With the end of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and with just one bronze medal to show for it, there is sound reason for everyone to be disappointed with the performance of Nigerian sports representatives at the Games, including the disgraceful behaviour of sports ministry officials. Optimists might look at the performance and say the country performed better than it did at the 2012 London Olympic Games. That might be a logical argument if we judge a country’s performance on the basis that it moved from a position of no medals in London to just one bronze medal in Rio four years later.
I am not persuaded that Nigeria should beat its chest publicly to celebrate the one bronze medal it received in Rio. Four years is time enough for Nigeria to aim to improve significantly at the Rio Games on the back of a disappointing performance in London. We went to Rio, hoping to do better even though the athletes received little or no training, little or no funding support, as well as little or no facilities. Add to this mix the deplorable attitude of our multitude of sports ministry officials who went to Rio, you could say that anyone who expected Nigerian sportsmen and women to win any medal at all in Rio must be patriotic to a fault.
In international competitive sports, those who train hard and long enough tend to get rewarded during Olympic Games. Unlike Nigeria, high achieving countries have a systematic training programme that identifies young and upcoming athletes and provide the necessary facilities (training, funds, equipment, etc.) to assist the sports representatives to rise to a level where they are able to compete successfully with athletes from other countries.
Sports is not something you leave to luck. It is not something you leave till the last minute and hope to cover the grounds that ought to have been covered years ago. It pains me whenever I see countries that are small in terms of population, winning medals at the Olympic Games while Nigeria that has a population of more than 160 million people achieves nothing. How could we explain that a country that likes to be known as the continental leader came out of the 15-day Rio Olympic Games with one miserable bronze medal. It could have been worse, a friend reminded me the other day, if not for the exceptional performance of the soccer team – Dream Team VI – that overpowered Honduras to win that memorable bronze medal. As I commented elsewhere, that bronze felt like gold because we could easily have come out of the Games empty handed.
If we are serious about sports, now is the time to sack officials who failed to do what they were expected to do. Now is the time to sack officials who withheld funds meant to support our sportsmen and women. Now is the time to sack officials who failed to provide training and facilities to help our athletes to achieve their personal best, their personal objectives, and the nation’s objectives in sport. Something must be done now to end Nigeria’s disgraceful performance in international sports. What other evidence do we need to draw up a strict policy of improvement in sports? The target date to test whether we are serious or unserious in sport development is the Tokyo Games in 2020.
A thorough analysis of the performance of our sportsmen and women at the Olympic Games and other international events must start by looking at the historical roots of the problems we have had in sports, including how sports officials undermine the efforts of athletes. Nigerian sports officials are self-centred. They listen and act only when they see an opportunity to enrich themselves. They are unaffected by criticisms or advice by professional sportsmen and women.
We must also include in the analysis of our poor performance in sports the nonchalant attitude by government officials who should work to develop sports across all ages and genders. The Federal Government and all agencies and ministries that are supposed to assist in the development of sports are unaware that the country can actually win international respect through high achievement in sports. No one in government seems to understand that there is a valid link between a country’s achievement in sports and its international image as well as its level of economic development.
Nigerian sports ministry and football federation officials behave like the well-known three monkeys that opt to see nothing, hear nothing, and say nothing. Unfortunately, these are the same officials who have that weird ability to be delusional because they expect to reap where they do not sow; they expect our untrained and unfunded sportsmen and women to move mountains during the Olympic Games.
The next point is well known and repetitive but it is worth repeating. One of the major problems that have continued to disrupt or weaken the performance of our sportsmen and women is that they are not exposed to proper training well in advance of major international sport competitions. Nigerian sports officials are so laid back in their attitude to sports competitions. They see no value in training the athletes. They do not believe the athletes deserve to be funded and supported. They have that idiotic preference for last minute fire-fighting approach to participation in international sports competition. Anyhow you look at the problem with our sports, you will see it is a disaster everywhere.
A group of nonchalant sports officials and sportsmen and women who are not supported or motivated is a deadly mix. At the end of every major international sports competition, Nigerian sports officials trade blames with sportsmen and women over who failed to do what, when, where and why. It is such a frustrating experience for athletes.
President Muhammadu Buhari may not be a well-known sports enthusiast but he must stand up to do something to arrest the ongoing slide in sports. Government must undertake an all-inclusive evaluation of the performance of Nigerian sportsmen and women. Without this critical appraisal, it will be business as usual in the sports ministry, in the football federation, and our sportsmen and women will continue to humiliate us at the Olympic Games and other international sports events.
There have always been allegations of sabotage and non-payment of allowances to sportsmen and women. Government must identify the sources of these problems and deal with them forcefully. For too long, the nation has been regaled by tales of unacceptable conduct by sports officials. Those stories have dominated the Nigerian camp in major sports events. Rather than be motivated by failure in international sports, our officials and sports representatives seem determined to put up their worst behaviour.
I hate to see our sportsmen and women attend international sports meetings merely to show their presence. The aim should be to win. But that is not the case. There is no joy in watching our sportsmen and women perform dismally at the Olympic Games. It is depressing. The more we watch, the more upset we become.
If there must be some kind of commitment to, and accountability in, Nigerian sports, government administrators and sports officials must lift their performance in the same way we expect our sportsmen and women to improve with support and training provided by government. Sportsmen and women who receive federal funds and training should deliver when the time comes. Funding and sponsorships are like any other investment. The government or any other investor has the right to expect good results from athletes. However, government has not been investing sufficiently to develop our sportsmen and women. Nigeria, the sleeping African elephant, has slept for too long. It is time the government did something and quickly to reverse the trend.