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The 19th National Sports Festival and matters arising

By Yemi Olus

The long awaited 19th National Sports Festival (NSF) eventually came to an end last week, officially bringing the 2018 season to a close. The NSF was thrown open to elite and amateur athletes alike, and one argument that dominated the landscape in the course of the 10-day competition, was whether or not foreign-based athletes should be allowed to compete at the NSF.

UNNING TO THE END… These athletes in their various state colours challenged for medals during the 17th National Sports Festival which draws to a close today in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The organisers are promising a spectacular Closing Ceremony. Photo by Chijioke Nwanpka

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Although a handful of foreign based players competed in events like Table Tennis where Nigeria’s most decorated players and veterans, Segun Toriola and Funke Oshonaike represented Akwa Ibom State, the sport that boasted of the highest number of foreign based athletes at the NSF, was Athletics. Delta State flew in no fewer than six athletes into the country to compete at the NSF and all but two of them won GOLD in their respective events, and even claimed Festival Records in the process.

Giving his take on the issue, former National Record holder in the 110m Hurdles and two-time African Champion, William Erese, posted his opinion on Facebook.

He said, “NSF should be for up and coming athletes. This is an avenue for these athletes to shine and gradually improve. When the time comes for them to test their might against the foreign based, the National Trials will provide that opportunity. To take that away from these local athletes by opening it up to all and sundry, defeats the athletes psychologically, and not to talk of the economic toll it takes on the local athletes.”

However, a couple of Nigerian athletes based in the US, disagree with this position. National Record holder in the women’s Javelin, Kelechi Nwanaga had this to say: “From what I know, the NSF has been that way. We have the National Youth Games (NYG), so if the NSF is to discover new talent and potential, what is the NYG for? Is it to discover elite talent and potential? Is the NSF home-based NSF?”

Aminat Olowora who is the National Record holder in the women’s 5000m, also weighed in: “Everyone keeps shouting foreign-based as if everyone abroad is making money. I am irritated seeing this kind of post. NSF is a platform for everyone to participate in, either home or abroad.”

While both sides have some merit, it is imperative that the objectives of organizing the NSF be considered in addressing this issue. The NSF, along with initiatives like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), were originally conceived as a unifying tool to promote peace and cross-cultural affiliation in Nigeria after the Civil War which ended in 1970.

The first edition of the NSF was held in 1973 at the National Stadium in Lagos. The NSF was also meant to serve as a development and training event to aid athletes prepare for continental and international meets, as well as an avenue of showcasing our best talent across various sports. And while the intentions for birthing the NSF were very noble, it is certainly clear that the NSF as it currently operates, is a far cry from what it was envisioned to be, not very different from the current state of several initiatives that were borne out of noble intentions, the NYSC scheme inclusive.

Consider for instance the fact that the NSF was meant to be a biennial tournament, but has since suffered serious setbacks in terms of organization, leading to series of postponements, the latest which lasted for six whole years. Also, rather than setting up a proper structure to aid the development of athletes, states are more interested in poaching established athletes to compete for them due to our penchant for winning at all cost.

For the athletes, the NSF presents an opportunity to offer their services to the highest bidder, and considering that most of these athletes are most times deprived of all that is due them, they feel no sense of allegiance or loyalty to any state in particular.

Having said that, I believe that the objectives of the NSF need to be revisited and clearly spelt out, and maybe even tweaked to suit our current realities. And once this is done, going forward, defaulting states should be severely dealt with to serve as a deterrent to others, for the common good of all.

The NSF is our mini-Olympics, so I believe it is good to have established names competing in order to add glamour to the event. However, spending so much to bring in foreign-based athletes for the festival, most of whom do not even hail from the state in question, while ignoring grassroots development, doesn’t augur well for our sports. And so it might be quite tricky trying to strike the right balance in terms of implementation.

Some have argued that events like the National Youth Games (NYG) and National Championships of various sports should be used as an avenue to discover talent, and not the NSF. While this may be true, I believe that we can never have too many avenues to discover the vast talent this country is blessed with.

For instance, the biggest upset in Athletics at the recently-concluded NSF saw a teenager and the youngest athlete in the lineup, Nse Imaobong Uko upstage her more experienced counterparts to win the women’s 400m Gold in Abuja. The arena was thrown into complete frenzy following Uko’s sublime performance. Such is the beauty of the NSF.

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