The 4th edition of the National Youth Games (NYG) was recently concluded in Ilorin, Kwara State, and had more than 2000 young athletes from different parts of the country in attendance.
The age limit for the first three editions of the competition was pegged at 18 years, meaning that eligible athletes were meant to be under the age of 18.
However, at the end of the 2017 edition of the competition, Minister of Youth and Sports, Solomon Dalung announced that going forward, only athletes under the age of 15 will be eligible to compete at the NYG.
He said, “I wish to reiterate that from the 4th edition of the Games, the maximum age of athletes will be pegged at 15 years to enable us to fight age falsification and achieve the long-term objectives of the National Youth Games.”
The Minister may have had noble motives, but having attended the 4th edition of the Games which ended on Sunday, September 16, I have to admit that we still have a long way to go in terms of nipping this syndrome in the bud.
A screening exercise is usually carried out within the first two days of any age-grade competition, to ascertain the real ages of these athletes. However, in spite of this screening exercise, many over-aged athletes still get cleared to compete.
An interesting scenario played out in Ilorin last week. During the heats of the Boys’ 100m, one of the boys who dominated his race was perceived by the audience predominantly made up of athletes, to be over the stipulated age of 15. As he went down the track after his race, chants of “over-age, over-age” were directed at the young man.
I do not know what informed this reaction by the athletes, although based on his physical appearance, build, and technique, the young man came across as being older than 15. However, as some have argued, can a person’s physical appearance be used as the sole yardstick of ascertaining their real age?
Activities had to be suspended after that race as another screening exercise had to take place again. One of the hardest hit was Delta State, such that they couldn’t even present a team for any of the mixed relays.
Lagos State had a promising athlete, Olaolu Olatunde, who won the Boys’ 100m, and was already favoured to win the 200m and Long Jump as well. Having been stripped of some of their medal contenders, Delta State lodged a protest, alleging that Olatunde, who had claimed to be 14, was older than 15 years. Lagos State was unable to come up with a strong defence, and so Olatunde was disqualified from the Games and wasn’t allowed to compete in the Boys’ 200m and Long Jump.
Over the years, I’ve had to ask: who is to be held responsible for this quagmire we have found ourselves in? To a large extent, I believe our sport administrators should take a huge portion of the blame. Due to the fixation with winning at all cost, even in secondary school competitions, administrators at all levels put a lot of pressure on coaches to perform in order to justify the funding they are getting. All they want is results, even if coaches are going to cut corners in the process. They fail to realize that it is more important to build the right foundation and set up structures that will produce better results in the long run.
I am nonchalant as it concerns our achievements in age-grade competitions because years down the line, when we compare the progress of our sports men and women side by side the achievements of their supposed counterparts from other parts of the world, there is no basis for comparison.
Our coaches have also not helped matters. Some of these athletes have been so brainwashed by their coaches that they can even swear on the wrong ages. While interviewing a young athlete at the Games, I asked for her age and she told me she was 13, which was believable. However, because she had garnered a lot of recognition based on her performance, by the time I spoke to this same athlete the following day, she claimed that she was 10, and that she had made a mistake the previous day. I was heartbroken to say the least.
A lot of people believe that setting up a strong school sports system will help the situation, but I have discovered that even secondary schools now hire mercenaries to represent them in competitions. While there is an urgent need for massive reorientation since this menace isn’t only obtainable in the sports sector, I believe that it would also help to set up a comprehensive database which would be so detailed that even the finger prints of the athletes would be captured.
A lot of athletes currently have different documents with different ages, depending on the competition they are participating in. An athlete who competed in the NYG last year as a 16 year old can bring a new documents in 2018 claiming that they are 14, and such an athlete will be allowed to compete, because no one is going to take the pains to make such verification. But first of all, we need to be willing to make the necessary adjustments, because where there is a will, there will surely be a way.