Deadbeat Nigeria goes to the Olympics

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Abimbola Adelakun

Days before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games started, in an amusing tale of pure self-deceit, news headlines sensationally proclaimed that Nigeria’s male basketball team, D’Tigers, stunned the USA in a historic defeat. It was a false tale of an underdog defeating globally-acclaimed champions. The correct headline should have been along these lines: some American professional basketball players merely wearing Nigeria’s jerseys defeated their colleagues. The team’s victory had nothing to do with Nigeria. The point is not to litigate the citizenship or question the allegiance of the D’Tigers, but to stop the masturbatory illusion that Nigeria, as far as its coordination of sports is concerned, is capable of ever winning anything at the elite levels.

The reality that we have not done the kind of work that translates into rewards is why Nigerian sports administrators -perennially inept- scouted for undeserved Olympic glory by recruiting children of Nigerian immigrants abroad to represent the country. The children of those who left the country because of visionless leadership are now, ironically, Nigeria’s representatives in global tournaments. It makes Nigeria look like a deadbeat father that runs from paternal responsibilities, only to return to claim the child when they have defied the trauma of abandonment to rise to prominence.

The trouble with using “mercenaries” for sports competition is that it allows administrators, the yoke of Nigeria’s sports underdevelopment, to get away with gross irresponsibility. Rather than cultivate talented Nigerian youths into sports stars, all they need now do is to wait for their more privileged Nigerian descendants in more advanced countries to save their faces by providing quality representation for them. Those athletes are not taking anything away from their home countries; they defected to Nigeria in the first place because they did not get picked in the very competitive categories back home. It is a transactional relationship that works very well for Nigeria that does not invest in nurturing local talents.

Unfortunately, the real losers in this game are the home-based Nigerians. It is bad enough that Nigeria does not do enough for them; it is worse and unfair to supplant them with their more privileged counterparts abroad. They work hard too, but how are they supposed to rise and realise their sporting dreams when their own country systematically disenfranchises them? How did it happen that there were no potential stars in the entire country that could have comprised the male and female basketball teams that made up 40 per cent of this year’s Olympic representation? At this rate, it is only a matter of time before even those in categories like table tennis and wrestling, mostly home-based, will be edged out by their more qualified foreign counterparts.

Like everything else in Nigeria, sports have severely declined, especially in the last 25 years. Atlanta 1996 remains our epoch at the Olympics, and our other international tournaments have been poor outings. Nigeria used to be better at international competitions because the sports federations combed the grassroots for talents to hone. Today, much of those efforts are more or less dead. Even what used to be called “inter-school” sports have transmuted to half-hearted and insipid events. Sport development activities are so poor that probably 90 per cent of the private primary and secondary schools mushrooming everywhere in Nigeria do not even have proper playgrounds for recreational activities, let alone competitive sports. That shows how much our society underrates sports as an integral part of education. Even in the facilities run by government officials, training infrastructure is decrepit, and their poor organisational efforts are dispiriting. Both national stadiums, Lagos and Abuja, have been practically abandoned to the elements.

Nigeria used to have a vibrant boxing culture but ongoing efforts towards building the sport have virtually been reduced to politicians snagging photo-ops with British-Nigerian boxer, Anthony Joshua, when he wins a bout. Those same set of clowns even went as far as arranging for Joshua to ostentatiously prostrate before the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), a desperate contrived bid to associate him with Joshua’s successes. The same goes for Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman, the MMA champions of Nigerian descent fighting out of New Zealand and the USA, respectively. Nigerian officials want to identify with these superstars so they would not have to confront the reality of the depreciation of Nigerian boxing -mere glory hunters who cannot build anything valuable but want the rewards.

For international sporting tournaments, they merely look for those who will give them a chance of representation at no expense. Most Olympics champions in a place like the USA go through their collegiate sporting ecosystem. Because the USA attracts many international students, some other countries have benefitted from this arrangement too. However, they do not override their local talents, unlike the abject case of the Nigeria Olympic Committee now relying on this arrangement to stumble its way to sporting glory.

There is a serious paucity of well-organised competitions for Nigeria’s home-based athletes. Where any competition exists, athletes’ welfare is always the predominant news all through the competition. The officials collect hefty per diems, get quartered in decent hotels where they eat gourmet meals while the real stars of the show, the athletes, are paid starvation allowances. How are they supposed to ever flourish? It took 25 years for Nigeria to redeem its promise of reward to the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Chioma Ajunwa!

Even with these foreign athletes, Nigerian administrators are still uncoordinated in their glory-hunting. Days after the D’Tigers’ feat of defeating the USA and Argentina in pre-Olympic exhibition games, news broke that their kits got stuck with the Nigerian Customs Service because of some logistical issue. The 4X400 women quartet of Favour Ofili, Patience Okon-George, Nse Imaobong, and Knowledge Omovoh ran a season’s best and provincially qualified for the Olympics till “technical issues” knocked them out. Their years of hard training were truncated because the Athletic Federation of Nigeria officials could not even do the bare minimum. Nigeria frustrates people’s destinies and is never even remorseful about it.

Serious administrators know that sporting activities are not just about medals or even the glories that come with winning them. Sports are an expansive industry, a means to both individual and collective self-development. Sports present opportunities of upward mobility both for the sportspeople and for the industries allied with their activities. The less Nigeria takes its sporting activities seriously, the more it diminishes the chances of upward mobility of people whose careers range from coaches to artists, nutritionists, fitness experts, therapists, etc. The fewer elite athletes Nigeria produces, the faster the decline of a generation that would have risen through sports and associated activities. The infrastructural losses Nigeria has even sustained through the years we allowed to decline will cost us even far more to rebuild than to have sustained. Mediocrity, ultimately, costs more than excellence.

Finally, while it is important to remind Nigeria of its responsibilities to home-based athletes, I am not arguing against foreign-based athletes representing Nigeria in international tournaments. First, there are some categories of competitions like the Winter Olympics where home-based athletes are unlikely to participate. If a foreign-based one gets to compete in that, good for everyone. What we should not accept is a systematic dis-privileging and erasure of local talents who have the potential but are edged out due to a false idea of meritocracy. The home-based Nigerians who did not make it to the Olympics’ team did not fall out because they lacked grit.

Second, I support an idea where both Nigerians at home and their counterparts elsewhere can work together to boost each other’s strength and morale. That means Nigeria will have to approach sporting representations more strategically rather than letting another country do their homework for them. If Nigeria does not have a history of home-based talents defeating their foreign counterparts to win medals, one would think it impossible for local talents to flourish. There are poorer countries than Nigeria who still sustain sports enough for their home-based sportspeople to compete on their behalf. If we cannot make an effort to build Nigerian sports, we do not deserve representation at any international tournament whatsoever.

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