The Rio Olympics is near at hand. Notwithstanding the Zika virus and all the other issues that threatens the games, we all know that once it begins, once the nations march out and that torch is lit, the attention of the whole world will turn to Rio and the excitement will be fever pitch. Nigerians, both home and abroad, will not be left out. It is amazing the way we support our national teams during competitions, the enthusiasm, the faith, the patriotism, feelings that eliciting from Nigerians on a normal day would be akin to trying to squeeze water from a rock.
Over the years, we have endured as our fortunes in sports dwindled. We are now used to failing, such that many no longer lose sleep over it. Take, for instance, our national football team, the Super Eagles, who some have rechristened Super Chickens. It would have been akin to a national tragedy not to qualify for the African nation’s cup in time past. These days, we do not even expect them to qualify and when they live up to the billing by failing as they did just recently, we just move on as if nothing happened.
As used to disappointing outings as we may be, the Rio Olympics will be at a different level entirely. If the saying “if you fail to prepare, you should prepare to fail” is anything to go by, then, our failure at the Rio games will be spectacular. After the last Olympics in London, where we failed to win a single medal, there was the usual talk in government cycles of going back to the drawing board, — a proverbial board to which our administrators always claim they are returning to, each time they mess up. I wrote a piece about the damn board here. Four years since London, it is as though we’ve not just been marking time, we have been speeding with the reverse gear engaged.
One would have expected that between then and now, there will be some conscious effort, an expression of our national determination to have our anthem played at the medal podium in Rio by putting in place a programme (like other serious countries do) that will focus on raising athletes that will win laurels in the sports we have comparative advantage in. Clearly, that is expecting too much. The current state of things, made worse by the very poor preparation and almost anonymous leadership of the beret-wearing minister of sport (who seems to fancy himself more as a freedom fighter than a sports administrator), announces like a bell wielding white garment preacher at dawn, that we should expect national disgrace.
Perhaps so that we the fans do not come heavily down on them when they eventually fail, some of the athletes are already crying out, issuing caveat emptors, if you like. The latest is Efe Ajagba, Nigeria’s only, I need to repeat this for emphasis, ONLY, boxer at the Rio games. Ajagba and his coach Tony Konyegwachi told the media last week that all is not well at all, comparing their preparations and training at the National Stadium Boxing complex Lagos, to a farmer doing his chores without a cutlass.
To quote Ajagba directly: “We don’t have facilities. We are just training with our own minds. There are no punching gloves, and modern punching bags, the one we have right now, if you punch it, it slips and you bump your shoulders on it.”
First of all, boxing used to be one of our strong points. How we got to the point where we can only feature one boxer at the games is a study in mediocrity. It is a mystery in itself – a nation of nearly 200 million people? That we cannot now prepare this lone boxer well for the games is nothing short of a national embarrassment and, I dare say, simply unacceptable.
There are certain things that should not be said loud for others to hear, like how we cannot provide things as basic as boxing gloves and punching bags. What else then, can we provide? How do you realistically expect a medal of any colour, from a boxer who received no training with modern techniques (as those he will be facing are doing) but also prepared with gloves that should be in the museum?
You might want to ask, where is the Nigeria Boxing Federation, the National sports commission, the Ministry of Sports? Your guess is as good as mine.
Only last month, at the 20th Africa Athletics Championship in Durban, South Africa, the Nigerian contingent, the bulk of who are Rio hopefuls, gave a shambolic performance, coming third behind South Africa and Kenya and managing only four gold medals. Just a little earlier, the Dream Team, the national under-23 male football team that will play in Rio played in a preparatory four-nation tournament in Korea, finishing third, winning only one match and conceding eight goals.
What can one realistically expect from these teams at Rio but failure?
Clearly, our problem is not the availability of talent. Harnessing it through good developmental programmes, well thought out policies, adequate funding and clear headed administration is the issue. You would have thought the change government would have come with a new lease of life in that sector but current evidence suggests otherwise. What should be done is not farfetched. Simply put round pegs in round holes, repackage sports to make it attractive for sponsors, sit down and chart a course for the future.
While we wait for that to be done, It will be wise that we all manage our expectations as regards this year’s summer games as Rio will be one big embarrassment.
Happy Sallah Holidays!