•‘We’re tired of begging for food’
The XXI Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, has come and gone, with all the athletes that made up the Nigeria contingent smiling to the bank.
Gold medalists were instantly rewarded with $5,000, $3,000 for silver and $2,000 for bronze medal winners. The athletes were also paid training grants and camp allowances in what many of the athletes described as a bountiful harvest, courtesy of the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
While these athletes are counting their blessings and smiling to the bank, there are other athletes scattered across the country who have remained in penury, owing to the epileptic nature of the National Sports Festival, the major platform to showcase their athletic prowess in Nigeria.
Though the athletes who are yet to make it to the national teams rejoice with those that just returned from Gold Coast, deep in their hearts and at their quite times they wail in silence asking when the National Sports Festival would hold. According to them, the postponements the festival has suffered have affected them. In fact, they say they are being turned to beggars because, having trained over the years, without any competition, they cannot earn money from their respective states.
On February 15, 2018, news of the 19th National Sports Festival holding in Abuja in November hit the airwaves. That day, at the Council of Sports meeting held in Kaduna, the decision to withdraw the hosting rights granted Cross River State back in 2012 was signed, sealed and delivered.
For most athletes, the news was received with mixed feelings, as this was not the first time they would hear that the festival would hold, having witnessed several shifts in date since 2012.
Promises without end
In January 2017, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Solomon Dalung, said that the National Sports Festival (NSF), the country’s biennial multi-sports competition organised by the Federal Government, would hold. The minister had made the disclosure in Makurdi, Benue State, at a forum with the executive council of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN), Benue State chapter.
He had said that budgetary allocation for the hosting of the festival was made and approved for 2017.
The minister noted that the event was also important for Nigeria’s preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. By June 2017, the song had changed as postponement stared the nation in the face due to paucity of funds to bankroll the biennial event.
Dalung, it was gathered, gave the indication during a visit to the headquarters of Media Trust Limited; he said the proposal for the fiesta, which was included in the 2017 budget, had been removed.
“The total budget of the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports is N7.7 billion, and out of this the Nigeria Football Federation’s budget for the World Cup qualifiers and participation alone is N6.8 billion. So, unless there is intervention from somewhere, the National Sports Festival will not hold this year (2017),” Dalung was quoted to have said.
However, after the meeting in Kaduna, Nneka Anibeze, spokesperson for the sports minister, noted that, having postponed the 19th National Sports Festival for six years, the council resolved that the continued delay of the festival was detrimental to the growth of sports: “It, therefore, withdrew the hosting rights from Cross River State while the Federal Government will hold the 2018 edition in Abuja in November.”
The statement by the minister’s aide sounded the same to the athletes. Six years down the line, what the athletes have heard has been that facilities for the festival have reached an advanced stage in Calabar and then talks about financing being a major issue had forced several postponements.
While the news that the sports ministry would now host the 19th edition of the festival in Abuja might have come as a relief, many athletes and coaches still have their doubts about the fulfilment of the promise by Dalung.
At the Eko 2012 games, shortly after the trophy was handed over to the overall winner, Delta State, the Flag of Unity was presented to the Cross River State government that was to host the 19th edition of the festival in 2014 in Calabar.
The chairman of Eko 2012 festival, Adejoke Adefulire, who was also the Deputy Governor of Lagos State then, handed the flag to Governor Babatunde Fashola, who passed it to the director-general of the National Sports Commission, Patrick Ekeji, who finally presented it to Patrick Ugbe, the Cross River State commissioner for sports at that time.
Stakeholders, reacting to the long delays, are of the view that sports development has been relegated to the background. Kayode Balogun, a basketball player, described the situation as a big minus for sports.
“The long delay that we have witnessed with regards to the National Sports Festival is a minus for our sports. As it is presently, the athletes no longer have anything to look forward to.
“Government has announced Abuja as host for the festival in November. We’ve heard such statements in the past but government should put action to it. There are lots of talents wasting away as a result of the NSF not holding simply because there is no avenue for them to showcase themselves. Sports remain the only unifying factor available to us as a country,” he said.
Cajethan Ekejiuba, CEO of CJ Sports, Lagos, observed that the postponements the NSF has suffered has affected business and left the National Stadium without activities: “Business has been dull owing to the festival not holding when it should. For those of us who deal in sports wears and equipment, state governments patronize us, thus keeping us in business. Those who used to buy from us no longer do so. I urge government to keep to its words of the festival holding in November so that athletes, coaches as well as state sports officials would help our business.”
Philip Obed, coach of Circle Football Club, aspiring LAFA League aspirants, simply described the situation as frustrating: “Athletes who train daily are being frustrated because they don’t have anything to look up to. As a coach, even when you train the players, they find it difficult to understand you because they do see anything to aim at.”
For Coach Bello Nasiru (Alakoro), chief coach of the Nigerian table tennis team, the effect of the festival not holding is that young talents remain hidden, especially as it affects the para athletes.
“The festival helps coaches to develop hidden talents in the villages and those who have finished school to enable them have employment through the states.
“In fact, some of the athletes are beginning to veer off from sports to other areas of life. When the festival holds, state sports councils give contract employment to the athletes. When the festival has a definite date, athletes get busy and focused because they know that they would earn a living competing at the festival.
“On the part of coaches, the festival helps us to work harder in discovering and grooming athletes and by so doing keep them off the streets,” he said.
Seun Ogundare, a para-table tennis athlete for Team Rivers, said that the National Sports Festival is a way to develop athletes.
Ogundare said: “Nigeria’s performance at international events has dropped because there are no new athletes to give them a run for their positions in the national teams. The NSF is our own Olympics, where athletes realise their dreams. If we don’t compete, we don’t get paid. We’re tired of begging when we can compete and earn a living.”
Para-table tennis coach, Pius Asaba, was of the view that the NSF was the only platform available to home-based talents.
“It’s only through the NSF that talents are discovered and they are the ones that would compete well against the foreign-based athletes. Let us not forget that a majority of the laurels Nigeria has won came from para-athletes and that is why it is important that the festival holds for more talents to be discovered,” he said.
Imo State basketball coach, Angela Nzekwe, while reacting to the delays that have bedevilled the festival since 2012, pointed out that it has sounded the death knell for sports in the country.
“It is only through the festival that young talents are discovered for our various national teams. The current practice where athletes are just picked for national team assignments is not healthy for the growth of sports. What obtains now does not give room for the best talents to be given the opportunity to compete against others who may be established.
“That the festival has not held since 2012 is very discouraging for those of us who are coaches at the grassroot level. The athletes we nurture do not have anything to look forward to and we can’t see them compete against others. So, how do we evaluate our work with these young athletes?
“The Federal Government should act fast and revive the National Sports Festival. It is not enough to say it would hold in November, but ensuring that it happens. The festival is the only way real talents are discovered. People may say there is the National Youth Games but, as good as it looks, it is not a replacement for the NSF. I hope that the Abuja National Stadium would be ready for the festival,” she said.