Nigeria’s Olympic Blues, By Poju Akinyanju
We can do all the delusional wishing that we want but there will be no change in our sports fortune until we appreciate that there is no quick fix to the sports problem, as we have it. The problem lies at the foundation level and we should be prepared to address these fundamental problems at the roots of the school system. It will be futile to be thinking of an increased medal haul in the Tokyo Olympic in four years time or even the next two Olympics.
No, blue is not the colour of any Olympic medal. Blues is the mood of Nigeria every four years immediately after each Olympics. Other nations experience euphoria from garnering medals consequent upon hard work and the years preceding the event. Such nations also feel challenged to improve on their performance at the next Olympic. The psyche of the successful is upped for higher achievements even in other areas of endeavour. We slumber for the many years preceding the Olympic, then wake up to begin to raise false hope of medals wins. We end up with the blues the day after. All the time. We then cry, make the noise of the unreformed drunk and promptly lapse into our lethargy, planlessness and carelessness. We believe we will win because we are Nigeria, not because of the work we have done. We exaggerate our size and under-explore the potential of the random existence of talents within a large population. Over 90 percent of the medalists in the Olympic sprint events are black. They have their origins in Africa. So what has happened to the parent stock? Most of the Nigerians who have made any mark at the Olympic are based or trained outside the shores of Nigeria. We appropriate what we really do not own. There is more to fatherhood than sperm donation. And it is clear that the fault is not in our sports genes but in our visionless and mismanaged environment.
There was a time when we nursed and stoked our potentials and were developing, even if we had not reached near to the promise we hold. Then the carpet baggers took over our nation and our lives. The rain began to beat us. Nigeria is a nation of laughable contradictions. Nigeria did fairly well in the 1996 Olympics, maybe her best performance, when it won the gold medal in football, with one other gold, one silver and three bronze medals. I remember the soccer gold vividly. I was in Uyo with a crop of ASUU leaders brainstorming on the progress of a national strike the Union had embarked upon some three months earlier. We were at that point being hunted by the goggled one, Sani Abacha and were meeting underground. The day following the Atlanta gold, we saw hell. The nation not only rose for the dream team but rose against us, the nation’s academics. We were lampooned for our unpatriotic act of shutting down the nation’s universities. We were told to emulate the Golden Eagles who had conquered the world despite all odds. It is a national culture to celebrate freak successes ‘in spite of all odds’. We rarely seek to remove the odds. At that point in time, there was no university in the nation that had a viable sports field that a secondary school could be proud of. The swimming pool at the University of Ibadan had caked up; the lawn tennis courts at Nsukka were all cracked up and weeds had grown in the interstices of the cracks. The eight so-called second generation universities could not boast of any decent sports field. Indoor games facility was a rarity in the universities. Thousands of youths in the universities and those who live in university towns had no credible sports facility, even if for the promotion of health. That was part of the grouse of ASUU then: the lack of facilities in our universities. The import of ASUU struggles as it fundamentally affects the sports and character development of our youths was missed by the nation.
In most nations, the bulk of athletes come from their educational institutions. The schools are so provided for. A large number of the venues for the Atlanta Olympic were University campuses… It used to be that our educational institutions supplied the sports persons for our national teams.
But it had not always been like this. I cite another experience. My secondary education was in Awe, a small town close to Oyo. Awe High school was a community school, one of many that formed the fulcrum of educational flowering in the then Western Region. This means that it was established by the community but was aided through the grants of the then regional government. In the school, we had two standard football fields with a small pavilion for important guests. We had functional tennis and teniquort courts, table tennis equipment, and boxing rings. We had daily sporting activities, sometimes twice a day. We had a 10 kilometre cross-country race for all students every Monday morning. We had two major sporting events each year. At the end of the first term, we had inter house sports and in the third term, we had what was dubbed ‘The Olympic’. The inter-house sports were athletics while our olympic included other games like boxing, football, the tennises, in addition to athletics. As we were about to graduate in 1967, the Government started constructing a cricket pitch at Awe High School! Periodically, big sports personalities and coaches visited our school. One was the legendary Thunder Balogun. The import of this narrative is that it was so easy to identify and nurture talents. The school was known in the provincial and regional games, we contributed athletes and footballers to regional and national teams. One of our students were on the high jump team to the Commonwealth games of 1966. A number of our students played for big clubs in Ibadan. When I went back to the school two years ago (to use the field for a funeral reception, what else?) the fields were knee length over grown with grass, the pavilion had collapsed, there were no lawn tennis, and certainly no cricket pitch. And this situation at Awe high school is typical. Worse, we have new schools, particularly the private schools that place very scant attention to sports. Some of them located on a plot of land have no sports field at all and there are no public spaces which they can use. That is the trajectory of growth in which our ruling class had pushed sports in the nation’s schools. And they expect Olympic medals by magic to satisfy their ego.
In most nations, the bulk of athletes come from their educational institutions. The schools are so provided for. A large number of the venues for the Atlanta Olympic were University campuses. One can imagine what building a N5 billion stadium in each of ten of Nigeria’s Universities in 1999 would have achieved instead of building a N50 billion stadium in Abuja. Such university stadia would have been put to full use for sporting activities for the thousands of students, the neighbouring schools and youths in the university towns, ground management training etc. It used to be that our educational institutions supplied the sports persons for our national teams. As the schools were collapsing, we shifted our gaze to the armed and para-armed forces. Then those institutions also became Kwashiorkored and we were left with foreign nations who give succour to our citizen athletes.
Confidence that medical care will be provided for sports person has a huge influence on sports development. The sports economy is huge and we should exploit it by inducing mass participation in sports. We should start industries for the production of vests, pants, socks, boots, balls, racquets, nets tables, gloves etc.
We can do all the delusional wishing that we want but there will be no change in our sports fortune until we appreciate that there is no quick fix to the sports problem, as we have it. The problem lies at the foundation level and we should be prepared to address these fundamental problems at the roots of the school system. It will be futile to be thinking of an increased medal haul in the Tokyo Olympic in four years time or even the next two Olympics. With proper planning and diligent implementation of a rescue plan, we should pin our hopes on four Olympics away. That is we should have a 12 to 16 year plan to obtain gains from a restored schools’ sports system. Before we begin to see the results of hard thinking and work at the Olympic, we would begin to see a more vibrant sports environment in the nation and at regional levels. To this end the following suggestions are offered. Governments must show more interest in sports in schools. This is beyond the regular generic cry of underfunding. There must be programmes of grounds developments, provision of facilities with date lines. This means that the governments must re-invigorate the sports section of their Ministries of Education. All private school proprietors must be compelled to have sports grounds or have access to public sports grounds that will be accessible to such schools that need them at all times they are required to have sport activities. Sporting activities must take place for a minimum number of hours in our schools. This must be encouraged and supervised by the relevant authorities in the ministries of education and sports. The traditional schools’ sports competition must be re-invigorated, including inter schools sports competitions at many levels from the provinces (local governments) to the states and the national. The likes of Thermogene Cup, IONIAN, Oyerinde competitions; Academicals must be rejuvenated. Community sports centres for various sports such as football, table tennis, lawn tennis, boxing swimming etc. should be created and made permanently active. The type of cooperation that existed in the Western Region of the 1960s between the education and sports authorities must be built.
Ancillary but very important recommendations are in the areas of sports medicine and sports industry. From provision of first aid boxes in the schools and centres to free expert medical treatment for sports injuries at our hospitals. Confidence that medical care will be provided for sports person has a huge influence on sports development. The sports economy is huge and we should exploit it by inducing mass participation in sports. We should start industries for the production of vests, pants, socks, boots, balls, racquets, nets tables, gloves etc. The governments should initiate these industries if the profit calculating private sector is lethargic. Sports development is too important to be left to such business calculations.
Poju Akinyanju, email@example.com, is a professor in the Department of Microbiology, University of Ilorin.