Workers putting finishing touches to the tartan tracks of the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos
By Tunde Sulaiman
The fever surrounding the festival might not have yet reached ‘pitch level’ on the minds of Lagosians and Nigerians in general, but the signs are there all over town that in three days time the biggest sporting event in the nation will get underway in Lagos – the 18th National Sports Festival, Eko 2012.
Yes Eko 2012 might not yet have captured the attention as much as the organisers would have loved but with Teslim Balogun Stadium, Rowe Park and other venues wearing spruced up looks, it is unmistakably clear, Lagos is clearly gearing up to put on a show!
This is to be expected; as we all know the number one citizen of the state, Babatunde Fashola (SAN) is an avid sports buff with his support for former English Premier League champions, Manchester United well documented.
However, beyond the upgrade of the venues and physical beautification of the nation’s commercial nerve centre, are we likely to see any new stars emerging at the fiesta, who are likely to be able to carry the green white green flag with distinction at the next Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil?
This is the million (nay billion) naira question and the main reason why the National Sports Festival was conceived some 39 years ago!
Incidentally the first festival, which coincidentally was held in Lagos, came on the heels of the nation’s successful hosting of the 2nd All Africa Games also in Lagos in the same year and was muted as a way of discovering athletes to represent the country in continental and international meets.
And initially this goal was actually met with some of the stars that came through the Sports Festival being such names like: Charlton Ehizuelen, Hamid Adio, Henry Amike, Yusuf Ali, Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Faith Idehen, Beatrice Utondu, Patience Itanyi and Tina Iheagwam all from track and field.
In table tennis we can mention such names like Babatunde Obisanya, Atanda Musa, Sunday Eboh, Kuburat Owolabi, Funke Oshonaike and Segun Toriola.
Boxing, which used to make us proud both on the continent and beyond, produced such household names like Jerry Okorodudu, Peter Koyengwachi and Sabo Mohammed.
Segun Odegbami, Thompson Usiyan, Peter Rufia, Taiwo Ogunjobi and the late Haruna Ilerika, who all wore the national football team colours with distinction, all had a taste of the National Sports Festival.
All these stars and others too many to mention were discovered when the National Sports Festival was actually doing what it was set up to do – produce quality sportsmen and women for the country!
However, in recent time the infamous ‘Nigerian factor’ has caught up with the festival so much so that cheating has now become the order of the day as officials adopt underhand methods in order to win the National Sports Festival and return to their states as heroes to be feted by governors (many of whom never voted any decent money to their sports councils until a few weeks to the Sports Festival).
The ‘victorious’ governor (who in his heart of hearts knows that it was not the money ‘magnanimously’ released a few weeks to the festival that produce the all conquering team, uses the ‘win’ to profess to the nation how his love and support for sports gave his state the victory!
The Sports Director, coaches and athletes will be showered with monetary gifts, share their (governor’s) day in the sun and then they are promptly forgotten until the next Sports Festival.
Rather than discover and then nurture athletes who will do the various states proud, what we now have are ‘sports mercenaries’ who move from state to state offering their talents to the highest bidder (i.e. the state which will best meet their financial demands).
And like most things in the country (sadly though) the athletes and their state collaborators have developed ingenious methods to beat the system, which in truth has tried to stop this by putting a limit to the number of festivals an individual athlete can attend among other rules.
So in order to get around the festival appearance limit, athletes (with the connivance of officials) not only change their names, but also switch disciplines.
According to the appearance rule, athletes who do not feature in any international competition are allowed to take part in three festivals, while those that have taken part in one international competition are allowed two festival appearances while those that have taken part in two major international competitions are only entitled to one festival outing.
So lets take for instance athlete, Tunde Obi Mohammed has already taken part in three festivals because he was never good enough to make an international outing should thus not show up anywhere near a festival again.
But still in his ‘prime’ Tunde Obi Mohammed feels he is still too young to ‘retire’ and so having for instance taken part in a track and field event in his three previous festival outings, will then show up at his sixth festival as Mohammed Tunde Obi - no longer as a track and field athlete but maybe as a judoka!
Again because of the ‘Nigerian factor’ state sports officials will know these ‘mercenaries’ by face but don’t bother to protest because they are all in it together – circumventing the system in order to boost their CVs as talent producing coaches.
But how can any state director of sports protest when he knows he also has ‘mercenaries’ in his own team, who have been provided forged documents (employment list and pay vouchers etc) in order to beat the festival rules of 12 months state of residence for them.
Nevertheless, while the goals of the founding fathers may no longer be met at the sports fiestas, it is not all doom and gloom as there are still some positives one can highlight.
For instance but for the Sport Festival, Lagos would not have been given a make over while the various venues would not have also been spruced up. At least after the games the athletes will have venues and equipment to train with.
Apart from these, for the next 10 days or so, sports men and women from various parts of the country will have the opportunity interacting, making new friends and taking good memories away from Lagos back to their states.
Also we sports journalists have a ready competition to generate stories for the various media we report for – be it print, broadcast or online; while petty traders and even big players will also have the opportunity to make what we all crave for – money!
So all said and done I can’t wait for the first whistle of Eko 2012 to sound - let the Festival begin! Eko O Ni Baje O!