The 2016 Rio Olympics have come and gone, but its memories certainly linger on. For some athletes as well as countries, 2016 Olympics is a moment to savour for a long time. For instance, it was at the Rio Games that the 31-year-old United States of America’s phenomenal swimmer, Michael Phelps, became the greatest Olympian ever. Phelps notched up an incredible five gold and one silver at the Rio Games to bring his total medal haul to 28 over the course of four Olympics from Athens 2004 to Rio 2016. Of the 28 medals Phelps has won, 23 are gold. Only 37 countries have taken home more medals than him in Olympics’ history! Phelps’s compatriots and Olympic veteran, Anthony Ervin, equally created an Olympic record when he became the oldest athlete to strike gold at the Olympics at the age of 35 years and 78 days.
Similarly, for South African sensational sprinter, Wayde van Niekerk, who smashed American Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old Olympic record in the 400 metres race with a sensational time of 43.03 seconds, Rio 2016 Olympics would remain a watershed.
It is, however, for Jamaican track legend, Usain Bolt, that the Rio 2016 Games would remain evergreen. Since he burst into global reckoning courtesy his celebrated world record wonders in the 100 metres race at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Bolt has grown to become a sprint phenomenon. His Olympics record is, to say the least, awesome: three Olympics, three gold medals in each of the three races he competed for; a world record over 100m, a world record over 200m, a world record in the sprint relay. Not only has Bolt created Olympic and athletics records, he has equally redeemed the sport from its numerous doping scandals.
However, while many individuals and nations are still savouring the joy of victory at the Rio Olympics, for our dear nation, the story remains the same. When our team went to Rio, Nigerians had little expectation and were, thus, not quite disappointed at the outcome. Well, many have said that our performance at Rio is a step forward when compared to London 2012 when we won absolutely nothing. At least, we won a bronze medal at Rio, courtesy of the U23 Men Football team. But then, of what substance is a bronze medal to a country of over 140 million people with many hidden and budding sporting talents?
While Fiji, a country with a population less than that of Lagos, won gold medal at the Rio Games, Nigeria, the “giant” of Africa, could only make do with a “golden” bronze medal. It is a shame that with a population in excess of 140 million, we couldn’t raise a formidable team to participate in events such as swimming, handball, wrestling, volleyball, and hockey among others. To further reinforce the sorry state of sports in the country, our male basketball team, D’ Tigers, was fully made up of Nigerians in the Diaspora. It was obvious at the Games that our athletes lacked the technical expertise required to excel at the world stage. Poor athletes! In as much as they desired to succeed, it is evident that desires alone cannot bring success at that level.
How did we travel this path of systematic and systemic disintegration in the sporting scene? How come we could not consolidate on past successes achieved in the sector? How come a country that used to produce world class athletes now parades average sportsmen? Where and how did we get it wrong?
Like it is the case in other sectors, our passage to extinction, and not distinction, in the sporting field did not just begin in a day. It started when we decided to allow sporting facilities across the country to waste away. The National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos which once used to be the symbol of the country’s sporting excellence, is today in a very sorry state . The Obafemi Awolowo Stadium, Ibadan, has also lost its glory to years of neglect. This depressing tale is not different across the country. The result is the waning status of sports in the country as our athletes no longer have access to required training facilities. This is why, in recent times, some of our most talented athletes opt to represent other countries where access to world-class facilities is limitless. At the London 2012 Olympics, for instance, 16 medals were won by Nigerians who represented other countries. How do you raise a generation of new athletes without creating the enabling environment? That is the tragedy that has befallen the country’s sporting prospect.
The unenviable state of sports in the country is further aggravated by the attitude of successive Federal Governments to sports, especially in the last 15 years when we have had over 13 sports ministers when South Africa has had only one in the past eight years. The situation is not helped by the calibre of personalities that have been sports ministers as it is obvious most of them are not really passionate about sports. To most of them, the position is just another platform to feather their political nests. How wrong! Sport is a passionate project. It is something that comes from the heart. It can only thrive in an environment where it is being driven by professional, competent and passionate administrators.
The continual neglect of sports in the grassroots is equally a strong factor in the abysmal state of sports in the country today. All over the world, the bulk of those who take to sports are grassroots people who see sports as a possible way of escape from the ravaging grip of poverty. Ajegunle, a prominent Lagos masses slum, is renowned to be a famous breeding ground of potential athletes in the country. A reasonable number of Nigerian most successful sporting individuals were discovered in Ajegunle. You can imagine how many Ajegunles exist across the country with many budding talents wasting away.
Similarly, the abandonment of school sports is equally accountable for the poor shape of sports in the country. Today, most schools in the country do not have space for games and sports. The glorious days of sports in Nigeria witnessed the discovery of budding talents from school sporting competitions such as NUGA, Principal Cup, and Manuwa Adebajo Football Championships among others.
A vast majority of states in the country have not helped matter either. In their bid to ‘do well’ in the National Sports Festival, most of them resort to snapping up athletes that have been groomed over the years by other states. This is a wrong approach.
If we are to offer the teeming youth in the country an opportunity to fulfill their God given potential, we must change our attitude to sports. The private sector needs to be encouraged to take more active part in sports. All over the world, the initiatives and funds that drive sports come from the private sector. With the needed private sector drive, moribund school sports competitions across the country could be resuscitated.
Ogunbiyi wrote in from Ikeja, Lagos