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Sports can change Nigeria and the world!

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By Segun Odegbami

I know that the title of this article will put off many from reading it. It is too simplistic to be true. I determined a long time ago, however, that I shall not be tired of writing about it.

It has become either my cause or my curse. Either way, it is my choice to continue to beat the drums.

April 6, 2021, That was 4 days ago.

On that day, the world marked and celebrated the International Day of Sports for Development and Peace.

Let me admit that it was the first time I was aware of such a date that has been set aside in the calendar of the United Nations to mark a global cause using sport.

Before then, even as an Olympian, I only knew of the Olympic Truce, a period before, during and after every Olympic games since the 8th Century, when all wars and conflicts are required to cease to allow host countries, participants and fans, to take part in the friendship games of the Olympics.

During the period, the expectation is that tempers would be cooled long enough by the friendly spirit amongst the competing athletes to create an atmosphere, after the games, where a resolution between the warring parties can be brokered.

For the Olympic Truce to have survived through the centuries means the strategy worked. Only three times in the history of the modern Olympics have the games been cancelled for any reason, and those were during World Wars 1 and 2.

This fact is a demonstration of the power of sport and the place of the Olympic Movement in world affairs. Indeed, the organisation, with over 200 countries as members, is bigger in size than even the United Nations, UN.

Sport has always been a powerful social instrument. But not every country appreciates and utilises that power to effect societal change.

In 2004, I was an observer at the first World Scholar/Athletes Games held within the campus of the University of Rhode Island, URI. A new unit in the UN was introduced to the youths from 157 countries assembled for the purpose of sport. Its mandate was to use sport as a vehicle to drive aspects of the UN Millennium Development Goals objectives connected to the youths – the global eradication of illiteracy, hunger, poverty, disease and HIV/AIDS by 2020.

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It was an eye-opener, a clear recognition and demonstration of the power of sport to impact the world beyond the competition. Since then, in 2013, a date has now been set aside, April 6, to remind the world about a new covenant with sports as a tool to promote Development and Peace in the world. This is huge. There could not be a greater confirmation of the power and efficacy of sport to impact the world.

It evokes a recollection of the words of Late Nelson Mandela, engraved eternally on the marble: “Sport has the power to change the world”.

Sport creates bridges across artificial barriers and natural differences, uniting peoples and providing a level field for fair play and competition. It also adds social-inclusion, health, economic and political dimensions and benefits to its derivables.

Yet, there is more that sports can offer beyond these for the common good of humanity.

For the 2021 International Day of Sports, the UN draws attention to the most pressing challenge in the world – the global devastating coronavirus pandemic.

Slowly and steadily, sport is leading the global return of life to some kind of normalcy, marked by the reopening of sports arenas and the return of fans, giant strides on the onward march to defeating the scourge, mentally and physically.

It is important to domesticate this whole new agenda for sport.

In Nigeria, it is frustrating to be a part of the failure to appreciate sports as a tool beyond a pastime for ‘idle’ children, and the usual refrain of potency to unite the people during periods of international competitions. These times are short-lived and their effect, superficial.

Beyond that, sport in Nigeria has lost direction and relevance. Hence, it is not treated with any seriousness by governments. It has no concretè objectives within the national developmental framework. It is not an area of priority. It is not an item in government’s list of important goals and targets. In short, compared to the advanced countries of the world, sport in Nigeria is a wasted and wasting resource. There isn’t a single functional aspect of the entire sports development architecture worth modelling.

That’s why the Sports ministry is only one of a very few ministries where politicians are appointed to head even when they do not know the difference between a bat and a racket.

Usually, these are innocent persons with good and genuine intentions to do well, only for them to end up spending all the time in media-limelight trying to bluff their way (unsuccessfully) through the complex sector. In almost 3 decades not one minister has left the sports ministry better than they met it. They would ‘come, go and sustain’ the steady decline.

April 6 is a reminder to some of us that in our relationship with sports we can neither slumber nor sleep, that we cannot rest or tire. We must continue to raise our voices, ceaselessly drawing attention to the wasting opportunities. We shall continue to ‘preach’ that sport can be a major contributor to health, education, the environment, the economy, social inclusion and the happiness of the people of a country with the largest population of Black persons on the planet. Nigeria represents a very important human demography in the world.

Some 3 years ago, or so, Godwin Dudu Orumen who runs one of the best sports and leisure lounges in Nigeria, Sportshaq, in Lagos. Sportshaq doubles as a viewing centre where people gather to watch European football matches. Dudu told me about the result of research conducted by an association of viewing centres in Nigeria which revealed that there were over 5 million television viewing centres in Nigeria.

Since then other surveys show that there are as many betting shops side-by-side these viewing centres that, in sheer numbers, are more than all the mosques and churches in Nigeria, put together. That is an important demography.

Since then, my observatory has been busy taking stock and keeping track of the math. Omodudu ( as I fondly refer to Godwin Dudu-Orumen) was Conservative – the numbers are a lot higher.

This is a reflection of several things in society: there is a ready, identifiable and measurable ‘army’ of young, jobless, passionate and poor youths that find solace and a way out of hunger, poverty and idleness in these sport-powered endeavours, activities and outlets.

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Think about it and imagine the number of people at each of the viewing centres/betting shops, and at each of the sports academies and clubs mushrooming in every nook and cranny across the country.

The numbers you will come ùp with are staggering. When an EPL or a European Champions League football match is going on there are easily more than 25 million Nigerian youths watching the games. When the national team of Nigeria is playing a very big match, the streets are empty, traffic is light, and a huge part of the entertainment/leisure sector is super-invigorated.

Can you see what I see?

There is àn army of mostly young, impressionable, physically strong, aggressive, loud, ambitious, smart Nigerians, out there, passionate and knowledgeable about their sport. They have a stake in sport as athletes, pundits, supporters, social service providers, and followers. They can be moulded, with some creative thinking, into an ‘army’ that can fight any noble national cause or mission.

We can do great things deliberately with this army, like setting specific agenda through the power of sport that can change Nigeria.

Now, more than ever in the country’s chequered history, Nigerians need something, anything, to wake them up from their present state of inertia into a committed battalion of the sports army, deploying the power of their numbers to kick-start the march to a New Nigeria.

It can be done, with technology, innovation and a new visionary kind of leadership.

As the international day of sports for development and peace recedes we must let the message of the United Nations beat loudly here in Nigeria, waking us from.our long slumber, that we should no longer underrate and overlook sport in our society.

It is a weapon that can change our country and our world.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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