Sponsorship of sports is increasingly becoming a burden to government. It could be lightened by the private sector

Nigeria’s 78th position on the medal log at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, highlighted the dire state of sports in the country. A solitary bronze medal won by the football team has failed to douse public anger and call for a proper inquest from an outing considered a national embarrassment. It appears Nigeria has not learnt any lesson in sports administration in the past four years, following the shambolic performance at the London Games where the contingent drew blank and returned home without a single medal.

With Kenya leading the African pack with six gold medals, followed by South Africa, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt and Niger Republic, Nigeria only wobbled to the finishing line courtesy of football, a day before the curtains were drawn on Rio 2016, to salvage its only Olympic medal. But it was expected. It has become a permanent part of our national culture to begin preparing for international sporting engagements just on the eve of the event. It is surprising that we sometimes end up winning laurels in spite of our tardiness.

However, our over reliance on government initiatives alone to get us to the top of international sports is part of the problem. A critical appraisal of the tardy performance will reveal one of the underlying causes behind the horrible outing in Rio was poor funding of sports. Therefore, it does not matter if we start preparing for the Tokyo Olympics this week. For as long as we leave it to government sponsorship and organisation, we are not likely to get much better results than Rio.

The example of the United Kingdom ought to be instructive. At the 1996 Atlanta games, the UK fared worse than even Ethiopia on the medals table. It was then in the same league with Nigeria which did remarkably well under the spirited leadership of the duo of Jim Nwobodo and the late Emeka Omeruah. But the British government under then Prime Minister John Major would not accept the poor performance and therefore sought ways of reforming the British Olympic movement. It identified funding and ‘ownership’ as key deterrents.

For funds, the British government decided that the proceeds of the National Lottery would go into the country’s Olympic contingents thenceforth. Energised by the huge lottery money, the Olympic movement then tapped into other private sector sponsors for endorsements of individual athletes. With the money problem solved, the Olympic movement was now free to embark on endless training programmes, hiring the best coaches and trainers to prepare their team in the events and games where the country has comparative and competitive advantage. That accounted for Great Britain’s 67 medals haul in Rio!

The United States’ model is more or less the same. It is the big corporations that fund and sponsor the team and individual athletes. The US government provides security, logistics and co-ordination as the glory of victory goes to the nation and its people. We must begin by reducing the dependence of our sports on the pomposity of some sports ministers and their officials. They tend to treat these games as extensions of their little egos which rub talented athletes and sports persons in the wrong place. We need to identify a viable source of sponsorship, mostly private sector companies and literally hand over the advertising rights, logistics, etc., of subsequent Olympic preparations and participation to them.

Written into the deal should be some tax incentives as well. We should have Nigerian companies sponsoring different aspects of our participation: training, apparels, hospitality, air transportation, welfare, health insurance, etc. It is not only in football that we should always hunt for the best trainers. It is the representatives of these sponsors rather than officialdom that should accompany the athletes while government representation should be minimal to complement our embassy staff in the host country.