From London to Rio: What Has Changed for Team Nigeria?


Bolaji Abdullahi
We arrived London for the 2012 Olympics with a contingent of 51 sportsmen and women competing in 8 sports namely, athletics, weightlifting, taekwondo, boxing, wrestling, table tennis, canoeing and basketball. We were competing in the last two for the first time ever.

Even though we did not expect to win the competition, we had arrived hoping to make a decent showing. We even had reasons to believe we could surpass some of our recent achievements at the previous Olympics. Why not?

We had arrived London riding on the wave of a short but intensive preparation of our athletes in different parts of the world where they did not only have the benefits of high quality facilities and technical support but also had the opportunity to match up against some of the best athletes from other parts of the world, and on some occasions even beating them.

Many commentators agreed that while not ideal, our preparation for the London Olympics was the best we had in recent time. Coupled with a system that put athletes’ welfare at the heart of planning and an atmosphere devoid of rancor and acrimony, everything appeared perfectly set to guarantee us a couple of medals.

Alas, at the end of the competition, we returned empty handed, making London one of the worst Olympics showing for the country in recent times. Understandably, it was a low moment for everyone connected to our sports. The entire country went up in arms, calling for mass sackings and metaphorical beheadings. “2 Billion Naira Down the Drains,” screamed some newspaper headlines. The Federal Government was understandably embarrassed. Some of the President’s aides advised him to sack the Nigeria Olympics Committee (NOC) to show that the government was on the side of the people on that collective national embarrassment.

As I walked stealthily into the Federal Executive Council meeting in the week following the Olympics, several of my colleagues greeted me with the query, “Honourable Minister, where are the medals?” I was not sure how I responded. Even though I was appointed to oversee the sports ministry only 2 months to the Olympics, no one was willing to exonerate me. I felt pained, but with benefit of hindsight, I realised that they were not being mean, they just believed that if you go to the Olympics and try your best, you should win medals! I myself thought so. Before London, I did not know that the Olympics is not a place you go to try your best. Almost every single medal could be predicted months before the first gun is fired.

Some months before the 2012 Summer Olympics, researchers at the University of Loughborough in the United Kingdom predicted 27 gold medals for Team Great Britain. They eventually got 29. Before then, a group of sports economists from the Colorado College department of economics in the United States predicted the medal table for the 2012 Olympics. They projected that the United States would lead the table, followed by China. Russia, they said would come third and Great Britain would finish fourth. The final table at the end of the competition was almost exactly as they predicted it, with the only notable exception being that Team GB pushed Russia to the fourth place. What this means is that modern day Olympics performance or even elite sports performance generally, is based on objective variables that can be precisely measured. And nations would succeed or fail based on their ratings on those variables.

London was not the first time we would be returning from the Olympics empty handed. It happened in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics. Our response then as in 2012 was typical. Public outrage, followed administrators and government making panicky vows never to allow a re-occurrence. Then a summit followed, committees and task forces were set up, reports were written and then what? The report of the committee that was set up following the Seoul debacle was what formed the basis for the 1989 National Sports Policy. Several other committees have followed since then: Dr Samuel Ogbemudia Committee on Sports Development in Nigeria, 2001; Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah One-Man Presidential Committee on Nigeria’s Performance at the 2004 Athens Olympics Games; Dr. Awoture Eleyae Report of the Technical Sub-Committee on the Presidential Committee on Sports, 2005; National Sports Blueprint Committee, 2006; Presidential Advisory Committee on Sports, 2007; Report of National Sports Summit, 2010; General Dominic Oneya Committee on the Reforms of Nigerian Football, 2011 and; of course the Presidential Summit on Sports, 2012.

Through these various summits, committees and their reports, a treasure throve of knowledge about Nigerian sport has been generated over the years. It is regrettable to see however that very little has followed by way of action. A cursory review of the Vision 20:2020 shows clearly that we have never lacked in ideas on what is wrong with our sports and what needs to be done.

Since London 2012, we have gone on to record some major achievements. We won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 after 19 years; we won the U-17 World Cup in UAE in the same year. We also qualified for the World Cup in Brazil and recorded some remarkable feats in athletics and other sports, especially at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where we finished with 10 gold medals. Between Seoul and London, we also recorded some very significant achievements, top among these would be winning the AFCON in 1994, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever that same year and quite significantly, the Atlanta Olympics with two gold medals.

However, it is significant to note that none of these remarkable achievements were a result of deliberately designed system or template. They were owed more to luck and the rugged determination of individual athletes than any articulate framework of process and outcome. The issues that led to our fantastic failure in Seoul were the same issues that led to our failure in London and almost definitely, Rio later this year. How else could we explain the fact that after waiting 19 years to win the AFCON, we have failed to qualify for the subsequent two editions? Or how else could we explain the fact that after waiting 44 years to win our first Olympic gold medals in football and athletics in 1996, we have not been able to repeat that feat since then? The reality is that even the basic building blocks for sustainable excellence in sports do not exist in our country. Even if we win anything in Rio, it would still be by chance rather than design.

Team GB: From Zero to Hero and the Lessons I Learnt.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Team Nigeria finished ahead of Team Great Britain who returned with only 1 gold medal and finished 36th on the medal table. This moment was regarded as the “rock bottom” for British sports. The national outrage that followed was not different from what we are currently experiencing. Hard questions were asked and the administrators began to seriously engage with the idea of winning. The first thing they did was to open the floodgate of lottery fund. Even though the lottery was introduced in 1994, it was after the “humiliation of Atlanta” that they started investing funds into elite sport through the World Class Performance Programme. With this fund, they were able to do three main things namely:

i) Shop for the best coaches in the world and integrate them into a streamlined support system
ii) Make it possible for athletes to devote themselves completely to their training by paying their living costs and providing other support services, such as physiotherapy, application of sports sciences and proper nutrition and equipment.
iii) Appointed a world class Olympics Performance Director and other Performance Directors for some identified sports regarded as areas of competitive advantage.

The net result of this extensive intervention was that by the following Olympics in Sydney, 2000, Team Great Britain returned with 11 gold medals, 10 silver and 7 bronze, finishing 10th on the medals table. In Athens 2004, they finished with 9 gold, 9 silver and 12 bronze, also finishing 10th on the medals table. The remarkable transformation of Team GB from the “zeroes” of 1996, to the “heroes” of 2000 was put down to 4 key factors:

i) Predictable level of funding; 740million pounds guaranteed over a 15 year period
ii) Relentless focus on sports with the best chance of winning medals. Swimming got 25million pounds over a 4-year period, cycling got 26million pounds and rowing got 27million pounds over the same period. These sports alongside athletics and sailing accounted for half of the Olympic team funding but also accounted for 68% of medals won.
iii) Smart governing bodies (Federations)
iv) World class coaches that turned talented athletes into Olympic Champions.

I learnt two important lessons from the experience of Team GB. One is that Olympics medal cost money, a lot of money. The second is that the medal is in the child.

It is not a coincidence that the medal table in modern Olympics appears to reflect the level of economic development of countries. However, it must be emphasised that having the money to spend is one thing, making the right strategic investment is another. Team Great Britain largely owes its dramatic success to what is described as “unprecedented financial investment” totalling up to more than 740 million GBP over 15 years. Their current annual spending on sports stands at 125 million GBP. For the 2012 Olympics alone, Great Britain invested 264million pounds and finished 3rd on the medal table with 65 medals. That is about 4million GBP per medal.

The Olympics is a lifetime commitment. Recent studies have shown that to achieve podium success at the global level in any sports, you have to put in 10, 000 hours of deliberate training. This translates to about 2.5 hours every day for 10 years. This may sound like a tall order, but so many kids that won several medals in London 2012, surpassed this benchmark before they reached the age of 17. The Chinese Swimming prodigy, Yo Shiwen, was just 16 when she won the 400 meters individual medley in London at an “insanely fast” time 4 minutes, 28.43 seconds to set a new world record in that event. But she had started since primary school. Elizabeth Armistead, the 25 year old woman that won Silver medal in cycling for Team GB in London got her fist bicycle at the age of 4. This is why we say the medal is in the child. Elite athlete development goes through a 5-stage cycle of discovery, nurturing, exposure, preparation and competition. The two critical elements of careful nurturing and systematic exposure have to happen quite early in the athlete’s development before the windows get shut by age and all forms of distortion.

Another lesson that London taught me was that the standards are getting higher and the competitions keener. The Olympics is the highest possible level in sports; there is no next level. Micro-seconds are now making the difference between gold medals and no medals at all. Performances that won medals in just the previous Olympics in Beijing were not even enough to qualify for the finals in some events in London. For example, our Female 400×100 meters relay team ran a time of 42.64 seconds to finish 4th. That is 0.40 seconds better than the time that won them the silver medal in Beijing. This was also evident in the number of new records that were set.

The underlying point here is that every medal is clearly projected and carefully planned for over a sustained period of time both in financial and technical terms. Only years of intensive, unrelenting training and preparation can win medals. There is no short cut. Medals are won by people who have worked hardest not by those who have prayed hardest. We can only win medals by building systems that are capable of producing medallists and champions not by selecting athletes that we hope can win medals

From London to Rio
When President Jonathan called a retreat on sports in 2012, the idea was to integrate some of these key lessons and begin to develop a new systematic framework that could lead us to a better outing in 2016. Some of the key conclusions of the retreat are as follows:

1. Identify 5 key sports that give us competitive advantage and designate them as Olympic sports. We agreed on boxing, weight-lifting, taekwondo, wrestling, and athletics.
2. Develop a new funding architecture, which would guarantee sustainable funding support for these identified sports. The strategy includes:
a. A medium-term (2013-2016) sports budget
b. Sustainable revenue sources, which include:
i. Reform of the Nigerian lottery to deliver N48billion/year
ii. Private sector sponsorships projected at N5billion/year
iii. Federal Budget and additional ‘sin tax’ on tobacco and alcohol projected to deliver N2.2billion annually.

It was estimated that the National Sports Commission then would require about N50 billion for both the elite and development sports over the three year period. A National High Performance Sports Fundwastobe established that would warehouse the fund generated for elite sports from corporate sponsorship and the lottery. While the management of the Fund would be chaired by the Minister of Sports, approval for spending would only be given in council with other members representing corporate sponsors, ministry of finance, elite sports federations and sports journalists’ council. This is to give confidence to the private sector sponsors who have been reluctant to put their money in sports for fear that it would not be efficiently managed and also to ring-fence such fund from direct government interference.
3. Commence a process of early discovery of talent by bringing sport back into schools by creating pathways within our school systems that allow children to play sports.

4. Develop a high performance system that integrates sports science with elite athlete development that help athletes and coaches to optimize training and performance and deploy enhanced technology to deliver insight and analysis that enable athletes to develop strategies and tactics for competition.
5. Develop a performance-based funding system that delivers grants directly to athletes.

As we rose from the retreat, the President himself announced to the nation that the plan that we have set out should lead us to better outcome in the next Olympics in Rio. He, in fact, announced that our target is 5 gold medals. Even though I saw the president’s enthusiasm and commitment as great window of political opportunity, I was not as optimistic. I believed also that if we were able to execute our plans, we should see some radical improvements from our previous performance. But I had no doubt in my mind that if we kept at it, by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo we would be on the medals table and more importantly, we would be able to show how we got there.

The work we started was on-going; even though so much has changed since 2012. However, if we so wish, we could pick up some of these interventions were we left off, correct mistakes where they have been made, sustain what is working, build on the foundations and improve on what has a reasonable chance to succeed and deliver results. I still believe that there is a great opportunity to carry out the kind of holistic revision that was envisaged. Maybe, not in time for Rio, but certainly for the future.

· Abdullahi, a former minister of sports, delivered this paper at the International Conference of the African Sports Management Association in Abuja…recently