Twelve years ago, Nigeria returned from the 2004 Olympics held in Athens with two bronze medals, performing worse than the three silver medals we won in Sydney in 2000 (although one of the silver medals was later upgraded to gold following the disqualification of the USA relay team for doping). As a columnist for the now rested NewAge newspaper, I wrote a critique of our performance and pointed to what needed to be done for better performance in future.
Twelve years and three Olympics after, the views I expressed in that piece entitled, “Medals are won not wished for”, still suffice for the postscript of the Rio Olympics 2016. I am reproducing my 2014 piece here with little or no editing. If we do not address some of these recurring problems, we may be back to another déjà vu in 2020:
“Two weeks ago, I begged to be woken up after the Olympic Games to take stock of the number of medals we did not win. This was against the background of the hope by Nigeria, as gingered by the country’s Director-General of the National Sports Commission, Patrick Ekeji, that we would win 10 gold medals at the Athens Games. Nigeria did not only fail to win the planned number of gold medals, but in fact, silver nor gold, it did not get. We only got two last-minute bronze medals for all our efforts.
How did we come about the idea of 10 gold medals in the first place? As mentioned above, it was all Ekeji’s ambitious idea, which we latched on to as a nation. Truth is that our hopes were not altogether unfounded, given that we placed first on the medals’ table at the last All Africa Games, the first time ever we were so lucky. And it was all in the frenzy of that success that Ekeji promised the 10 gold medals. Looking at the final medals’ table, it occurred to me that had the Nigerian dream of 10 gold medals come true, the country would have placed eighth on the table, ahead of Italy, Great Britain, Cuba and Ukraine that had nine gold medals each.
If only wishes were horses, we would be in jubilation mood by now. In fact, just before the closing of the games, Nigerian government would have sent another bloated team of officials to go and cheer the team up and return with the gallant athletes in grand style and march to Aso Rock for a presidential reception. Such a dream did not come true, and so here we are sulking in our disastrous outing.
Many Nigerians would agree that such a feat could have been too good to be true. This could have been so, not because we do not have the potential for being the eighth best sporting nation on earth. In fact, nothing says we cannot even rank higher than that. But there is this peculiarly Nigerian thing about being unable to harness our potential as a nation to attain success. And this is not only found in sports but in every other aspects of our national life – including political leadership. Nigeria after all, has one of the best arrays of sportsmen and women any country can boast of, yet we just cannot excel when it matters most. But when these same athletes go to other countries, they excel at the world stage. An example is Francis Obikwelu who now runs for Portugal. In fact, after Obikwelu’s silver medal win at Athens, the same Patrick Ekeji was quoted as saying that he would send a letter of congratulations to the Nigerian-born Portuguese medalist.
Ekeji himself has been reported by some media as saying after the Olympics that his promise of 10 gold medals was predicated on the fact that funds for the preparation of athletes for the games would be released early, not a couple months to the game as it happened. Well said. But the sports director cannot claim to have dropped from another planet so as not to know that in Nigeria, we never get ready early for anything. Some reports even quoted the man as saying that the promise of 10 medals was his personal target. Well, if it were, then the man failed personally. But one wonders what Ekeji means by personal target when he did not enter for any personal event, not even clapping.
Yet another excuse we have heard is that the sports administrators are blaming the corporate world for not donating enough funds for the country’s team to prepare for the event. Someone should please remind the sports administrators that the result we have seen is still not enough, compared with even the little they got from corporate sponsorship. And they should also know better as Nigerians that corporate Nigeria would rather invest in a presidential campaign than in participation in the Olympics, given the marked difference in the expected returns on investment accruable from each venture. One other question the sports administrators need to answer is how serious they expected any potential investor in sports development to hold them when, nearly one year after we hosted the All Africa Games, the final report and account are yet to be submitted.
Let truth be told, we cannot expect to wake up two months to a competition and go to harvest medals, unless every other country was also asleep within that period. And this has nothing to do with the quality of athletes we parade. It was only about two months to the games that Nigeria released its list of participants for the Athens games. Yet, four years ago, after the Sydney Olympics, where we won two silver medals, we promised that the preparations for the Athens Olympics would start immediately. It did start immediately, four years later. Soon, we will be hearing such statements again from the sports authorities of how we are going to start planning for Beijing 2008 right away.
What nature of training did we give to our athletes before the Olympic Games? For the boxers, we sent them to Cuba to train, but as reports indicated afterwards, the boxers were camped in a local hotel in that country where they had no professional training. In fact, according to Jerry Okorodudu, who was on the coaching crew to Cuba, but was dropped for the Athens event, the boxers had no sparring partners during the training. The result was the resort to inviting some locals (something like our own area boys) to train with. Could such training have guaranteed the country any medals in boxing? Was the cost of travelling to Cuba worth it in the first place?
Perhaps the greatest undoing to our performance in international sporting events is the dearth of sporting facilities in the country. Time was in this country when a typical public secondary school had a standard football field, a basketball court, pitches for handball, volleyball, hockey, cricket etc. There were also kits for playing those games. Today, with sports development no longer given due importance, many of those sports fields have been taken up by new classroom blocks to cater for the overpopulation of students in the schools. Even in residential estates, open spaces and parks that served for sporting activities, have all been sold off by crooked government officials to big men for construction of private houses.
School sports festivals that were a regular event in local government areas and state levels as well as the national levels are hardly heard of these days. And if they still exist, they would most certainly be mired in such controversies as age cheats and the use of mercenaries, just like what happens at the now rejuvenated national sports festival, where states are more satisfied with poaching ready-made athletes just to win medals at the games.