NIGERIAN athletics is in tatters. To cap it all, the country’s 17-man contingent to the 2017 World Athletics Championships returned home without winning any medal. Not even Blessing Okagbare could save Nigeria’s blushes as the world’s best gathered in London, England for the biennial event organised by the International Association of Athletics Federations. For a country once regarded as headed towards global athletics powerhouse status not to have made it to the podium, at least once, is shameful. At best, Nigeria scraped into some finals, including the women’s 4×400 metres relay and the women’s long jump. Unlike in 2013 when Okagbare won two medals in the long jump and 200 metres, this time,
Nigeria’s biggest medal prospect flopped in the sprints and the pit. The country’s last hope was extinguished on the final day of the championships with the women’s 4×400-relay team finishing fifth, but the men at the London event fared worse Nigeria has produced remarkable male athletes like Chidi Imoh, Olapade Adeniken, Innocent Egbunike and the Ezinwa brothers. But that is now history. The IAAF championships abysmal outing is rooted in a culture of poor preparations, politics, meddlesomeness of the Ministry of Sports, and reduced private sector sponsorship. The shambolic preparations were defined by the delay in securing visas for the contingent with less than a week to the championships.
A member of the women’s relay team, United States-based Abike Egbeniyi, almost missed out completely as she could not secure a British visa more than a week after the competition had started. With good planning, this ought not to have happened. Pre- and post-election wrangling in the AFN contributed to the chaos as the federation broke up into factions at a time preparations were supposed to be in top gear. As a result, the camping of athletes was disrupted. The contingent to England arrived in batches, some well into the championships. This damages athletes’ morale and, ultimately, performance. The malaise is partly why Nigeria returned home empty-handed in succession from the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Administratively, the country’s athletics is living in the past. Because of the glaring deficiencies, the cycle of production, an integral element between success and failure, has been severed. In 2017 alone, Nigerian athletes have missed three major international youth development championships: the Africa Junior Championships in Algeria; the IAAF U-18 Championships in Kenya; and the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas. All the AFN and the ministry offered were incoherent excuses about visa denial. So, what does the future hold for a sport that has produced the likes of Modupe Osikoya, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chioma Ajunwa (Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medallist), Beatrice Utondu and stellar men performers like Yussuf Ali, Sunday Bada, Dele Udoh, Ajayi Agbebaku, Enefiok Udobong and Henry Amike? It is absolutely bleak. Worse, there is little hope that the situation will improve in three years when Japan hosts the next Olympic
Games. Citing opacity and inconsistent government policies, a host of private sponsors have withdrawn their support for athletics. Regular competition is vital to the nurturing of talents, but reduced sponsorship is demonstrated in the termination of top annual events like the MKO Abiola and Wahab Folawiyo championships for youth development. Similarly, the National Sports Festival, inter-collegiate competitions and school sports are irregular. Indeed, the Ministry has failed woefully in youth development. Sport opens the door to youths to fulfil their potential and eradicate poverty. This is obvious in the new world record €220 million transfer of Neymar Da Silva Santos of Brazil from Barcelona (Spain) to PSG of France. In terms of funding, Nigeria is lagging far behind others. In 2017, Nigeria budgeted only N9.4 billion for all sports. This is puny. Without adequate investment, it is not easy to nurture athletes to stardom. Poor investment in the welfare of athletes accounted partly for the defection of Francis Obikwelu to Portugal and Gloria Alozie to Spain.