By Jacob Ajom
From a modest beginning in the Midwest region to the famous Dr Samuel Ogbemudia glorious sports era in old Bendel State, Bruce Ijirigho grew to represent the country in Africa, Commonwealth and the Olympics. He started with the pole vault and ran 400 metres. In 1972 he dropped the pole vault and concentrated on 400 metres.
In 1976, his promising career came to an abrupt end. By his reckoning, Nigeria had the second best 4×400 metres relay team in the world after the USA. The team comprised some of the best quarter milers to have come out of this country. The quartet included Benjamin Omodiale, Felix Imadiyi, Dele Udo and Bruce Ijirigho.
Ijirigho was captain of the Nigerian athletics team to the botched 1976 Olympics which Nigeria eventually led 27 other African countries to boycott. The mass African boycott of the Montreal Olympics was due to the IOC’s refusal to stop Team New Zealand from participating in the Games. Africa’s grouse against New Zealand was because that country’s rugby team defied international indignation and embarked on a tour of Apartheid South Africa. Although rugby was not part of the Olympic sports then, African governments insisted that the IOC should kick New Zealand out from the Games. The IOC refused, hence the boycott.
That move, championed by the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo did not go down well with some of the athletes who had put in so much effort to prepare for the Games. Bruce Ijirigho was one of them. He expressed his frustration. “That Olympic boycott marked the end of my athletics career,” he explained, adding, “We had put in so much and were ready to show the world the stuff we were made of… then the boycott. I was so frustrated that I told myself to retire and face my studies. I have no regrets taking such a drastic step because four years after, I got my PhD.”
After attaining his doctorate degree, Ijirigho established a consultancy firm in the US as an environmental consultant. “I abandoned that to come home and help develop our sports. Sports is my life and I want to give back to society through sports. I am what I am today because of my involvement in sports.”
In his quest to contribute meaningfully to sports development in the country, Dr Bruce Ijirigho found a perfect partner in Senator Liyel Imoke, then Governor of Cross River State. Said Bruce, “Governor Imoke had a dream, he knew exactly what he wanted but lacked the manpower to execute and actualise his dream. That was where our company, Kimasports Limited, came in. We presented a blueprint which, together with the Cross River State government, we executed to perfection.”
With Ijirigho as consultant and chief operating officer, the Cross River State government established the Cross River State Comprehensive Sports Programme which yielded a lot of results that had never been achieved in the history of the state. Ijirigho said Governor Imoke was the architect of the success achieved from the programme. “He demonstrated a lot of political will by backing the programme with legislation, personally interfaced with us on any matter concerning the programme, provided all the funds we needed and above all, gave us a free hand to run the programme.
“The initial idea was to make it a national programme. We had everything, including the technical personnel to achieve what we set out for. What we did in CRS was that we brought together the best hands. Former Olympic champion and world 100 meters record holder(in his day), late Lee Evans and another American coach took care of athletics, two Cuban coaches for boxing, a Bulgarian coach for weightlifting and another foreign coach for swimming.”
The programme was an instant success. According to Ijirigho – records don’t lie – between December 2009 and October 2015, over 300,000 young boys and girls participated in the programme in the six years it was implemented.
The programme propelled CRS to the top of youth sports development and performance in Nigeria for an unprecedented 4-year spell. Cross River State won the National School Sports Festival between 2011 and 2015, when the programme was discontinued. The state also became a catchment area for athletes who represented and won laurels for Nigeria in international competitions.
Ijirigho said other states quickly identified with the CRS Comprehensive Sports Programme and were sending their athletes to participate in the numerous competitions that were being generated through the programme.
“States like Delta that once dominated grassroots sports development and performance in the country started wondering at what we were doing in Cross River State,” he said, recalling that “the world 400 meters champion, Salwa Eid Nasser, the Anambra state girl that ran and won 400 meters in the World Championships for Bahrain was a regular participant in our programmes.”.
He said as at 2015, the programme had taken roots and they were ready for the next phase. “We had identified six schools – two from each senatorial zone – to make them model schools.
One of the schools was located in Obudu and Mary Knoll College, Ogoja in CR North, Government Secondary School Ikom and one school in Iyamoyong in CR Central, another school in Akamkpa and Saint Patrick’s College in Calabar. The plan was to equip these schools with modern sports equipment and make them centres of excellence.
We had already outlined sponsors who were ready to take over the aspect of funding. But the incoming government of Professor Ben Ayade did not want the programme to continue. The state sports officials he appointed wanted to know what they stood to gain from the programme and I can never be part of such an arrangement.
Ayade himself never gave me the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss one-on-one. Eventually, we were practically chased out of our offices located in the U. J. Esuene stadium complex.”
Ijirigho is full of disappointment with the government of Cross River State under Professor Ayade, particularly, as it affected the lives and careers of promising, budding athletes, some of whom have degenerated to a state of helplessness and despondency.
“The most painful thing is that the lives of these athletes and their steady development have been disrupted. It’s like dashing the hopes of an entire generation. It is so sad indeed,” he regretted.
On the flip side, Ijirigho remains proud of his contributions to sports development in Cross River State state, nay Nigeria. “With a lot of modesty, the Cross River State Comprehensive Sports Development Programme has been the best grassroots-oriented programme ever implemented in this country since the days of Ognemudia. It is my suggestion that it should be replicated and applied nation-wide, as an ideal model for sports development in the country.”
More importantly, Ijirigho said the positive results achieved manifested in the numerous scholarships awarded some of the brightest prospects that emerged from the programme to study and continue their careers in sports.
Said he, “One of my greatest sources of joy is the fact that we sponsored over 47 from the CRS programme to Nigerian universities, with about 10 others, with full scholarships, to universities in the USA. Today, they are doing well in sports and education for themselves, their families and the Nigerian nation. Sports must be viewed as a powerful tool for human capacity development.”
Asked why ex-internationals, especially those based abroad, like himself, shy away from contesting for positions in sports federations during elections. He was unapologetic.
Hear him, “Sports politics is one of the reasons Nigerian sports is not moving forward. For some, it is a do or die affair. Gradually, they have introduced dirty money into sports politics. They spend so much buying delegates and at the end you find an unknown individual winning unopposed. When that becomes the norm, anyone with a modicum of dignity would stay away.”
How can the country benefit from the likes of Ijirigho? He said as a patriot, he will never turn his back on his country. He is ready to serve any time he is called upon.
“Look at our sports. We are not where we are supposed to be because those responsible for running our sports are not bothered about sports development. There is no grassroots development plan that is anchored on the school system.
It should start in schools; from inter-house competitions to inter-schools competitions, where the best from each school compete with their counterparts from other schools. The best among them are discovered, nurtured and groomed from state level, then to the zones and so forth.”
Given the ambitious dream of the current Sports Minister, Sunday Dare to turn Nigerian sports around, it is expected that the minister would stop at nothing to ensure he met with this man of proven ability. Unfortunately, like the case of a doctor running after the patient, it is Ijirigho that has been looking for ways to meet with Mr Dare, but without success.
“I have been in Nigeria for three weeks now, I have tried everything humanly possible to have an audience with the Minister of Sports. Unfortunately, I have been categorically told that it was not possible to see him because the minister’s appointment book was full. Except on appointment, no one can see him between now and next year,”