Few Nigerians will forget the exploits of Chioma Ajunwa in the Long Jump event of Atlanta ’96. Even fewer still will forget the heroics of Kanu and Co of the Dream Team in the football event at the same games. Nigeria had exceeded the odds to shine in America despite the political situation back home, and that Olympics was the gold standard for all athletes representing the country at subsequent tournaments. However, failure on the part of the administrators and athletes have culminated in making the subsequent Olympics a thing to forget, and not one to finally move on from the wonders of ’96.
Tokyo 2020 holding in Japan this summer was pushed back a year later because of the ravaging effects of COVID-19, and many in Nigeria would have felt that the added year would help the athletes prepare better and achieve better final positions in their sports, but this has been far from it. On the pitch and off it, a culmination of different factors have rightly placed this year’s participation as perhaps the worst in the history of Nigeria.
The shame of “Track and Field”
The Nigerian public and stakeholders in the sports industry were shocked in new and previously unimagined ways when the Athletic Integrity Unit disqualified 10 Nigerian athletes, who had been billed to participate in the track and field events. The AIU, in a press release, stated that the athletes had failed to submit themselves for out-of-competition testing prior to the Olympics.
It meant that public funds had been wasted to take these athletes to Tokyo, with the Athletic Federation of Nigeria failing to comply with competition rules and regulations. Leaked messages showed the athletes constantly asking the Federation representatives when the testing would be done, only to be met with silence, and the Ministry of Sports and the factional president of the Federation releasing half-hearted press statements.
The athletes protested on the streets in Tokyo, showing the world the depths of inefficiency Nigeria could sink to, even when the rules made it clear. The leadership tussle embroiled in the AFN has been a major player in all of these, with the Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare supporting the Tony Okowa faction ahead of the Shehu Gusau group, leading to divisions in camp, with some athletes being divided in their loyalties.
There is also news that complementary phones given to the 10 banned athletes have been confiscated by the administrators, a true reflection of the sorry state of Nigerian sports. There is the small matter of Blessing Okagbare being banned for testing positive for a banned substance.
The constant theme of inadequate preparation
Over the years, Nigeria has always employed a fire-brigade approach to the Olympic Games, which always comes to the fore at the tournament proper. The countries it competes against have rolling projects that ensure that there is a constant cycle of talent to prosecute the Games as they come.
China, for instance, has a program for the next Olympics, Paris 2024, where it has all the athletes that would represent it training actively, even in 2021. Nigeria doesn’t have a unified sport policy, putting into question what exactly the Ministry of Sports and the various Federations/Associations do.
The athletes, who go out of their way to practice individually, are not supported fully by the authorities, meaning that their efforts are always never enough to compete with their counterparts in the world.
Basketball has been a disappointment
When the men’s basketball team, D’Tigers defeated their American counterpart in the pre-Olympic exhibition, it was supposed to herald the ascent of Nigeria into the top echelon of international basketball. The 2015 AfroBasket had a collection of skill and quick, experience and youth, and had a number of established NBA stars like Precious Achiuwa and Jordan Nwora in their ranks.
While not being a basketball-obsessed country like the US, it felt right beating the Americans at their own game, and clawing the 83-point margin, a record at the Olympics set when the Nigerians were defeated by the now-late Kobe Bryant American side.
However, the Nigerians have capitulated when it mattered most, losing their opening games to Australia, Germany and Italy, and crashing out, a bitter and unexpected end to their Olympic end, given the exploits they had managed pre-tournament. Their female counterparts have not faired any better, losing their two games against France and the United States.
For sports to really move to the next level in Nigeria, the overall structure of sports must be overhauled, from research and development to funding to preparation and administration. As it stands, there’s nothing to suggest that what we have can achieve positive results.