Sola Aiyepekun: Bringing Super Eagles back to Lagos is significant
Sola Aiyepekun

*Boasts Lagos is ready for National Sports Festival

*Says we’re laying solid foundation for sustainable sports development in Lagos

During the week, our Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom had a brief chat with the Chairman of the Lagos State Sports Commission, Sola Aiyepekun, in his office located at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.

The LSSC boss spoke on a variety of issues, including the quiet reforms he has initiated for sports development in Lagos. Excerpts.

How has it been so far?

So far so good, plenty of challenges. When I look back and try to surmise how long we have been here, I realise that I haven’t worked up to a year, given the time loss during the pandemic months.

I started in 2019 and after five months, from March to somewhere around October, no activity. Having said that, it has been quite challenging but very interesting and quite productive as well.

The major issue this year is the National Sports Festival. In your opinion, should it go ahead?

It’s not my place to say. I was part of the committee set up by the Honourable Minister of Sports last year to look at the possibility or otherwise of holding the Festival.

As at that time, we all thought it should go ahead, and we were all prepared for the February date we had. Lagos State athletes had already gone to camp before the latest cancellation. I think the states want Festival to go ahead and the athletes, in particular, want it to go ahead.

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Remember, some athletes require the Sports Festival for qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, so there are very many benefits for it happening.

How prepared is Lagos?

As prepared as anybody else can be. We have been preparing for over a year now. We can only prepare as much as we know. So we are prepared and geared towards the new dates.

Would the problem of poaching have any effect on Team Lagos?

Not for me. This poaching thing has been on for a while. It really calls for a greater level of thinking as regards the format and content of the festival. Maybe that is what is required. But for us, even before I came here, I hear people saying Lagos is developmental. I like it.

For me, it means that we are freeing up talents, potential athletes that can represent states all over Nigeria. So, what we have put in place to do is to tighten that noose. If value has to be given to what we do, if you value development over competitions, then who doesn’t benefit more in the long run?

We have taken some decisions based on the questions we have asked and answers we have gotten and, I dare say, maybe, either before or after the festival we will start implementing our decisions and you will see the results.

How many sports will Lagos compete in?

When the time comes. The rules keep changing.

The size of your contingent?

One can’t be sure. You know what has been happening. Before the last date was announced, we were told to cut down the sizes, saying for team events only winners will come out of the zones. So whatever the rule says that is what will determine the size of the contingent.

Anyway, I don’t think its about the size, it should be about the quality of the contingent. What are you going for? Is it about taking a multitude of people and come back with a few medals or take quality, those ones that can give you a good return on your investment. A contingent you can be proud of.

With the festival being open, where the likes of Blessing Okagbare and Esse Brume will be competing for Delta State, how would that pose a threat to the ambition of Lagos winning the Festival?

I think that is rather an obvious question and answer. Okagbare is one of the best in the world in her events, so definitely, she poses a threat to everybody, not just Lagos.

But would that be fair to other states?

That is none of my business. If the rule permits her, then there is nothing I can do. The rules also define everything, including equity or whatever is fair play. If the rules permit her, then we should be ready to compete with whoever comes our way.

It could even be good for the young athletes to compete alongside some of the best in the world?

Maybe not. Maybe at this stage of their development, it maybe too early. It might depress them, if they lose so much. But you never can tell. That is where a good developmental programme comes in because the athletes at that level know what they are coming up against. It is when the rules keep changing that you cannot prepare your athletes for the future.

Does the new rule which permits established, elite athletes to compete at the festival negate the founding principles of the National Sports Festival?

Whatever founded the festival doesn’t really matter now. What are the current rules? I will put the question to you. What are the current rules?

If they permit an athlete like Okagbare, for instance, to compete for a state, then that is what rules and the people who decided it felt that was the best thing to do. Then everybody has to fall in line. It is not just Lagos state, all other states are affected too.

How prepared is Lagos for the Super Eagles return to Lagos after so many years?

The main thing is that Lagos has met the inspection requirement, We have a fantastic turf which we have been working on for the past one year. We tried four different kinds of grass seeds before we arrived at the current formula which we are using.

We had it tough at the beginning but now we have got it right. The technical inspection that was done by CAF passed it. So, we are ready.

Was the grass sourced locally or imported?

Most of it was imported. Like I said, different seeds were tried. But the planting, the grooming and maintenance have all been done in-house and that has given us another line of capacity development as you know that in Nigeria, groundsmen are very rare.

We have learned some hard lessons along the way but they are good lessons that would stand us in a good stead in the long run.

So Lagos can now offer some technical assistance to other states in terms of pitch development?

I won’t say that. We will do our own first. This is only one stadium out of about four that we have in the state. Let us see how it goes. The main test is now as it(the pitch) is going to be used more often. That is when our maintenance capacity would be tested.

There is a difference between when it is being used, how you are going to recover after use and so on. Those are things we still have to learn. We are not at that stage we can commercialise our services yet.

Will there be fans, when the Eagles come to play in Lagos?

We hope so. A request has been made by the NFF to CAF and we are waiting for the response. But definitely it won’t be anything near capacity. Maybe 40% capacity.

How is the level of work at the Mobolaji Johnson Arena (formerly called Onikan Stadium)?

The Arena was a major Covid-19 isolation centre. Now the facility and equipment have been removed but still under the responsibility of the ministry of health. After everything, the work will continue and it will be completed. The stadium is about 75 to 80% ready. Only a few things left to be done and it will be usable again.

There was a plan by the last administration to build sports facilities across the zones in the state. How far has this been pursued?

The governor made a couple of campaign promises and for obvious reasons we have slowed down and have been unable to fulfill all of them. But now, the intensity has stepped up to keep those promises; we have done a couple of inspections and some areas highlighted; areas where facilities can be put up and the type of facilities they would need.

What has been the major challenge since you assumed office?

We have spent about a year in office and the major challenge has been Covid-19, and it is still on because there are still restrictions to large gatherings. We have to be very creative on things we can achieve and prioritise even more, what we can achieve, which is why in the long term, bringing the Super Eagles back to Lagos is a major and significant step in that direction.

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Secondly and most significantly, we are in the process of re-inserting sports back into schools. From next term, there will be a pilot programme, and from next session, school sports in Lagos will be back fully in the educational curriculum and we have had meetings with the ministry of Education and partnership with the Honourable Commissioner for Education and SUBEB who handle the primary schools. We are ready to organise competitions at this level. We have indeed, moved very far.

The structure has to change. All over the world, sports is run as a multi-billion Dollar industry but here it is still being run as an aside. In many developed countries, sports contribute to the GDP but here, there is not even a policy for sports in the country.

So it behooves on us, as a leading state in the country, to take the bull by the horns and establish the fundamentals. For instance, we have begun work on a sports policy, the draft will soon be ready. This is part of the fundamentals because if you don’t create the fundamentals, how can sports be sustainable?

We have had numerous sports policies in the past but the major problem has been implementation, as every new government jettisons the former’s policies and initiates its own. What is the guarantee that what you are trying to do now would survive the test of time?

I can’t speak for the future. But more importantly, I said something about fundamentals. Just like when the governor spoke with me, he asked what my vision was for Lagos sports. I told him, “my vision is to build the foundation for a sustainable sports industry in Lagos.”

The question I will ask is, if there were numerous policies in the past, how were they implemented? How far were they driven to become policies? You know I can write a policy on a paper but were they put into law in a way that people had to obey for them to become policies?

Not a single one of them was passed by any legislative arm of government. After writing a policy, which is academic, the next stage is to back it up with law. You give it a legal muscle to stand the test of time.

When you do those fundamentals, no matter who comes afterwards, he must do what the law says. That is what we intend to do. Whenever the Lagos Sports Policy is ready, we will legalise it.”

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