Only a die-hard optimist would have expected Team Nigeria to make appreciable impact at the Rio Olympics which just ended. Reacting to the dismal performance, the sports minister, Solomon Dalung, in a press release promised a better preparation for Tokyo 2020. The statement is an admission of failure to plan as Nigeria headed for Rio. It had become a recurring statement from every Nigerian sports minister to remark that preparation for next Olympics begins at the end of a woeful performance.
So, Dalung did not say anything new. What he probably failed to understand is that no sports minister have had an opportunity to supervise Nigerian sports over two Olympic Games. It is the self-destruct mechanism that has been put in place. Sports ministry has the highest turnover of ministers in the country. The signals are clear that a new sports minister may soon emerge. We only pray for a greater than Solomon in accordance to the Book of Matthew 12:42.
Nigeria has no well defined focus when it comes to sports. In multi discipline contests such as the Olympics and African Games, we focus more on popular and team sports with fewer medals and increased expenditure.
Our scope has been so narrow to the point that the wildest expectation is to come home with a maximum of three medals of any complexion while the real Olympic contenders count their medal-haul in tens. The focus in athletics was narrowed only to the tracks. Yet it was on a field event that Chioma Ajunwa leapt to give Nigeria its first Olympic gold in track and field.
Apart from early preparations and putting up an effective funding mechanism not tied to annual budgeting plans of governments, the simple way of scrambling for medals is focusing on the lesser-known, but highly lucrative sports disciplines.
The question that then comes to mind is to find out where those medal potentials are. First, this calls for decentralisation of the concentration of sports federations in Lagos and Abuja. Archery, Shooting, Horsemanship, Canoeing, and Rowing are Olympic disciplines indigenous to some parts of the country. The indigenes are naturally endowed with latent talents which could be harnessed. Applying economic principles, this is diversification, just as the government is trying to diversify from solely oil-propelled economy to other spheres of life.
The use of bow and arrows is indigenous to the North. Why can’t we think of establishing a federation for archery to groom talents over there instead of getting all sports federations to either Lagos or Abuja? The medallists at equestrian sports at Rio were mainly old men who had mastered horsemanship. We have them in abundance in the North. They are potential medallists for Nigeria in future games if we nurture them.
In parts of the Niger Delta region, rowing and canoeing are ways of life. If they are groomed on the rules, we have some Olympic talents we have hitherto ignored. The high altitude areas, especially the famous Mambilla Plateau, can be a good hunting ground for participants in endurance sports and long distance races. Our undoing is the inability to tap talents that have pleased God to deposit in us.
Personnel of our military and Para military forces can be groomed to win medals for us in shooting and air rifle. The front runners at the Olympics – USA, China, Russia and Britain – do not rely solely on football, a very popular but expensive sport, to make impression at the Olympic Games. Focusing on Tokyo 2020 may even be myopic. Our focus to explode at the Olympics should be to begin to nurture the youths for glory in 2024.
That will also help in tackling youth restiveness as their energies will be directed to productive ventures for self and the nation. Concentrating mainly on football at the Olympics or African Games is a very expensive venture and yielding just a single medal which may not be realised until the last day of the fiesta.
In the coming months, Nigeria will be glaring absentee in all the major continental football tournaments – Africa Cup of Nations, U-20 Africa Cup and that of U-17. It is time our focus is re-evaluated. Our image in sports is sagging fast. The signals that our sports are crumbling have always been there. We just simply failed to react accordingly.