Restoring The Lost Glory Of Sports In Nigeria —Tayo Ogunbiyi


Nigeria first participated at the Olympic Games in 1952, and has since sent athletes to compete in all Summer Olympic Games, except for the boycotted 1976 Summer Olympics. Till date, Nigerian athletes have won a total of 23 medals at the Olympic Games with a substantial part coming from athletics and boxing. Perhaps, the peak of the country’s success in the Olympic Games was in 1996 when the national U-23 football team won the gold medal in the soccer event at the Games held in Atlanta.

However, like every other sector in the country, the nation is currently experiencing a declining fortune in the sporting arena. It is sad that a country that once produced great boxers such as Dick Tiger, Obisa Nwakpa, Jeremiah Okorodudu, to mention just a few has failed to produce enduring champions in the various categories of the sport in recent times.

In athletics the story is the same. With the exit of great talents such as Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali, Chidi Imoh, Sunday Bada, Falilat Ogunkoya among others, it is depressing to note that Nigeria is yet to produce equally talented world class athletes in recent times. Same goes for football. There was a time when Nigerian footballers were the toasts of the soccer world. Then, we used to have up to six nominees among the ten footballers usually nominated for the annual African Footballer of the Year Award. Indeed, the high point of the country’s dominance in African football was when Rashidi Yekini, Emmanuel Amuneke, Victor Ikpeba and Kanu Nwankwo won the title in successive order. Other sports such as lawn tennis, table tennis, wrestling, volley ball, basketball, etc. are not exempted from the rot that currently pervades the nation’s sporting landscape.

How did we travel this path of systematic disintegration in the sporting scene? How come we could not consolidate on past successes achieved in the sector? Why is a country that used to produce world class athletes now parade average ones? Like the story of the degeneration of other segments of the country, our passage to extinction in the sporting field did not just begin in a day. It started when we decided to allow sporting facilities across the country to waste away. The National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos which once used to be the symbol of the country’s sporting excellence, is today in a very sorry state. The Liberty Stadium at Ibadan, now Obafemi Awolowo Stadium, has also lost its glory to years of neglect. This depressing tale is not different across the country. The decay of sporting infrastructure in the country is partly responsible for the waning status of sports in the country as our sportsmen and women no longer have access to the good training facilities. This is why, in recent times, some of our most talented sportsmen opt to represent other countries where access to world-class facilities is limitless. How do you raise a generation of new athletes without creating the enabling environment? That is the tragedy that has befallen the country’s sporting prospect.

The unenviable condition of sports in the country has been further aggravated by attitude of successive federal administrations to it, especially in the last twelve years. This is reinforced by the fact that in the last twelve years, the country has had no less than ten sports ministers. The situation is not helped by the calibre of characters that have been sports ministers as it is obvious most of them were not passionate about sports. To them, the position was just another platform to feather their political nests. How wrong! Sport is a passionate project. It is something that comes from the heart. It can only thrive in an environment where it is driven by professional, competent and passionate administrators.

The continual neglect of sports at the grassroots is equally a strong factor in the abysmal state of sports in the country today. All over the world, the bulk of those who take to sports are grassroots people who see sports as a possible way of escape from the ravaging grip of poverty. Ajegunle, a prominent Lagos masses suburb, is renowned to be a famous breeding ground of potential athletes in the country. A reasonable number of Nigeria’s most successful sporting individuals were discovered in Ajegunle. You can imagine how many Ajegunles exist across the country and how many budding sporting talents in such places are wasting away as a result of lack of exposure. Similarly, the abandonment of school sports is equally accountable for the poor shape of sports in the country. Today, most schools in the country do not have space for games and sports. The private schools are more culpable in this respect as they use every available space to construct class rooms. Gone are the days when quality attention was given to school sports. The glorious days of sports in Nigeria witnessed the discovery of budding talents from school sporting competitions such as NUGA, Principal Cup, Manuwa Adebajo Soccer Championships among others.

A vast majority of states in the country have not helped matters either. In their bid to ‘do well’ in the National Sports Festival, most of them resort to snapping up athletes that have been groomed over the years by other states. This is a wrong approach. It is like cutting corner to success. Although they are getting the needed results now, the fruits of such results don’t last.

If we are to offer the teeming youth in the country an opportunity to fulfill their God given potentials, we must change our attitude to sports. If we could go as far as the World Bank to get a tested professional to manage the Ministry of Finance, then we need a thorough bred sport personality – someone whose whole essence revolves around sports- to take charge of the Sports Ministry. Equally, a complete overhaul of all sporting facilities in the country is needed. Since it seems those saddled with overseeing the nation’s prime sporting facilities are overwhelmed with the enormity of the responsibility, government can resort to the PPP model. Similarly, the private sector needs to take more active part in the project to restore the nation’s lost glory in sports. All over the world, the initiatives and funds that drive sports come from the private sector. With the needed private sector drive, moribund school sports competitions across the country could be resuscitated.

Finally, governments across the country should focus on sports development at the grassroots. Lagos State is leading in this regard with the recently inaugurated Lagos State Sports Endowment Fund which is geared at taking sports to all parts of the state. The state government has also resuscitated competitions such as the Principals’ Cup among secondary schools, the School Sports Festival, the State Sport Festival, the U-13 Soccer Championship, the U-15 Swimming Competition, Governor’s Cup, the International Squash Racket Competition, MTN Street Soccer, Oba Cup, among others. Additionally, it has embarked on sports and recreational infrastructure development which has transformed the popular Campos Square in Lagos Island into a mini stadium with a sitting capacity of 5,000, multi-purpose hall for all outdoor court games, FIFA Star 2 Artificial Turf, and administrative offices/equipment stores as well as turning the Agege Stadium into a sporting facility with a FIFA standard playing turf and a sitting capacity of 15,000. It is only in doing this that we can discover new sports heroes and tackle the twin issues of job creation and youth restiveness in the country.

•Ogunbiyi writes from Lagos


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