By Fred Edoreh

So much has been said about the difficult start to the 21st African Senior Athletics Championships holding in Asaba, Nigeria. In the main, the glitch was about the mix up in the provision of connecting flights for some country delegations to the host city.

Athletes during Asaba games
Athletes during Asaba games

The outrage with photos of country teams held up at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, for long hours and the exaggerated number of countries and athletes affected, tends to detract from finer points of the efforts of the Delta State Government to sustain the competition and contribute to the development of athletics and sports, in general, in Africa.

It needs to be recognized that, in the first place, Asaba only stepped in to host after the original host city, Lagos, with much larger capacity in facilities and economic power, discontinued the arrangement with the Confederation of Africa Athletics.

That meant Delta State had to source finance for the completion of the Asaba Township Stadium in a short time while also grappling with funding the re-modeling of the Asaba International Airport –   two capital intensive commitments required for the delivery of the championship. Committing to those challenges at a time when Nigeria is grappling with economic difficulties only attest to the “big heart” by which the state is known.

While the stadium was delivered in surprisingly record time, the airport was only opened for operations at about July after it was closed down for five weeks in April for the completion of the runaway and B Section, to meet the conditions of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority for the operation of larger planes.

The city however still remained with only two daily commercial flights into the opening of a continental championship that has attracted the record largest entry of athletes and countries in its history.

While the flight difficulties speak to the need for the continued development of the aviation sector in Nigeria, which really was the problem, it also speaks to how some of the affected countries managed their travel plans and questions the synergy between the various embassies, High Commissions and the protocol offices of the country delegations before embarking on the journey.

For, in order to make progress, responsibilities have to be shared by all stakeholders while the Delta State Government contends with the challenge of providing the sports facilities, equipment, accommodation, local transportation, utilities, food sufficiency, security and other needs in which there has been no complaints.

Notwithstanding, the occurrence and the effect on the athletes are regrettable, but this is just as the response of the Delta State Government in providing chattered flights at extra cost to ensure that all the athletes were conveyed to the city on the morning of the opening day is commendable.

Even when he complained that it was “one small plane,” Zimbabwean coach Lasimiti Phakamile acknowledged that “the plane was making 3-4 trips back and forth per day, to take the athletes from Lagos to Asaba.” The cost implication of this and same as is already being arranged for the return journey is surely enormous.

Both the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the Confederation of Africa Athletics (CAA) recognize this.

“It requires efforts to stage a major competition. The state and federal government have put in a lot of efforts in staging this event and we appreciate them,” said Baron Sebastian Coe, President of the IAAF who is also in Asaba to grace the event and offer assistance.

The CAA President, Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, has also explained and apologized.

“We are a growing continent and things are not perfect in this part of the world, so we are sorry for any difficulties the athletes and foreign journalist must have gone through,” he said.

Indeed, truth is glitches do happen in major events globally, but it is all part of the learning curve by which cultures grow. When same event held in Kenya in 2010, there were no warm up tracks. Other editions in other countries also threw up different peculiar challenges.   Nigeria last hosted the event in 1989, 29 years, ago in which it contended with just about 27 countries. It also last hosted a major multi-event games in 2003, the 8th All Africa Games, in the capital city, Abuja. No doubt, as Asaba hosts about 52 countries and over 800 athletes, the local organisers and Africa Athletics will learn new lessons for better organisation in the future.

Importantly, all the initial lapses have been taken care of and the championship is on. As Nigerian 4×400 Sydney Olympics gold medalist, Enefiok Udo-Obong put it: “in fairness a big thumbs up to the organizers for recovering from the false start. Championship going on well. Lots of people and dignitaries. Smooth and clean field. Looks world class.”

The athletes have settled down to action in the safety of Asaba and Delta State, making new friends and creating new links of exchange across the continent. Records   are being set and spectators are enjoying a wonderful time as the competition progresses.

The finest point is that with the provision of the stadium, the Delta State Governor, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, has provided Africa and the world athletics family a fantastic legacy to support the growth of the sports. This is in addition to the development or upgrade of various other infrastructure across various sectors to support the event. Also, naming   the stadium after one of Africa’s best sportsman, Stephen Keshi, also serves as inspiration for sportsmen to strive, in the course of their career, to put their name in gold. And, for the whole city and state, it is a whole new sporting experience with a quantum leap on their sporting and commercial life.

Edoreh, a sports journalist, sent this piece from Asaba

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