Minister of Sports/Chairman National Sports Commission, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, has revealed that subsequent editions of the National Sports Festival open to all Nigerian athletes at home and in the Diaspora. He told DURO IKHAZUAGBE why his decision will add value to the festival gradually sliding into a glorified inter-house sports.
In your speech at the opening ceremony of the ongoing 18th National Sports Festival here in Lagos, you said that the time has come to open up the festival to all Nigerian athletes. What informed that decision when part of the objectives of initiating the festival is to discover talents?
After our outing at the London Olympic Games, I told the media that the National Sports Festival to be hosted by Lagos will serve as platform to be used to discover new talents to be groomed to represent Nigeria at the next Olympics in four years time. The aim of the festival since inception in 1973 is to discover talents and serve as a platform for unity of all Nigerians but right now it is serving that purpose in a limited way. This is so because most of those coming to the festival are either first timers or athletes who have not been able to break into the elite class. So, for us to limit our selection process to this category of athletes will not be serving the purpose of proper talent identification. It is to take away this limitation that we are throwing the festival open to the best Nigeria has to offer. In other words , the Festival can no longer serve as a grassroots competition. While it will continue to serve as a developmental programme, at the moment as it is structured, it remains a grassroots competition. That is just one aspect of it. At the last Olympic Games, you would have noticed that several Nigerians competed for several countries. There was a particular event that four of the athletes were Nigerians competing for different countries. The National Sports Festival is our biggest competition in this country and so we cannot continue to keep it at the level of glorified inter-house sport competition. And so, we have to make it bigger and glamorous. That way, it will attract the best athletes Nigeria has anywhere in the world.
The second justification also is that since last Tuesday that the festival started, it has not attracted the kind of attention it truly deserves if this is our biggest national competition. I have not seen the type of hype in the media, especially on the television. If you go to most of the venues, the stands are empty, save for athletes and officials. This is not good for the biggest sporting event in this country. So I believe that if you open it to top class athletes like Ajoke Odumosu, Omolara (Omotosho), Blessing Okagbare, (Obinna) Metu and all our top athletes and others from around the world, these are the top athletes that will attract advertiser into the competition. Television will cover it and ultimately bring the competition to the living rooms of Nigerians like the Olympic. When this happens, Nigerians would want to troop to the venues to see these stars. Everyone will know that something big is going on in Nigeria. So, I think if you want to create an opportunity for us to discover good talents and also make it glamorous, we have no choice but to open it up.
The Under-17 National competition you are planning to start to serve as a platform for talent discovering, have you consider how the states are going to react to that since most of them (states) are opposed to throwing the festival open?
I have briefed most of the commissioners of sports from the states here at the festival and are very receptive to it. Of course, I know there are a couple of questions still needing clarifications. That will be sorted out. The national Under-17 competition that I have proposed is to serve as a lower tier games to serve the purpose of talent discovering. It is strictly a developmental competition aimed at discovering talents. An open National Sports Festival without a junior competition like the national under-17 will be counter-productive. It is essential to create a junior competition for children that are still in school. Don’t also forget that the National Academicals Sports Committee (NASCON) that I reconstituted recently, is meant to create opportunities for children who are in school and also those outside school. That is why NASCON is an amalgamation of what YSFON, National Schools Sports Federal and all other such bodies are doing in the country. We are not taking over YSFON or school sport, what we are doing is to make them work together for the purpose of proper talent identification. There is a synergy because they are working towards the same purpose for the country. A better structured grassroots sport will need a larger platform like the national under-17 national competition for the children to show what they are capable of doing. This is necessary if we want to see quality athletes at the senior level like the national sports festival.
But good as your proposal is, honourable minister, do you really think this will fly at the larger National Council of Sports forum since most of the states opposed to throwing the festival open are going to be in majority?
First, I want you to remember that the National Sports Commission, (NSC) is the custodian of the Federal Government’s position on sport in the country. The NSC owns the proprietary rights of the national sports festival. So, we as the custodians of the festival decided that for the festival to serve better purpose of its creation, it has to be an open festival. What we need to do is that at the level of determining the eligibility rules and the conditions of participating, that is when we need to involve the states. I don’t think there is any issue with that. When the Federal Government wanted to introduce the 6-3-3-4 system, were states education commissioners asked for inputs? When we were going to introduce the basic education, were the commissioners involved? If the Federal Government wants to take a decision on fertilisers, are states commissioners of agriculture called to decide what to do? Yes, we know that sports by nature gives room for everybody to act as experts but the point we are making is that the Federal Government has taken a decision that the festival be open for the good of the competition. However, were we will not be right is not to carry along the states in determining the rule of participation because the rules will affect them directly. That is what we are going to do at the level of the National Council on Sports. We are going to decide there what should be the rule for both the open festival and the national under-17 competition. If you recall, I said at the beginning that is expensive hosting an event like the national sports festival. Lagos State I am made to understand may have spent well over N7 billion to host this edition. Rivers State spent more because the state literarily had to build her infrastructure from the scratch. I don’t know how many states of the federation have the capacity to host with little or no support from advertisers. I learnt that Lagos State paid Supersport, the only satellite television broadcasting the festival had to be paid N26m to do so. That is wrong! It is the Supersport that ought to pay to broadcast the festival. But because we are not getting the kind of value (because the quality of the festival), the hosting state is now paying money for the festival to be on air.
I was coming to that aspect of the festival not on the terrestrial television. Previous editions were on national television network for the benefit of those outside the host state to see the game. Why is this edition limited to those that have access to cable television only?
It is very unfortunate. It should not be so. From the briefing I have on the matter so far, I think the Marketing Committee did not do enough for us to get advertisers to want to pick the bill to have the festival on television like it used to be. The second part is that Lagos had to pay some stations to broadcast the opening ceremony. That is wrong again. I understand also that the N10m offered NTA for the opening ceremony was considered too small. It is ridiculous. It should be the other way round of the television stations paying to broadcast the festival. One of the benefits of opening up the game now is that the festival will now have more commercial value for advertisers to want to put their money on it. Who says we cannot bring in top athletes from the West African sub-region to come and compete to add glamour to it? Who says we cannot bring on board past athletes like the Falilat Ogunkoya, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Olapade Adeniken, The Ezinwa brothers, Davidson and Osmond, Funke Oshonaike, Bose Kaffo and several of our ex athletes to come and compete in the masters category as a way of creating excitement? Younger generation athletes who have heard of them but did not have the opportunity of seeing them in action will feel motivated and inspired. These are some of the dynamics an open festival will create for the competition.
There are speculations at this edition that a particular state has non Nigerians in her contingent. Does the rule allow such?
I have also heard the speculations but I don’t any formal report on that yet. As far as I am concern, it remains speculation and have asked the relevant officials of the commission to investigate and let me have the details. I am still expecting the report. I don’t think the festival rules allow such. If is confirmed, we will act appropriately. But I want to beg the media to verify their reports before rushing to press.
Are you satisfied with the level of competition here and the reports in the media so far?
Not really, although there are a few brilliant performances. This afternoon (Saturday), I am going to see boxing and a few other sports. I have not been able to see most events because of engagements here and there. The monitoring team that I set up is going round and will definitely submit report to me. However, one thing that I find disturbing is the fact that some athletes and officials have turned some of the venues to markets, buying and selling all manner of wares when they don’t have events. This is particularly very pronounced at the University of Lagos venue where I went to see some of the events. I don’t think this is proper and those handling such athletes need to instil discipline in them. If we need to harvest such athletes at this level to compete for Nigeria, then, they need to be disciplined and be focused on their sports rather than be distracted by other things.
On the aspect of the reporting in the sporting press, I am not satisfied with some of the things I read from the newspapers. You were at the London Olympic and saw how the British press reported the games. Why do we have the predilection to concentrate reports on only scandals and negative aspect of the festival like: Score board not working at Agege Stadium, officials protesting over allowances or drivers saying they will not drive through traffic congestions to venues or assassination threats over perceived biased officiating? I have been on the look-out for reports of exceptional athletes from some of the event, yet all I see is result of events and those protesting over mundane things that ought not to be the focus of media reporting of the festival. I am craving the indulgence of the sporting press to look at the positive side of the game because the media is an integral part that will help determine whether there will be sponsors and partner for it.