The Patriot Institute of Journalism and Arts (PIJA), Lance Magazine is a public-centric independent media organisation dedicated to fighting injustice, fostering social justice and community development through the telling and retelling of the marginalised-oriented stories.
Nigeria’s show of shame in Tokyo Olympics
DO not be deluded by the official hype that Team Nigeria “performed well” at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by winning a couple of gongs; the outcome had a shamefully familiar ending. In between Ese Brume’s bronze in the long jump and Blessing Oborududu’s silver in wrestling, Team Nigeria turned out jaded performances at the Games, which opened on July 23 in the Japanese capital and closed on August 8.
Technically, Nigeria bettered its performance in Rio 2016, finishing a joint 74th (with Jordan and Malaysia) in the medals’ table. In Rio, Nigeria secured just a bronze medal, but a silver medal addition cannot appease the massive disappointment. That silver medal – Nigeria’s first in wrestling – did not burnish Nigeria’s abject failure on sports’ biggest stage. In all its supposed disciplines that it is known for, Nigeria fell woefully.
Over time, Nigeria has won some measure of pride in the short sprints, but the inquest for Team Nigeria began right in the middle of the Games when the Athletics Integrity Unit banned 10 of its 23 athletes for missing the three mandatory out-of-competition tests in the run-up to Tokyo. In all, the AIU banned 20 of such laggards globally, but Nigeria accounted for half. That is inexcusable.
Three days after, Nigeria suffered another humiliating shock. Blessing Okagbare, a medal hopeful, was suspended by the AIU for failing a dope test. The human growth hormone was found in the sample she submitted on July 19, four days to the Games. All this happened primarily because of the bickering and the contest for the soul – or better spoils – of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, which has been enmeshed in a succession crisis since 2019. Currently, there are two AFN factions, one of them being surreptitiously backed by the Federal Ministry of Sports.
The Tokyo no-show is the destructive manifestation of the ineptitude, crude politics, confusion, half-truths and egotistic games between the ministry and AFN. It substantiates the scandals that envelope Nigeria in these Games, including the plane-load of dollars flown mid-Games to Rio to cover the country’s shame, and the Moscow ’80 sex scandal.
Long before the Games, the AFN and the ministry squabbled over a $2.7 million Puma (sportswear company) endorsement deal. Instead of reason to prevail, Nigerian athletes wore different kits in Tokyo. Chukwuebuka Enekwechi made global headlines when he publicly washed his only jersey for the men’s shotput finals because there were no kits. Other athletes – like Brume – mixed their kits from different manufacturers. Disgusted at the horrible embarrassment, Puma terminated the contract. There are suggestions that it might demand compensation from Nigeria.
But countries like Germany, the United States and Jamaica are exploiting endorsement deals to lift their athletes and sports. Japanese tennis star, Naomi Osaka, who lit the Tokyo Games flame, receives $55 million in endorsements annually. Simone Biles, the US gymnast who has gained global attention, earns $5 million; her compatriots, Alex Morgan (women’s football), $5 million, Katie Ledecky (swimming), $3 million and Sue Bird (women’s basketball), $1 million. Conversely, a few Nigerian athletes received $20,000 each from a state governor a few weeks before the Games. This is not structured. It depends on the whims of a governor and cannot yield tangible results. So long as administrators persist in playing politics, sports will remain in the doldrums.
Already, the Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, has been deflecting the blame. His defence rings hollow. His promise that preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 should start right away is jejune and too familiar. This denies the structural problems afflicting sports in Nigeria altogether. After every major international sporting event, all ministers make that pledge. That is just on paper. Dare’s musing is the same.
San Marino, a country of 33,860 population (2019), presented five athletes in Tokyo and won three medals. Nigeria, with a 211 million population, presented 60 athletes and got two medals for its troubles, including 11 suspensions for dope-related offences. Sorely absent is a concrete plan. For example, what is the budget needed? How will it be sourced when the budgetary provision for the year is nowhere near the required amount? How do you ensure that training programmes, testing and qualification standards are met in time for the assignment in Birmingham (England)? These are not easy questions to answer for a country that has lost its way in every facet of life.
Therefore, Nigeria ought to tackle the fundamental weaknesses first. One of those is the government’s overbearing influence on sports. That sustains amateurism and mediocrity. From 1999, the presidents, including the incumbent, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), are guilty of instigating the fiasco with their farcical appointments of sports ministers. Almost invariably, all of them assume office with no antecedents in sports administration. They end up being ensnared by the system, failing to discharge their duty with any serious ethos.
That must change. In a new era, the government should allow federations and the Nigeria Olympic Committee to stand on their own, avoiding the current farce between the ministry and the AFN. The government will limit itself to supporting the federations. This is the tested formula in most of Europe and the USA. This enables the government to reward athletes handsomely and motivate them, unlike the current pittance the government is handing out to medal winners. In South Africa, a gold medallist receives $37,000, $37,500 from the US Olympic Committee, and a dizzying $737,000 for gold in Singapore.
Ultimately, this can reignite the previous formula for success. Then, the universities and somewhat the security agencies were able to produce talents that blossomed to world-beaters. It was facilitated by college tuition assistance, training grants, medical treatment, stipends, and insurance. It enabled athletes to concentrate on training. This should return. While school sports should regain momentum, the National Sports Festival should be revived urgently and holistically. The leadership of federations that do not meet their medal targets should be sanctioned by reducing government grants to them, as is being done in Great Britain.