‘giANT’ of Africa: Is The Nigerian Sporting Legacy On A Decline?

Sports have become an important aspect of Nigerian culture so much that the interest in and of course, popularity of sports have affected the political and educational scenes as well as social and economic fabrics of the nation.

Before independence, few Nigerians had taken the world sporting arena by storm, beating close rivals to emerge champions. It is worthy to remember the likes of Emmanuel lfejuna who won a gold medal in high jump during the Commonwealth games in 1954, Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey who became the world featherweight boxing king in 1957 and Dick Tiger who won the middleweight crown and later the world light heavyweight crown.

The 1970’s also witnessed tremendous achievements. Nigeria senior football team won a gold medal in the 2nd All-Africa games while the country’s participants to the games won an overall second position on the medal log.

The country’s record of achievements continued in the 1980s with series of achievements especially in football. The bronze medals won in 1976 and 1978 in the African Cup of Nations were improved upon in 1980. The Christian Chukwu-led Super Eagles won the Cup for the first time in Lagos. In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria again got to the finals of that championship but lost to Cameroon on both occasions to win the silver medals.

The country did not only excel in football in the 80s as athletics provided opportunities for splendid performances. Five U.S. based Nigerians won gold medals at the World University games which took place in Edmonton, Canada: Sunday Uti (400m), Yusuf Ali (long jump), Ajayi Agbebaku (triple jump). Innocent Egbunike (200m), and Chidi Imoh (100m).

Further, there was also this magical moment Nigeria won her 2nd Relay Medal in Olympic History – one of the most iconic – this is not just because it was the first medal that any Nigerian woman won at the Olympics. The manner in which the quartet of Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen, Mary Onyali and Christy Opara-Thompson celebrated their Bronze medal in the women’s 4x100m at Barcelona ’92 is one of the most enduring Olympic moments and encapsulates what the Games is all about!

Rank outsiders before the race, the elation of Team Nigeria’s quartet was heightened by the fact that though they had just pipped France at the line for the Bronze, they were unsure if they had actually won it until the results appeared on the big screen – and thereafter were overwhelming celebrations!

In fact, to be concise, those were the periods Nigerian sportsmen entrenched Nigeria’s name firmly on the map of great sporting nations.

So much more to linger on…

1996 Atlanta Olympic Games: The summer games in the United States was Nigeria’s best participation at the Olympics where the first gold medal was won by Chioma Ajunwa and the Men’s Football team led by Bonfere Jo.  Ajunwa’s jump of 7-12 meters was all she needed to clinch gold – and it remains Nigeria’s only Olympic Gold medal till date in track and field.

Meanwhile, the football team defeated all North and South American opponents including Mexico, Brazil and Argentina from the quarter final to the finals respectively. Nigeria made Olympic football history by becoming the first African and non-European and South American team to win the gold medal. It took the country another 12 years to record  something close to the 1996 feat with the silver medal won in  2008 in Beijing, China, by the Isaac Promise captained football team. From gold in 1996 to silver in 2008 could pass for a fall in standard, you’d agree with me, right?

Although the country has recorded other victories in world and continental events like the 2003 All Africa games she hosted in Abuja, the 2007 FIFA U17 World Cup in South Korea, Super Eagles victory at AFCON 2013 in South Africa for their third title, the triumph of the Golden Eaglets in 2013 and 2015, the D’Tigers first title in Afrobasket in 2015 in Tunisia, the recent victory of D’Tigress in the 2017 Afrobasket Women Championship in Mali, the 2018 AWCON title won by the female national football team, the Super Falcons and the national team 2019 AFCON qualification. Still yet, all of these are actual goals and not ‘intended’ goals of a country like Nigeria, the ‘giANT’ of Africa – beaming with wonderful sporting talents – as they have notably failed to build on the success of Atlanta ’96 (In five appearances at the FIFA World Cup, Nigeria with its array of stars are yet to reach the semi-finals – unlike Ghana in 2010!) and a handful of others.

The truth is, the decline in Nigerian sports did not start with the failure to qualify for the AFCON jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon in 2012 (For the first time since 1986, Nigeria failed to qualify for the continental tournament in what ended Samson Siasia’s reign as chief coach) Rather, It is the climax of a steady systemic failure that started after the Golden Generation of the Clemens Westerhof years left the stage and nothing concrete was put in place to recreate that era.

This is why Nigeria’s past decade(s) historical sporting achievements have given the green-white-green nation such an emblem that questions present day sporting achievements. Simply put, sports nowadays in the Nigeria suffer from a developmental pattern which has given room to a notable decline in the state of the art of the country’s sporting heritage.

In fact, to realise the last time a Nigerian won the African Player award was way back in 1999 when Kanu Nwankwo clinched it under Arsenal colours tells more on the fall in standard.

In 2013, the likes of John Mikel Obi, Vincent Enyeama, Victor Moses, Emmanuel Emenike and Efe Ambrose were among the five Super Eagles players that were included in the CAF starting XI of the year, but since then, no Nigerian player has made the cut. Ahmed Musa and Alexander Iwobi could only make the long list of 2018 Africa Player of the Year nomination list. Victor Osimhen, Odion Ighalo and Wilfred Ndidi’s brilliance for their clubs and the national team could not guarantee them slots in the subsequent edition as well.

Underdevelopment of sports in Nigeria

There is no doubt that sporting activities are a major unifying factor amongst Nigerians. However, despite the massive talents in the country and the unquenching love of the people for sports; it is quite unfortunate that the sector is still very much under-developed. This is the reason Nigeria only record success in international competitions once in a while – rather than replicating it on a constant basis.

Sports development around in Nigeria is hinged on a number of factors which include: Sports management and administration; Facilities and equipment; Sports personnel; Funding/Sponsorship; Institutional sport development; Sports competitions and festivals. That said, here’s the unfortunate Nigerian reality; there is no clearly spelt-out blueprint or long-term development plan whatsoever to develop sports at all levels in the country -and this may be traced down to the fact that those at the helm of affairs in the sports ministry are non-professionals and in another case, corrupt – and this, undoubtedly impair the fortunes of sports development.

Sports officials and administrators to whom responsibility has been entrusted to, have always done harm to the development of the nation’s sporting institutions rather than the otherwise. Sports suffer management, organisational and funding problems, these problems have increased with the growth in sporting activities and increased in mass participation.

Also, these financial and administrative problems do not hold back to effect the on-field performances of the country’s sportsmen. For the most populous nation on African continent, the 2012 London Olympic Games without a medal was Nigeria’s worst Olympic result since 1988 – however, the country’s Paralympians salvaged the country’s sagged image as they placed 22nd out of 164 countries that took part at the Games having won six gold, five silver and two bronze medals and third in Africa, coming behind Tunisia and South Africa. More so, the episode of late coach Stephen Keshi’s resignation from the Nigerian national team a day after winning the AFCON 2013 trophy for what he described as disrespect by the Nigeria football federation (NFF) members and lack of support for the team further evinced the cavalier attitude of the nation’s sporting bodies towards ensuring a betterment of the sports sector of the country.

Lest I forget, what happened to grassroots football development and athletics programmes in the country? The only evidence of any grassroots football and athletics programmes in Nigeria is about the establishment of academics everywhere with no actual and substantial objectives for the recruited talents.

National sports policy as a blueprint for Nigerian sports

The Nigeria national sports policy is a richly crafted document which, if followed to the letter, could catapult the country into a sports real GIANT. Some of the key aspects of the policy include the co-ordination of sports development programmes at all levels of government. For instance the federal government through the National Sports Commission is expected to initiate programmes aimed at identifying, nurturing and developing talents through a national elite development programme – like state sports festivals, the national sports festival, national youth games, etc.

In the introductory part the document states that, “sport authorities at the National, State and Local Government levels shall undertake periodic assessment of sporting activities to check weaknesses, capacity gaps and adopt appropriate programme of action to correct them”.

Sports policy inconsistency and instability and a clear and acceptable philosophy for the nation’s sports have been the bane of sports in Nigeria. This fundamental element is very essential as it’s the very foundation upon which all sports development programmes can be laid. Nigerians are engaged in sports but there has been no uniform statement of purpose towards working to achieve any meaningful result.

It is worth mentioning that there should be a legislation to back up the existence of a National Sports Commission, establish structures, build facilities, increase funding, better training and reactivation of high performance centres for the country’s sporting arm.

Social impact of sports in Nigeria
Nigerian Fans

Nigeria have a monumental advantage in exploring and exploiting sports tourism to boost her hospitality image. For example, Brazil which hosted the 2014 World Cup added 7.5 billion Brazilian Real (BRL) to the economy with tourism being a key contributor, an estimated 1 million foreigners visited the country and 95% of them said they will love to return for holidays. The attributed reasons for this include Brazil’s scenic beaches, mesmerising musical culture and of course, its overall adventurousness.

Meanwhile for previous World Cups, South Africa welcomed 310,000 tourists and Germany accommodated 2 million. These figures simply reveal how massive the contribution of sports can multiply the growth of Nigeria’s hospitality.

Yet, stagnancy in Nigerian sports development does not only draw sporting heritage into fading lights, it also dwarfs the social fabric of the nation. Fans are no longer entitled to the recreation of days of glory.

To experience the desired growth in the Nigerian sports today, there has to be an encompassing National Sports Policy which directly addresses the improvement of grassroots sports, transparency, patterned leadership as well investments in the country’s sports sector.

The Super Eagles might have bagged a consolation prize in the last edition of AFCON 2019 – but until all the lapses are being worked upon, the sporting prowess, talents and passion for which the ‘GIANT’ (or ‘giANT’ in this case) of Africa is known for  slowly ebb out – but till then, the decline can still be tackled.

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