There used to be a time when Nigerian athletes made history at the All-Africa Games, the Commonwealth Games and, to a certain extent, the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, those breath-taking performances have not been repeated or consistently upheld and sustained. The Tokyo Olympic Games has exposed the extent to which sports development has declined in Nigeria.
At the end of the games, Nigeria managed to win one silver and one bronze medal. Consider the names of countries that received at least one gold medal, which Nigeria could not achieve. Countries such as Bermuda, Estonia, Fiji, Latvia, Puerto Rico and others won a gold medal and/or silver and bronze.
What happened to Nigeria, a country once respected in Africa and elsewhere as a nation of high achievers in sports? Many of the countries that received gold cannot genuinely match Nigeria in terms of economic resources, population size, and military might. Unfortunately, these elements are not accurate benchmarks for determining a country’s strength in sports. Australia has a population of under 26 million people and yet it won 17 gold, seven silver and 22 bronze medals, taking outright sixth position.
The Tokyo Games was not the first time Nigeria participated in an Olympic Games and came out nearly empty-handed. At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Nigerian sports representatives came out with no medals but with plenty of scandals. Similarly, at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea, Nigerian sportswomen, men, and team officials damaged their names through involvement in scandals of sorts. And in the most recent Tokyo Games, some Nigerian athletes were banned for testing positive for drugs, and for failing to make themselves available for out-of-competition tests. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, two Nigerian athletes returned positive drug tests.
History shows that countries that lead in global sports learn from their own experiences and the adversities of other nations. Unfortunately, Nigeria has refused to learn from its history of poor performances and scandals.
Nigeria’s first participation at the Olympics was at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland, but it was at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, that Nigeria began to make a mark in athletics, when Karimu A. Babatunde Olowu was just four inches away from winning a bronze medal in the long jump but was edged out by Finland’s Jorma Valkama with the last jump.
Nigeria did not win its first Olympic medal until 1964 in Tokyo when Nojeem Maiyegun won bronze in boxing. Forty-two years after K.A.B. Olowu’s narrow miss, Nigeria won its first individual medal in athletics when Falilat Ogunkoya won the 400 metres bronze medal in 49.10 seconds, days before her compatriot Chioma Ajunwa won the women’s long jump gold with her first attempt, a leap of 7.12 metres. Ajunwa thus became the first Nigerian to win an Olympic gold medal in any sport. At 1.60 metres tall (5 feet 3 inches), she was also the shortest and smallest athlete in the competition. Atlanta 1996 was clearly Nigeria’s best showing at the Olympics, with six medals, two gold, one silver, and three bronze.
Previously, Nigeria’s participation in international sports was blemished by sordid cases of sex scandals, illegal withholding and misappropriation of allowances meant for feeding, transportation and sustenance of sportsmen and women, lack of training opportunities, improper selection of sports representatives, as well as baffling inclusion of a large contingent of sports officials as members of the delegation.
It is important that sports representatives should receive on-time payment of allowances and entitlements, if we expect to keep their morale and motivation high, and if we expect them to put in their best efforts. Athletes expect to be exposed to the best training and preparation available ahead of every Olympic Games. Money budgeted for the training and development of sportsmen and women must be utilised in meaningful and productive ways.
In his analysis of Nigeria’s awful performance during the 2012 London Olympic Games, then Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, wrote in The Guardian of Sunday, August 12, 2012: “… as the competition drew to a close, Team Nigeria is still not on the medals table. I must say this is as disappointing for my team and myself as it is for all Nigerians everywhere. But even as painful as this disappointment is, we must have the courage to see it for what it is. This, therefore, is a scientific diagnosis of our condition; a clear testimony to how far our sports have fallen behind…Rather than see this as a failure, we must see it as an opportunity to rebuild. When other countries have found themselves in this kind of situation in the past, they have used the galvanizing power of disappointment to get down to work.”
This analysis contained some truth but not all the truth. It lacked practical implementation strategies. Nigeria has not been able to utilise its failures as motivation to prepare, train and excel in future competitions. Rather than build on its disastrous achievement record, Nigeria has sunk deeper in international sporting competitions, as if it is committed to plunging deep into the bottom of the dark valley.
If I had not heard former sports ministers voice similar pledges to take Nigerian sportsmen and women to a higher plane of sporting excellence, I would have hailed Abdullahi. But I cannot believe Abdullahi because we have a history of paying no attention to our past failures at the Olympic Games. Three years from now, when we assemble our sports representatives in Paris, France, for the 2024 Olympic Games, we will hear the sports minister grumble about the woeful performance of our sportsmen and women. That sports minister would promise radical changes to the way Nigeria trains and prepares its sports representatives.
While other countries are recording major successes, Nigeria has progressively faded in global sports. The sportsmen and women who represent Nigeria at the Olympics are self-driven. They sacrifice their personal time, their resources and their energy. They receive little or no support from government. They are not offered training opportunities that are accorded to their counterparts in other countries. They are not encouraged as other countries advance the interests of their own sportspeople.
How do we expect self-funded, self-directed, wretched-looking sportspeople to find the funds, the motivation, the energy, the encouragement and the pride to represent Nigeria, a country that deprived them of their rights, their entitlements and opportunities for future development in international sports? The least the Nigerian government can do for our sportspeople is to offer them training and financial support.
In the Olympic Games, early preparation is an indicator of how every team would perform. Without preparing our sportspeople for the Tokyo Olympic Games, we have no right to expect medals of any colour.
During the 2012 London Olympics, the then sports minister Bolaji Abdullahi alluded to this fact when he admitted: “We have relied so much on luck and prayers to win some medals at previous international competitions. I don’t think this is proper … Medals are won by those who work hard, not those who prayed the most.”
If prayer is the magic formula a country needs to excel at the Olympic Games, there would be no need to hire trainers, coaches and managers, and no government would finance the acquisition or construction of training facilities and sports equipment. Indeed, if prayer is all we need to attain high honour during the Olympics, we could easily put together a Team Nigeria that consists of pastors, Imams, bishops and archbishops to represent us during the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. We have an oversupply of these men and women.