ironically, today marks the first anniversary since the inauguration of the new AFN board. However, the recent protests have brought to the fore the fact that the AFN is not operating as a team.
My very first article on this platform, which was written almost nine months ago, addressed the disunity on the board. Considering that he took over the reins of leadership of an already fragmented board, my first charge to Ibrahim Gusau as the new AFN President at the time, was to reach out to aggrieved members of the board and to ensure that they were carried along in the decision making process. I had noted then that the AFN cannot make meaningful progress if it remains divided, so it was important to put their house in order. Had that been done, it is unlikely that these protests would have taken place and eventually marred our National Championships.
Following the cancellation of the National Championships, an emergency board meeting was held in Asaba, with nine of the 13 board members in attendance, and some of the resolutions reached were as follows:
“The Board recalled with sadness the unfortunate incidence of 8th of July, 2018, at the Abuja National Stadium where some athletes refused to compete on the second day of the National Championships after a successful competition on day one.
“Welfare concerns were raised by the Athletes as the AFN Board later cancelled the championships. The Board resolved to fast-track efforts towards forming an Athletes Commission in accordance with IAAF Standards to forestall ugly future incidents where a few misguided Athletes claiming to be representatives of Athletes will disrupt National competitions.
“The Board resolved to continue to place priority on Athletes welfare within available resources and decided to investigate the few persons that instigated the Athletes protest in order to avert a recurrence.
“AFN Board re-emphasized that it will continue to deal with Athletics clubs and State Athletics Associations and other relevant bodies in the conduct of its activities.
“In view of the above, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria Board has opened the doors for clubs, state Associations and private individuals interested in organizing Athletics Competitions to contact AFN as it intends to gradually withdraw from organizing some competitions to enable it largely focus on national Championships.”
While it is commendable that the board intends to set up an Athletes Commission in order to prioritise the welfare of its athletes, I do not think that the decision to gradually withdraw from organizing competitions, is a good one. This decision is no doubt tied to challenges associated with the raising of funds to execute competitions, making it more difficult to raise prize monies that should be used to motivate the athletes and compensate them for their efforts.
However, I believe that having a united board will boost the confidence of sponsors seeking for opportunities to invest in the sport, culminating in a win-win situation for everyone involved. So once again I will appeal to the AFN President to reach out to aggrieved board members to prevent a re-occurrence of the unpleasant circumstances that led to our National Championships being desecrated. A stitch in time saves nine!