Our Olympics Odyssey, By Bolaji Abdullahi

12 Aug 2012

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Bolaji Abdullahi


The just-ended 2012 London Olympics may rank perhaps as the lowest Nigeria has sunk in terms of performance, as the country’s athletes failed to garner medals at the games. Minister of Sports and Chairman, National Sports Commission, Bolaji Abdullahi, however, says though Nigeria didn’t win any medal, it recorded some notable achievements. In FACE TIME with THISDAY Board of Editors, he also says going forward, Nigeria needs to invest heavily in sports and engage in painstaking planning and preparations …

The London 2012 Olympics ends today and Nigeria has not won a medal yet. What would you say is responsible for this dismal performance?

There are a number of factors, which contributed to this dismal and disappointing outcome. But we have identified three of the most critical. The first is that countries that have put up the best performances at the Games invest heavily in sports. Funding is key. Just take a look at the medals table. It largely reflects the level of economic development of the countries at the top and their ability to prioritise sports development. China is an economic powerhouse, and has invested heavily in sports. We all have seen the results. Of course, the United States and now Great Britain.

Britain clearly owes its dramatic success to unprecedented financial investment of up to 740 million GBP over a 15-year period. The current annual spending on sports in Britain stands at 100 million GBP though only 40% of this comes from the treasury, while the remaining 60% is lottery fund. So, how much have we invested in sports and how well have we managed those investments in the past two decades?

The other factor is that of painstaking planning and preparations. Every medal is clearly projected and carefully planned for both in financial and technical terms over a sustained period of time. Only years of intensive, unrelenting training and preparation can guarantee medals. We can’t just wish or “pray” medals into existence. Yes, God works miracles but He is not a magician. He is also just and will reward those who have worked hardest. The lesson here is that there are no shortcuts. We, like the rest of the world, can win medals by building systems capable of producing medalists and champions and not just by selecting athletes that we hope can win medals.

Thirdly, being an Olympic champion is a lifetime commitment. Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old Chinese girl that shocked the swimming world by setting a new world record in individual medley was only 12 when her country hosted the Olympics. Lizzie Armistead, who won the Team GB’s first medal in this Olympics with Silver in cycling, got her first bicycle at the age of 4. Freddie Evans the Team GB boxer has stepped into the gym at the age of 4. You see, it is not something you start preparing for a few months or even a year to the Games. Olympics is the highest possible level in sports, there is no next level. We have seen microseconds make the difference between gold medals and no medals here.

In the past, we had depended on luck and there was no sports development template for our modest success. In Atlanta 1996, we surpassed Britain on the medal table, but while they went home to work, we did not build on that modest success. We all refer to Atlanta 1996 as our golden moment. But ask anyone to produce the template that was used in 1996, you would not find it anywhere. It was just plain luck and the gritty will of the young men and women that competed for us that year. If we want to win and compete sustainably, we have to develop systems that establish clear connection between process and outcome.

What precisely are the gains of our participation at the Games?
Actually, we have some notable achievements but because we have not won any medal, these modest gains have been drowned out. For instance, our male basketball team, D’Tigers qualified for the first time for the Olympics. The boys gave their all and defeated top basket ball playing nations such as Greece and Lithuania, rated number 4 and 3 in the world respectively, to qualify and went ahead to beat the African Champions Tunisia in their first match, losing narrowly to France in the last group game. The exposure against the United States was also very good for the team and we can only hope to build on that.

Some of our athletes also surpassed their personal best and set new records at the games. Felix Ekpo, the weightlifter, did not secure a medal, but he was able to set a new Africa and Commonwealth records in his category. But that was only good enough to place him in the 8th position, which also shows the wide gap in standards between the Africa and Commonwealth games and the Olympics. You could also see this reflected on the medal table. If you take Team GB out, no other commonwealth country has made any serious impact.

To return to the question on the gains of London. Edith Ogoke, the female boxer, has entered the annals of history as the first Nigerian female to fight at the Olympics and the first to get to the quarterfinals, beating the world’s number 2 in the process. This was an unrated boxer. Now, the boxing world knows her.

In athletics, we got to the finals and semi-finals of many of the events, events as tough as the 100 metres was. Blessing Okagbare reached the final and ran a personal best of 10.92. Ajoke Odumosu set a new national records and made the finals of the 400 metres hurdles.  Our women’s 400x100 metres relay team also got to the final and missed narrowly on the medals by coming 4th, ahead of Germany that came 5th. What all these mean is that we have the potentials to be great. These athletes gave their best. But the competition has also gone much stiffer if you have been watching.

However, we cannot hope to achieve what other people are achieving unless we do what other people are doing and in the way they are doing it. I have also learnt so much from the Olympics. I became Minister of Sports only two months to the Olympics so, I have learnt very hard lessons that will definitely impact on the way I see things. I have agonised over our dismal performance in London, but I have told myself that maybe God wants to teach us something. I think the real tragedy would not be that we did not win medals in London. The tragedy would be that we did not learn anything from this experience and we have not done something with it. Failure can have a galvanising effect. And, I believe it is easier to deal with failure than to deal with success. This failure is an opportunity to do the right thing.

What is the way forward to thwart such dismal performance in future?
We have to resist the temptation for reflex action even though we are under pressure now. A knee-jerk approach, just to show that we are responding to this pressure will not work in the long run. This is the time for sober and meticulous planning and methodical execution. There is no simple answer. Things can’t be worse than this. Fortunately, we have the Commonwealth Games coming up in two years. We have to drill everything down to the basics and start from the very bottom. We have to be more open, more democratic and more inclusive. I have announced some broad measures like focusing on some key sports in the short term and streamlining the governance system around them. Then, we think the system is robust enough, we then begin to look at the second categories like water sports, archery and shooting, which we have immense potentials for.

However, the most important factor is funding. We must devise the right strategy to mobilise the right funding profile and systems that would not be trapped by the budgetary constraints. That is absolutely important. Most countries have used the Lottery Fund to drive this kind of turn-around. We are going to engage the relevant authorities on this immediately. Of course the private sector has a huge role to play. We have to bring them in by developing and marketing the attractive products to them. Those who have funded sports in the past, why did they stop? Those who have not, why have they not? We must show real benefits and give them comfort. Private sector will not give money if they are not sure it would not end up in people’s pockets. We have to show this credibility and also be a lot more responsive and efficient.

There is a whole range of implicative actions outlined already. Our coaching capability has to be developed. Sports is now science. We must engage institutions at home and abroad that are capable of contributing. We will also reform the National Institute for Sports and make it a center for the development of elite sports.

I know many people would say, oh, we have heard all this before. I will plead that people give us the chance. We have the National Sports Festival coming up in November; that is where we must start. We must strengthen our capacity for vertical linkage. It is only by engaging with the states and local governments that we can have efficient grassroots development.

About N1.9 billion was said to have been released for the games, how was all that expended and what is left?
We got 2.2billion about two months to the Olympics. Remember when we had the public hearing at the National Assembly in April or so, we said we didn’t have the money yet to prepare for the Olympics. It is bad enough that you are receiving money for the Olympics only in the Olympics year and worse that you are getting the money only a few months before the games.

Then, if you convert this amount, it comes to only about 14million US Dollars. For the purpose of argument, if you spread it across the 81 athletes for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, then you have about 172, 000 USD per athlete! Yet, we expect these athletes to out-run and out-jump and out-lift athletes who have had the benefit of years of consistent high level funding. Do you know for example that Team GB spent about 10million Pounds on every single medal it won at the Olympics, where the total investment in preparing Team GB is 264million Pounds. Compare this to the 60million Pounds in Sydney. This again, emphasises that winning medals is about big money.

Now, talking about how we spent our money. The bulk of the funds went into preparing the athletes and attending qualifiers for some of the sports. In addition to the various local camps that we set up in different parts of the country, we had training camps in Germany for weightlifting, wrestling and table tennis. Our boxers were camped in Bradford University in the UK. The Taekwondo team was camped in South Korea. The basketball team was attending qualifiers in Venezuela. And as I speak, the Paralympic athletes are camped in South Korea. In addition to all these, we also opened a pre-games camp in Surrey where our athletes were camped before the Games Village opened to enable them acclamatise and continue with their trainings.

We did the best we could to ensure that the funds released were efficiently utilised. This is perhaps the first time that we would not have an official government delegation to a major international competition. This was to enable us prioritise the welfare of the athletes. And we have largely succeeded in doing this. That is why you did not hear that any athlete is complaining about any unpaid allowances. I have to check what is left. But we still have the Paralympics to prosecute.

However, more importantly the point needs to be made that in the context of what other countries are spending to prepare their athletes to win medals, we are nowhere near as you have seen. These things cost huge money.

When people hear 2billion, they say that is a lot of money. Yes, 2billion can do a lot in our country, it can build more classrooms and buy books for children and sink boreholes.

But if we want to compete with the rest of the world in sports and do well, we have to do so much better than we are doing in funding.
We are not talking of money released a few days to Olympics or Commonwealth Games, we are talking of years of sustained spending and preparation.

Great Britain spends 100million pounds to fund sports annually and this is guaranteed for five years. Meaning that no matter what happens to politics in Britain, that fund is protected. Policy stability is also key here. I am not saying we must spend that kind of money to win things, but we must spend responsively and responsibly.

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