“Go, Carl, go! The Nigerians are coming! David is on your neck.”
These words were uttered by sprint legend Leroy Burrell, American, as he handed over the baton to the legendary Carl Lewis, at anchor for the USA Men’s 4x100m squad, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He handed over the baton almost at the same time as Nigeria’s Olapade Adeniken, by his shoulder at third leg.
Those words underscored the progress that Nigeria was making in athletics, at least in the sprint sector, as at 20 years ago. Carl Lewis won the race for America, but Nigeria’s Davidson Ezinwa was not far behind, picking a proud silver.
Twenty years down the line, the story is drastically different. USA is still battling it at the top level, but Nigeria has receeded so fast and so far behind that it does not even exist. Jamaica, Ukraine, Germany, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, even Barbados, are doing much better and now provide the headache for the Americans.
“I think we just lost it. Something went horribly wrong along the way,” said Rotimi Obajimi, one of the most respected Nigerian athletics coaches.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, 20 years after Barcelona, there were no Nigerian teams in the 4x100m and 4x400m men’s relay races, simply because they failed to qualify for the event. It is a long way from Barcelona, where the quartet of Kayode Oluyemi (of blessed memory), Chidi Imoh, Ola Adeniken and Davidson Ezinwa was dreaded worldwide.
In the men’s 100m, Obinna Metu and Egho-Oghene failed to reach the semi finals, and there was only Noah Akwu in the men’s 200m individual race. It is the classical case of things going to the dogs.
“Nigeria depends on crash programme,” began low hurdler Henry Amike, who was in the thick of things as Nigeria threatened to dominate world athletics in the 1980s and early ‘90s. “But it does not work in sports. Players and athletes have to get prepared from the scratch before they can excel in sports. I was training three times a day to become good at my trade. How many people will do that today?
“Why should Nigeria fail in technical matters when people who understand the science and art of it are around? Why should Nigeria fail when people like Yusuf Ali, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Chidi Imoh and others who excelled for their universities and for Nigeria are still around with their experience?”
On Thursday, 9th August, three days left in the London 2012 Olympics, Nigeria’s Minister of Sports, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, was having a press conference at the Games Village. Strange! To say what, after the contingent had failed to earn a single medal?
That has always been the pattern, and that will remain the pattern. Instead of hard work and initiatives that will re-engineer the way Nigeria prepares for major competitions, commissions of enquiry will be put in place, which will come up with huge volumes of written material that nobody bothers about.
And just six months to the next Olympics (Rio 2016), we will all realize that another Olympics was round the corner, and the buzz resumes full throttle. At the end, if nothing is gained, we blame spiritual forces and the like.
For the London 2012 Olympics, the sports authorities, determined that it should not be business as usual and that the country should only venture out with actors in only those areas that there are medal prospects, registered only eight sports. Table tennis, weightlifting, wrestling, boxing and athletics were the good old order, but taekwondo got a medal in Beijing and Canoeing sneaked in through London-based Nigerian Jacob Akinyemi, and men’s basketball, against all expectations, thrashed Greece and Lithuania (somehow, equivalent of men footballers beating Brazil and Spain) to earn a ticket to the Games.
“I don’t know how many medals we are going to get but I have confidence in the team we are taking there”, said Nigeria’s Minister of Sports, Bolaji Abdullahi, before the Games.
“Well, if you are in sports, you must be a chronic optimist and that is why we keep believing that Nigeria will win something, but if you compare what we’re doing with the big powers such as China, United States and others that are here, then the truth is that we have little or no chance at all,” observed Uche Chukwumerije, Senator of the Federal Republic, who is father of taekwondoist Chika Chukwumerije.
He added: “We’re not taking care of our athletes. There is no long term planning; we rely on ad-hoc arrangements, yet we want to win. When you see China winning, it is not by magic. Look at their gymnasts, these are children picked up from the age of three. Beyond that, the state of equipment in China is ultra modern. The welfare and attention given to the athletes is super.
“They don’t need to worry about anything. But can you say the same thing about our athletes? The Nigerian State suffers from what I call parental deliquency towards all her citizens...”
In the face of massive economic meltdown, sports took the far back seat. After the likes of Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Sunday Uti, Yusuf Ali, Ajayi Agbebaku, Henry Amike, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Olapade Adeniken, Ezinwa twins, Obinna Eregbu, Sunday Bada, the supply lines dried up. And failure was inevitable.
Nigeria, which Burrell said was ‘coming’ in 1992, had receeded far behind and out of sight.
Nigeria could no longer produce athletes in the men’s 400m, men’s 400m hurdles, men’s relays and long jump (where Yusuf Ali used to be a force). And despite lip service, we have been unable to break into the long distance races, despite ideal training conditions in Mambilla Plateau.
There is no difference in what has happened in the other sports. Wrestling used to produce strong men but we’re now an easy-pick for other countries. In the past, we used to have coaches from Eastern Europe for wrestling and weightlifting, but this is no longer the case. The sports, with the possible exception of football, can no longer pay for foreign Coaches or fund regular competitions.
In table tennis, we’re no longer sure of winning titles at African competitions, as the likes of Egypt and Mauritius have also cottoned on. In London, Segun Toriola (at his sixth Olympics) and Funke Oshonaike (in her fifth) were bundled out in no time. In serious climes, both should have retire long ago, honourably. But both are now looking forward to the next Games in Rio de Janeiro. In any case, they will still be the best around.
The multi-national companies have refused to take advantage of a policy that makes money spent on sports sponsorship and promotion to be tax-deductible, because they are faced with heavy challenges everywhere. Poor power supply means they deploy so much resources in getting their businesses to run, and sports sponsorship becomes less appealing.
In precious decades, promising talents were plucked from the universities and colleges and handed scholarships to American universities. Today, there are no credible fora to exhibit promising talents. Even the Nigeria Universities Games (NUGA) has lost its lustre. In the primary and post-primary institutions, sport is no longer on the curriculum. The pupils have more of social issues to worry about and the sporting facilities are not even there. Outside, all the recreational parks and sports centres have been taken over by estate developers, with no room for the truly determined to nourish their talents. Take Jamaica. In years gone by, they used to pick their best athletes and send to USA. But those athletes, like Raymond Stewart and Merlene Ottey, remained starts alongside America’s best, not necessarily better. Today, they keep their best talents in the country, and the difference can be seen in what Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price and Veronica Campbell-Brown have been able to showcase in Beijing and London.
Which way for Nigeria? Early and consolidated preparations, hard focus on those sports in which she has comparative advantage and greater attention to athletes welfare - all year round, not only in Olympics year.
Ige is the Executive Producer/CEO, HotSports Nigeria Limited, Lagos.