Bruce Ijirigho

Against the backdrop of country’s poor outing at the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Team Nigeria won only a bronze medal in the men’s football event, ex international athlete, Dr Bruce Ijirigho who was in Lagos recently offers his views on how to halt the slide. DURO IKHAZUAGBE writes

Standing at over 6ft 5, with graying beards, Dr Bruce Ijirigho cuts the picture of a fulfilled man. Of course, he is. He holds a Ph.d in Petroleum Geology. At various times, he has been
a lecturer and practitioner of his discipline in the United States and Nigeria. He lectured at the University of Ibadan for eight years before returning to the United States. For some years now, he has been back in the country. He has been silently reengineering a different field other than petroleum geology. Ijirigho has returned to his first love-Sports.

To refresh memories, Bruce Ijirigho and the likes of Charlton, Ehizuelen, Harrison Salami, Godwin Obasogie and several others of their generation were a special breed that took Nigerian sports by storm.

Ijirigho in particular was a complete sportsman. He played soccer, did the pole-vault and
excelled in the 440 yards (now 400 meters) event.

In 1971 as Captain, he led the Midwest (later Bendel) State and now Edo and Delta states to the Hussey Shield Competition in Port-Harcourt, with the state coming first in all but two events. Ijirigho and his colleagues also represented the country at the Olympics and made the finals of their various events. It is against this backdrop that Ijirigho finds it difficult to turn his back on sports that gave him the scholarship to study in America and become who he is today.

And so when he was called upon by former Governor Liyel Imoke to help revive sports at the grassroots in Cross River State, he gladly accepted the challenge. Today, the products of that experimentation are there for all to see. While Nigerians were gnashing their teeth and sighing over Team Nigeria’s poor outing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, some of the athletes that came out of the Cross River State experiment at the grassroots were all over the place, competing for other countries. Some of them even made the finals of the events they competed in yet, none of Nigeria’s athletes made it to the final of the track & field events!

But Speaking with THISDAY recently in Lagos, Ijirigho opened up on how Nigeria can return to winning ways in sports. He insisted that a return to grassroots and nurturing of identified talents can help solve the heartache Team Nigeria’s outings now bring to compatriots.

“Based on my experience and what I went through as an athlete, I can conclude that our problem has always been management of our sports men and women, finding them and nurturing them to the world level. But because as a country we have not been able to do this, that is why we have always had problems getting the right results at international sports contests, and this is disgraceful,” stressed the former captain of Team Nigeria.

He readily admits that he may have left sports along while ago as an athlete but his mind has not left the arena.

“For me sport is my main life endeavour. Professionally I am a geologist, I have been teaching petroleum engineering at the University of Ibadan and also I am an environmental consultant in the USA. But in all these, my heart has always been with this country and its sports, because we have talents everywhere.”

The ex-international points at how his contemporaries in Jamaica have help their small Caribbean islands become world powers in global sports.

“Guys like Don Quarry and Bert Cameron are the people behind the success that Jamaica has been enjoying in athletics. Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt, are some of their products. I went there to interview them on three different occasions on how they were able to make gains in sports. I spoke to their sports minister, chairman of the Jamaica athletics association and their coaches.

I took notes. What they told me was that the sports development structure, which the British colonialists left behind in Nigeria, we did not maintain them; we allowed them to crumble and decay. But they (Jamaicans) continued on their own and even built upon the structures. Some of their top stars from that programme who went abroad even came back home and contributed their experiences into the development of the sport there,” Ijirigho said of the success of Jamaica whose top athlete Usain Bolt alone won six individual gold medals at three Olympic Games in addition to three other gold medals from the 4x100m relays of Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio2016.

The grassroots sports development consultant insisted that his experiment with the Cross River State sport is capable of turning around the Nigerian situation if replicated at the national level.

“Yes it is possible… that was what I had in mind (to help with grassroots sports development) when I came back to Nigeria. I want to see how we can implement such a programme that has helped the Jamaicans become what they are today. I wrote a proposal in 2002 and handed it over to then Sports Minister, Stephen Akiga. He invited me before the Council of Sports meeting and I did a presentation, and Akiga liked it because it was a grassroots oriented developmental programme. But before we could put the first step forward, he was removed from office and his predecessors were not keen to follow up.

“It was this same proposal that I took to places like Kaduna and Delta states. But it was Cross River State that embraced the programme in 2010. The governor then; Senator Liyel Imoke did everything and removed all the impediments. I gave Imoke a one-page proposal and we had a five- minute discussion on the proposals. Thereafter, he called his Deputy (governor) and the Commissioner for Sports to give me all the support that they can, and to see to it that the programme took off without hitches. The rest is history,” Ijirigho noted with pride the result of that experimentation.

He continued: “We implemented the programme and the whole nation saw the success that we recorded in the short time that we ran it. For me it was vindication that with a concise programme and the sports talents everywhere in this country we can produce a pool of quality athletes who will meet world standards. For four years in a row Cross River State dominated the Schools Sports Festival and the National Under-17 Championships. At the 2012 National Sports Festival we had athletes in every final that was contested some of them achieved podium performances. This is where we had the likes of Edidiong Offonime Odiong who ran for Bahrain in the final of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. I counted four athletes from the programme who were in the World Junior Championships in Bydgozcz, Poland. Offonime won a gold medal in the women’s 200m. If we, as a country, was taking care of those athletes, they will not go to Bahrain. There were many kids we discovered and are doing well. For instance there was one Endurance who was selling food at the museum in Calabar and also Mercy Ntia Obong, whom we picked up from selling food in the market and brushed up to the world level.

Even as we have produced these athletes how can we stop other countries from snatching them? We have to find a way to keep them. But if we tell Nigeria to give these kids a N100, 000 a month token will they do it? And how much is that compared to what these athletes are being lavished with in the countries they have gone to compete for?” queried the ex-international.

As a product of the Samuel Ogbemudia sports philosophy in the old Midwest and Bendel State, Ijirigho emphasized that sport and education must run side by side. “At end of our programme in Cross River, we had 21 kids in the University of Calabar who we were paying their fees. We have four others who are studying in United States Universities. We got admission for them as part of the programme. There were others we brought from the villages and we put them in schools in Calabar, we were paying these athletes allowances. Every athlete that met the standards we required, was automatically admitted into our programme, right from primary to secondary.We had boxing, swimming and weightlifting, Cross River State had the best under-17 team in the country. This is a very good programme we want it to continue. But so far we haven’t heard anything from the present governor of the state.”

Despite the level of rot in the country’s sport, Ijirigho believes all is not lost yet if the right things are done to salvage the situation.

“I believe that we can salvage sports in this country. Samuel Ogbemudia did it, majority of the athletes discovered during the Ogbemudia programme represented this country. Ogbemudia was able to achieve it because he fell on the structures that the colonialist left behind. Sport was thriving in the schools. There was synergy between the ministry of education and the various sports councils.”