It took the screams of a few young men around 11:41pm last Sunday for Deji Bello to know that something big was going on. A follower of major events in the country, the 38-year-old businessman still wonders how he missed this particular one. Overwhelmed by the quest to survive in the face of mounting economic and social challenges, the Kwara State-born father of two, like many Nigerians, was too carried away to realise that the Olympic Games, sports biggest spectacle, had begun in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, three days earlier. On the fateful night the screams from a handful of young men at a viewing centre near his house woke him up from bed, Bello had missed Nigeria’s first football match at the competition against Japan – a high scoring encounter which the Under 23 Eagles led by Samson Siasia won 5-4 despite arriving Brazil few hours before kickoff, and was midway into missing the second match against Sweden as well. Nigeria went on to win that game and qualify for the quarterfinals of the tournament.
However, unlike in previous years, much of Nigeria’s participation at the global sporting event this year has almost been greeted with apathy by many across the country. According to sports enthusiast, Jimi Bankole, the lack of interest among the populace might not be unconnected to the several controversies that trailed Team Nigeria in the build up to the opening ceremony of the games last week.
“There has been nothing really inspiring about Nigeria’s participation at the Olympic Games this year. Apart from the fact that our boys qualified for the quarterfinals of the football event, it has generally been from one controversy to another. Most of the athletes had it very tough getting to the event, even the men’s soccer team that is perhaps our only hope of picking up a medal at the competition only arrived Brazil just hours before they were to play their opening match. It is so bad that even the outfit the contingent was supposed to wear for the opening ceremony did not arrive Brazil until after that period, forcing our representatives to appear in ordinary track suits. This is not only embarrassing but also a major dent on our image as a nation.
“As far as I am concerned it is all of these factors that have combined to ensure that a lot of Nigerians are not showing interest in how our athletes are faring at the competition as much as they should have. It is a sad commentary on the state of sports in this country,” Bankole said during a chat with our correspondent earlier in the week.
Participating in a total of 10 sports at the event in Brazil – athletics, basketball (male), boxing, canoeing (slalom), football (male), rowing, swimming, table tennis, weightlifting and wrestling, the chances of Nigeria surpassing its best Olympic outing of six medals and 32nd spot on the overall table in Atlanta, United States, in 1996 looks slim. Apart from lack of adequate preparation ahead of the competition which takes place every four years, facilities to put athletes in proper shape were either unavailable or in horrific conditions despite a bogus annual budget for sports in the country.
For example, in boxing, a sport which gave the country her very first medal at the Games in 1964 when Nojim Mayegun won bronze in the men’s light-middleweight, Nigeria would be represented by only one person – Efe Ajagba, reducing the nation’s chances of picking a prize in a sport it had performed fairly well over the years. But even with the abundance of talent splashed all across the country, the last time Nigeria won a medal in boxing at the Games was in 1996. Competing in the heavyweight category, Ajagba will have to bank on sheer luck to make a good impression in Brazil.
“I must confess I am not too happy because I am the only one who qualified for the Olympics games. You know that to have a lot of boxers qualify would have been better and it would have been an encouragement.
“However, I would use this opportunity to shine and encourage other boxers that were unable to qualify. I know it’s going to be tough, but I am trusting God to see me through,” he said in one interview before the contingent departed for Rio.
Like many sports where Nigeria was once known to be a force to reckon with at continental and international level, poor administration and lack of developmental programmes have reduced boxing to a shadow of itself.
Former national boxing coach, Isaac Ikhuoria, while expressing disappointment at the development, says the situation if not quickly addressed, could get to a stage where the country is not able to present boxers for major competitions again.
“I am not happy about what is happening to boxing; it’s not a good omen for us. One of the major causes of this problem is that there are no regular competitions to keep boxers in shape as a result of poor funding. I expected that apart from qualifiers, efforts would also be intensified in having more competitions in place. Without resolving this issue, things might not improve,” he said.
During a recent visit to the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, one of the major breeding grounds for talents in boxing and other sports in the country, our correspondent observed that most of the facilities used to train boxers were in complete shambles. Apart from the worn-out nature of the punching bags, the general boxing arena was in a state of utmost decay. The sight is a testament of how one of Nigeria’s most revered sports has continued to suffer neglect despite the huge funds the Ministry had received over the years.
“Boxing is the sport that first put Nigeria’s name on the world map. Long before the country became known with football, it had brought glory to Nigeria in different ways. But the lack of support over the years has led to the decline in performance and interest.
“Most boxing arenas across the country are no longer safe and this has prevented fans from coming to watch fights. To take boxing back to its glorious days, both the Nigerian Amateur Boxing Association and Nigerian Boxing Board of Control need to shape up. They must put up programmes to discover, nurture and promote these young Nigerian talents,” Kabiru Akano, a promoter of the sports told Saturday PUNCH.
Like boxing, only one athlete would fly Nigeria’s flag in weightlifting, an event Nigeria was reputed for dominating and doing well in the past. Oluwatoyin Adesami, who competes in 107kg, now carries the country’s only medal hope in the category.
Ade Babajide, a former professional weightlifter, told Saturday PUNCH that the sport is currently in the closing stages of its complete collapse in Nigeria.
He said if not quickly rescued, the country might not win anything in major weightlifting competitions in the future.
“We are not just a serious country. All the funds meant to develop weightlifting has always ended up in private pockets rather than used to actually improve the sport and its athletes. Go to the gym at the National Stadium to see things for yourself, everywhere is in a mess, nobody is motivated to give their best. If we continue like this, very soon we would not even be qualifying for major competitions,” he said.
But apart from boxing and weightlifting, swimming is another sport that has continued to suffer neglect despite the abundance of talents available in the country. Blessed with a vast water body, the lack of programmes to spot talents and nurture them into world champions has continued to rob the nation of the recognition it should get in this area.
Making its first appearance at the Olympics this year after an eight-year absence, Nigeria would be represented by only two swimmers in Brazil – Samson Opuakpo and Rachael Tonjor. While the former competes in the men’s 50m freestyle, the latter who fought for honours in the women’s 100m breaststroke, has already crashed out of the Games.
Swimming coach, Michael Idemu, blames the problem on corruption and mismanagement of funds meant for nurturing talents and building and maintaining facilities used to train swimmers over the years.
According to him, even though the swimming pool inside the National Stadium in Lagos, which was built in 1972 and hosted major competitions including the 1973 All Africa Games now wears a new look after undergoing rehabilitation following its neglect for almost 20 years, other similar facilities across the country remain in questionable conditions.
“It has taken the intervention of the Minister of Youth and Sports Development this time for the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the National Stadium in Lagos to be renovated. That facility has been neglected for close to 20 years with all the equipment vandalised and stolen by rogues.
“But there are several other places the authorities have to look at if we are to reap the abundance of talent we boast in swimming. The talents are everywhere, it is just for you to spot them and refine them into world champions. This will happen if the corruption in the sector can be curbed.
“Many of our athletes have been sacrificing and are still willing to sacrifice; only a little pat on the back is all they desire. But in Nigeria, it is easier to approve a budget for a ‘ghost’ constituency project than for a sports project that would bring glory to the country,” he said.
A look into the 2016 budget of the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development shows how the country is still far away from achieving any tangible development in sports especially the erection of major facilities to nurture talents across the nation.
For instance, of the total N75.4bn allocated to the Ministry, only a paltry N4.6bn is earmarked for capital expenditure – that is the building of needed training facilities like football pitches, basket courts, athletics tracks and fully equipped halls for indoor games like table tennis, boxing, weightlifting and others – while a whopping N70.8bn is budgeted for recurrent expenditure – payment of salaries and other expenses related to running the day to day affairs of the ministry.
Apart from the secretariat of the Ministry itself, there are four wings under it – Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre, National Youth Service Corps, Nigeria Football Federation, and the Nigeria Institute for Sports.
The Youth and Sports Development Ministry budgeted N27, 798,124 for “Local Training,” while the amount budgeted for transportation for this training is N47, 369,208. There is also a provision for transportation for an “International Training,” N12, 749,191 but there is no provision in the budget for the “International Training.”
There are three provisions for the “Purchase of Office Furniture and Fittings,” and they are allocated N38, 257,300, N181, 701,880 and N29, 400,000 respectively. There are also two provisions for “Purchase of Library Books and Equipment,” allocated N26, 060,500 and N11, 764,000 respectively.
When summed up, the total for the purchase of books alone for the Ministry itself amounts to N37, 824, 500 – more than the amount 37 Federal Universities and 25 Federal Polytechnics spend to purchase the same items in a year.
The Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre has a capital expenditure of N74,876,501, and it is broken down as follows; N23,958,000 for the construction/provision of housing, N35,462,881 for the construction/provision of libraries, and yet another N15,455,620 for the construction/provision of housing.
Apart from N1, 519, 222 listed as ‘international training’ for the Nigerian Football Federation, the breakdown of the rest of the other sum under the ‘capital expenditure’ was not expressly stated.
Analyst, Sadiq Ahmed, says the huge amount allocated for the sector in the annual national budget has little or no impact on sports development in the country.
According to him, earmarking the chunk of the budget for payment of salaries and purchase of books and other items that are irrelevant at the detriment of necessary facilities and welfare of athletes is totally unacceptable.
“We cannot move forward as a society if we continue this way. The budget breakdown for the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development should trouble every lover of sports in the country because with what we have, no meaningful development can actually take place. But if the funds are used sincerely for what they are approved for, things could be a bit better. However, I see things remaining like this for some time,” he said.
In the wake of Nigeria’s embarrassing performance at the Olympics in London, United Kingdom, four years ago, about N2.2bn was budgeted for the 51 athletes that participated at the Games. But sadly much of that money was used to fly and entertain dozens of government officials who had no business at the competition.
Between 2010 and 2015, at least N20bn had been spent on capital projects in the sports sector under the yearly budget received by the Ministry. In spite of such whopping allocation, many sports facilities remain in shambles while athletes and coaches have continued to be robbed of entitlements for their efforts during this period.
Apart from the misappropriation of funds, Ahmed told Saturday PUNCH that unstable government policies and the constant changing of ministers of sports is one of the major causes of many of the problems witnessed in the sector today.
For example, since 1999 when the country returned to civil rule, Nigeria has had 14 sports ministers within the period – an average of one every 14 months. Incumbent Minister, Solomon Dalung, agrees that the phenomenon is one of the biggest factors affecting sports development in the country.
“I think the major problem of sports is that most of the sports ministers have hardly stayed longer than 18 months.
“Critical decisions of renovation and construction of major structures cannot be done within six months. Most things have remained largely unattended to because of lack of stable leadership in the ministry. The attitude of those responsible has also been found wanting,” Dalung, who has come under heavy knocks for the controversy that has trailed Nigeria’s participation at Brazil, said.
Like Ahmed, many observers of events believe that regardless of the performance of Nigeria’s athletes at this year’s Olympic Games, the flaws in the management of sports that recent controversies had exposed would linger for a long time.
Culled from Punch