By Rotimi Fasan
When Ese Brume leapt 6.97m to clinch a bronze medal in the just concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, she displayed what some must have seen as a peculiarly Nigerian, if you will, African mode of announcing victory, when she profusely thanked and attributed her achievement to God even as she went on to dedicate her medal to the pastor of her church, the founder and Bishop of the Living Faith Church Worldwide, aka Winners’ Chapel, David Oyedepo.
While it is perfectly normal for many to thank God for their achievements, especially major successes, for Nigerians such expressions of gratitude are made as an affirmation of victory over systemic impediments and ancestral curses that are emplaced or deployed by evil forces as natural obstacles tests strewn on the way to success.
When a Nigerian, therefore, expresses gratitude to God for accessing services and privileges (say the restoration of electricity to their part of town, reconstruction of a major highway that had been turned into a death trap, or have been granted a travel visa to a Western country) many take for granted elsewhere, it is often a conscious but indirect acknowledgment of the failure that has come to characterize the management of our affairs both in public and privately. And so it is that we give to Caesar what rightfully belongs to God and give to God what is clearly Caesar’s in our moments of triumph.
By choosing to thank God and dedicate her victory to the bishop of her church which no right-minded person should quarrel with, Brume would appear to be spiritualizing an entirely secular activity. Which, viewed in its varied implications and details, would make her appear to be saying that hard work has little or no role to play in her Olympic triumph – all that counts is to trust in God.
Let’s be clear: I am not in any way denouncing Ese Brume’s acknowledgment of God or her pastor. Far from it, I recognize the spiritual basis of her celebration, and in fairness to her, she mentioned her heroic struggles to succeed, buoyed by the encouragement of her coach, Kayode Yaya, all of which point to the element of hard work and dedication in her victory.
But my point lies in the details of her attribution of success to God, or in fact her pastor, which a lazy but spiritually-minded Nigerian (and there are many of them) would pick out and hold as the only evidence and source of her success! Brume’s praise of God and the bishop of her church may be largely rooted in the fact that against all odds, in spite of her determination and best effort to succeed, confronted by the serial failures and abandonment of state players and institutions, it was the spiritual support (prayers and positive confessions) of her pastor that kept her mentally/psychologically grounded and saw her triumph over the avoidable man-made obstacles placed on her path to Olympic success.
My critique, therefore, is not so much a condemnation of Ese Brume as of a system that makes her and the rest of us prone to thanking God, our spiritual supporters or even immersion in spiritual mumbo-jumbo, for the gains that come through hard work and an iron-clad, laser-focused will to succeed which many Nigerians possess in profusion.
The danger in this type of attribution is that it strengthens the criminals who, under the guise of official cover, undermine the very people whose efficiency and success, as national ambassadors, be it in sports or other endeavours, they were employed to make possible. It is these saboteurs who have turned the platform of their official positions into licence through which they rip-off Nigeria that I hold in contempt for our wallowing in mindless spiritualism (which Ese Brume can’t be accused of, given the situation I have described above) where what is needed and should be expected is hard work once every other thing has been provided by way of a conducive environment, right training and exposure.
But here we are as Nigerians, a nation of about 200 million people, coming home with just two medals where countries of less than 70, 000 people are winning a few medals, including gold. Ese Brume’s bronze medal is one of the two medals won by Nigeria. The other is a silver medal in wrestling, won by the injury-prone Blessing Oborududu, whose victory was preceded by a truly heroic struggle to overcome injury. This is the typical tale of the Nigerian athlete or competitor. Theirs is a personal struggle for success that the state, sabotaged by its own officials, jump into appropriate midstream with little or no input. With a contingent of about 60 participants and officials that are rumored to be more than required, or more than actual participants (a case of ‘address’ being longer than the letter, as the Yoruba would say), Nigeria could only come home with two miserly medals.
Many of the athletes who went for the game did not even have the chance to compete – no thanks to a culture of official and personal ineptitude for which the officials should carry the can, given their gate-keeper roles. In one fell swoop, 10 Nigerian athletes were disqualified from participating in the games for failing to complete mere pre-tournament tests that are necessary for participation.
The concerned athletes only did two of the required three tests. Then followed the blame game between athletes, coaches, and the National Athletic Federation or the Nigeria Olympic Committee. While we were failing scandalously at the games, while our officials could not explain the rationale for our lacklustre and shameful outing, they were quick to engage in the backroom fight for mobile phones freely provided participating athletes by a sponsor of the games.
Even our athletes had to take responsibility for kitting themselves, albeit in ‘coats of many colours’ called game wear. Where participants from other countries were turning out in stylish gears, our athletes were washing their single wears after a game and leaving them to dry overnight like mendicants let loose upon the world. This was the fate of Chukwuebuka Enekwechi, the short-putter who is a silver medallist from the 2018 Commonwealth Games; holder of both the national and African record. He ended up in the 12th position in the Olympics finals.
Do you blame the athlete who had to worry about turning out in grimy outfits or the officials/system for the weak performance and national disgrace? The games are over now and saying all of this would look like the usual Naija-bashing. But we’ve been here before and might be again in three years’ time in Paris if we go to sleep where other goal-minded countries and athletes are already at work, pushing and working for their glorious moments and the sheer joy of winning.