WHEN Blessing Okagbare lined up for the ladies’ 100 meters final, inside the Olympic Stadium in East London, last weekend, she carried the hopes of millions of Nigerians.
She was the athlete most likely to win a medal of any colour for Nigeria. Her build up to the Olympics was phenomenal; in the international athletics circuit she was making a habit of dusting the most-reknowned athletes from around the world.
In the preliminary round as well as the semi-final, she posted times, which showed consistency. Nigerians therefore dared to dream and believe; this was our moment in the sun, and Blessing Okagbare would help ignite the feel-good factor that Nigerians can rally around, in a season when there was so little going good in our country.
When the starter’s gun sounded, our dear Blessing got out of her starting block slower than the rest of the field and she couldn’t cope with the blistering pace of her fellow athletes. Poor Blessing came last and ended up as stunned as all her compatriots.
Yet, this is not a piece to blame the gorgeous and absolutely courageous lady. On the contrary! I think her story typifies the hardworking and committed individual who strives and achieves recognition, not because Nigeria created ambience for talent. The raised hope that became dashed, has stalked our sports in the past twenty years or so.
I recall that in the 100meters men finals at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, there were three Nigerians on the block, yet not one entered the medal zone. Our athletes were posting phenomenal times in the athletics circuit in the lead to the Olympics, because through that, they earned a livelihood, so by the time the Games came, and we all looked up to them to win medals for the country, they were already burned out! But who could blame them?
The sports bureaucracy is hopelessly corrupt; the systematic programme of development, which the late Chief Isaac Akioye elaborately prepared for our sports in the early 1970s, saw young athletes from all over Nigeria go through phases of conscious development, along with their education. That process laid the basis for Nigeria’s continental dominance in track and field; table tennis; lawn tennis and several other sports.
Undermining the system
Chief Akioye’s system, emphasised the deliberate development of a national sports infrastructure,but it was undermined by those determined to manipulate the Nigerian love for sports, to become fabulously rich. So in the context of the corruption associated with military dictatorship from the mid-1980s, a new set of sports administrators emerged and the emblematic representative is Amos Adamu.
Adamu bestrode our sports like a colossus, planting his cronies in the sports federations, while the essence of our sports turned to the entrenchment of a corrupt oligarchy, which became richer than the sports associations themselves. No more the development of our youth in a well-run process; they substituted with cheating, by fielding over-aged players in age-grade tournaments. For as long as Nigeria won dubiously, the nation strutted in delusion about its sporting prowess.
The corrupt sports administrators smiled to the bank, just as the leading Mafiosi, created a whole career in WAFU, CAF and FIFA. The man had the ambition to takeover from Issa Hayatou at CAF while his place in the corruption-infested world of FIFA was assured, until he fell for a sting operation set up by a London newspaper.
As they pursued personal enrichment (Amos Adamu became arguably, one of Nigeria’s richest civil servants!), Nigerian sportsmen and women became increasingly frustrated and many of our best talents shipped out to represent other countries around the world. Francis Obikwelu was perhaps the most famous of them all, becoming a representative of Portugal and European sprint champion. Others like Gloria Alozie, followed.
Sports is one of the greatest expressions of modernity and a veritable platform of creating a patriotic ethos among young people; but in Nigeria, it was hijacked by conmen and crooks and in the process, the nation lost the opportunity which well-organised sporting platforms can give a country: we couldn’t give our young people the avenue to strive or create dreams and achieve them; the business side of sports was underdeveloped, because the individuals creaming off our sports hold almost a monopoly control of the avenues of sports business.
It was head, Nigeria lost; tail, they won! This is the broad ambience within which our Olympics outing must be appreciated. It was a recipe for disaster!
Ngeria’s refusal to do the right thing or plan systematically within the cycles of sports ensures our regular failure in these major tournaments. Take one example. The young South African swimmer that defeated Michael Phelps in the 200meters Butterfly event was in a 6year development programme.
That was how long it took him to defeat the greatest Olympian of all time! Unless a miracle occurs, and we still have a few days to see such a miracle (and it will be most fitting for a country that feeds on religious frenzy; metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and other mind-bending, anti-science and irrational surrenders to superstition!), this might very well turn out to be our worst Olympics outing ever!
Such failure will be fitting epitaph to the state of our nation; its tragic deterioration in every field of human endeavor and the unacceptable propensity to kill dreams and lofty ambitions.
When Segun Odegbami wrote recently that all the great sprinters are from West Africa, he was referring to the genetic pool that links us with the Tyson Gays, Usain Bolts or AsafaPowells. It was a statement for the potentials locked away in our young people,but not allowed to flower.
The Olympics Games speak to the state of our country. Things are so desperately bad we cannot sustain the ambience which made even the Americans respect Nigerian sprinters, up to a few years ago. It is a reflection of how bad things are today, that we now go around the world collecting children born by Nigerians in other climes to represent us in tournaments.
Training withpublic funds
The entire starting line up of our Basketball team was born in the USA! Many of the parents of those young athletes were trained with public funds when Nigeria worked reasonably in the recent past, but out of frustration, many joined the Brain Drain! Corruption, irresponsibility; inability to sustain practices of excellence; shortsightedness; personal greed and a hopeless ruling class conspired to destroy the sporting architecture of Nigeria.
If we win anything at the London Olympics, then miracle has triumphed over systematic planning. Whichever way we look at it, it is still a national disaster. Of course, the poor athletes will return to despair and try to pick up the pieces of their ambitions.
As for the officials, they will unpack huge suitcases from weeks of shopping in London, as they await the next international sporting event through which they can fleece Nigeria, for the umpteenth time.Some noise will be made about the need to begin early preparations for the next Olympics, but not much will be done until the eve, when huge sums will be taken out for ‘preparation’. It is a vicious cycle left to fester, like gangrene, for so long!