Monday, August 15, 2016

Are we watching the Olympics?

As answer to my own question, I would be saying a yes and a no, that I am actually watching the Olympic Games. A yes because the only times wherein I have had to watch other countries compete and showcase how much they have invested in their people is when I manage to buy fuel to power my generator. That in itself is a curse on the very idea of governance. And no, I am not really watching the Olympic Games. Like any Nigerian, I go out daily to eke a living and I cannot be eking that living and spending time watching how other people spend monies for the development of their human capital. But in some offices, there are television sets and every once in a while, you get to see snippets of an Olympic performance here or there. These things invigorate one sometimes. In spite of this however, I know that for most governments that have invested in their human capital, they would abandon their ‘work’ and be glued to their television sets because this is a time to reap the rich harvests of respect, prestige and honour which even a bronze medal can bring.

It was not always this bad in Nigerian sports, especially with what I experienced as a kid in the old Bendel State (and under military governments). Every day from Monday to Saturday, the Ogbe Stadium was usually a mecca for sport and sporting activity. If you were around then as a boy, there was nowhere else you would rather be in Benin City than the Ogbe Stadium. All the sports had coaches and all the coaches had budding sportsmen and women under their charge. Life bubbled with intense sporting activity. I remember that the Ogbe Hard Court, and the Swimming Section and best of all, the Athletic sections all had near-state of the art facilities. I remember my Hockey Coach, Coach Osunde, and I remember how he invested so much time and energy in training us.  It is to my eternal shame that I didn’t take up the sport. Rather, I preferred the combat sports – judo, karate and weightlifting – sports which I still enjoy today, and which left me a combat-ready person physically and otherwise. In those days as well, we had the YSFON – the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria, where schools and local football clubs locked horns in friendly duels – does anyone out there remember SAMCO and SAMPHY stars in Benin at that time, and how at one time nearly every member of the national football team would come from the New Nigerian Bank, Bendel Insurance or Enugu Rangers?

As a matter of fact, so great was the interest in sports then that Bendel State usually was the state to beat in the annual National Sports Festivals. The fillip for us then was if the Olympics were being held prior to the National Sports Festivals, you would find those who had watched one event would often try to be visiting the stadium to try to practice what they’d seen on telly. It was from these events that certain Nigerian names like – Charlton Ehizeuelen, Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Jeremiah Okorodudu, Nduka Odizor, David Izonritei, and many others pop up.  My younger brother began to do those gymnastics flips so much on our streets to the extent that he caught the interest of the head Coach of the Bendel State sports council then.

Therefore, there are many young people watching the Olympics today. Most will want to go to a place where their potentials can be harnessed for both personal and national glory. But are there any of those facilities close by? Where are the stadia? Where are the coaches? Is there any arrangement on ground for our sportsmen and women? If you look closely at the people who have competed, and who will compete against us, you will just find out that many of them are our people. They have Nigerians names and surnames. Two very good examples are Francis Obikwelu and Gloria Alozie. Just after the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games both Nigerian athletes promptly dumped Nigeria and adopted Portugal and Spain respectively. Before they did, they had very impressive unbroken records – Obikwelu was world number two while Alozie had a 12.44 record in hurdles.

What happened to the duo? According to Obikwelu, he came down with a knee injury which he reported to the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN. But he alleged that they ignored him. With personal funds, he undertook surgery for that knee with which he runs for Nigeria, and after he recovered from that surgery, he approached the AFN again, perhaps for a reimbursement. Yes and indeed, monies were released for the surgery but no one knew what happened to the budgeted monies. After he dumped Nigeria and began running for Spain, he clinched a silver medal for Portugal. I remember then how awkward it was for the Sports minister, and for Nigeria - were we going to eat the humble pie and admit we made a terrible blunder with him?  Even though Gloria Alozie later said she regretted dumping her country by taking up Spanish citizenship, her reason for registering with a youth centre in Valencia which took her very seriously cannot be different from what is happening today.

What then is happening today? It’s all in the news and the world is wondering at what the hell is wrong with us. Most of the athletes representing us today have not passed through a very rigorous 4-year programme of preparation for the Rio Games. Nothing seems to be on ground. And I think that this is because there is a big deficit in what we think constitutes greatness and national pride. But note my fellow countrymen and women: the days where oil translates to wealth are over. In a manner of speaking, the oil is running dry. It is what we have done with that oil wealth that should matter. A certain famous Nigerian scientist once said that those who will rule the world tomorrow are not those who have the guns and the oil but those with information and the knowledge. Other seemingly obscure and ‘small’ countries like Georgia, Kazarstan, Ukraine are competing on the same turf with the US, UK, France, China, Japan and Germany. Where is Nigeria? Where are her young people who truly are the strong arm of this great nation?  

Let’s try and realize quickly that today, most countries market and package their potentials through sport. The perception we get from winning medals is that we have made useful investments in the growth and development of our human capital and this translates to the trust and confidence with which the international community then invests in our programmes and policies.  And the sooner we begin to take stock of our failures from what we are watching from the Rio Olympics, and begin to invest in our young people the better for Nigeria.