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Olympics failure and why sports needs to be prioritized in Nigeria

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Nigeria’s Olympic outing has so far has been another lesson in poor planning, preparations, and the general incompetence of the Nigerian sports federation, as a series of man-made blunders has heavily affected Africa’s most populous nation, which only boasts of 3 Olympic gold medals historically, despite having a large youth population.

A few days before the main athletics events at the Tokyo Olympics, news emerged that 10 of Nigeria’s athletes expected to participate in various track and field events at the international games were declared ineligible to compete by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics, stating a violation of Rule 15 of World Athletics’ Anti-Doping Rules.

The AIU stated that countries ranked as “Category A’ must meet certain testing requirements, which the Nigerian athletes did not comply with.

“The rule states that athletes from ‘Category A’ federations must meet the minimum testing requirements to confirm their eligibility to participate in a major event.

“The key requirement in Rule 15 is that an athlete from a ‘Category A’ country must undergo at least three no-notice out-of-competition tests (urine and blood) conducted no less than 3 weeks apart in the 10 months leading up to a major event.

“Only then do they become eligible to represent their national team at the World Athletics Championships or the Olympic Games,” the independent anti-doping body for athletics stated.

Nigeria lost the ability to field 10 athletes due to nothing but lack of coordination at the highest professional sports level.

Olympic silver medalist, Blessing Okagbare, reacted to the ban, blasting Nigeria’s sports administrators for focusing on everything else but the welfare of the athletes, which should be their main duty.

“If you do not know the sports, [are] not passionate about it/us [the athletes], then you have no business there as an administrator. The sports system in Nigeria is so flawed and we athletes are always at the receiving end of the damages.

“They are busy fighting over power, exercising their pride over Puma contract/kits forgetting their major responsibility, THE ATHLETES! It’s sad that this cycle keeps repeating itself and some people will come out to say I am arrogant for speaking my truth. It is my CAREER,” she added.

This also led to a protest by the banned athletes, as images of protesting athletes took over the internet. The athletes were not protesting against the Olympic organisers but against the incompetence of their own sports federation. The protest “worked,” because any Nigerian with a bit of conscience would have felt nothing but shame.

Nigeria’s Olympics nightmares did not end with AIU’s ban of the 10 Nigerian athletes. Before the semifinals of the 100 Meters women’s event was to commence, Olympic hopeful, Blessing Okagbare, was suspended from the Tokyo Olympics event by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) after they confirmed that she tested positive for a banned substance, Growth Hormone.

“The AIU collected the sample from Ms Okagbare during an out-of-competition test on 19 July. The WADA-accredited laboratory that analysed the sample notified the AIU of the adverse analytical finding at mid-day Central European Time yesterday, Friday 30 July.

“The athlete was notified of the adverse analytical finding and of her provisional suspension this morning in Tokyo. She was scheduled to participate in the semi-finals of the women’s 100m this evening,” the AIU said, striking a huge blow to Nigeria’s chances, and even further damaging Nigeria’s crippled Olympic reputation.

How did we bungle this so badly?

Preparation: The Olympics is an event that happens every 4 years, and some federations have spent the past 30 years preparing for this very moment. However, Nigeria’s Athletics federation has no plan, no vision, and generally does not know its purpose, as Blessing Okagbare stated.

Nigeria has only achieved 2 gold medals from Athletics, Chioma Ajunwa in 1996 and Men’s 4x 400 relay in 2000 (which was awarded to Nigeria in 2008, after the United States’ representative athlete was found guilty of doping and Nigeria moved one more crucial step up).

Nigeria’s last athletics medals were in the 2008 Olympics, with Blessing Okagbare taking silver at the Long Jump and the silver medal for the Women’s 4×100 metre relay. At the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, no medals were won in the athletics field, which should be a cause for concern for a nation of 200 million people that should have the natural demographic comparative advantage for sprints.

It is obvious, Nigeria needs to restructure how it funds sports, views sports and how it approaches building a future for its youth, because a nation that does not invest in sports, basically does not invest in its youth.

The importance of investing in sports

A day on Nigeria’s social media spaces, and one will come across complaints of drug abuse, cultism, armed robbery and banditry being adopted by the youths. This is not helped by the fact that Nigeria’s youth unemployment is as high as 42%. Many Nigerian youths are not productive, they are idle, and the only form of productivity they engage in is education, which has completely neglected the importance of sports for grassroots development; whereas a nation like Jamaica uses secondary school sports to scout talents for its athletics programme.

The net outcome of this dismal attitude towards sports development is that every 4 years at the Olympics, a country of 200 million people gets fewer medals than much smaller nations.

Models that Nigeria can adopt

The UK- Lottery model

According to SportEngland, sports and physical activities contribute £39 billion to the UK’s economy and a significant portion of this comes from grassroots sports: the millions of people who buy trainers, bikes, gym memberships or pay match fees.

They added that “Directly, through job creation, and indirectly by reducing healthcare costs due to a healthier population and reducing crime,”  basically sports solves a crime and healthcare problem as it keeps people healthy and youths busy.

The London and Rio Olympics saw the rise of the UK as a sports powerhouse, which came after years of funding sports development through the National Lottery and Exchequer income, launched in the 90s to maximise the performance of UK athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games and other major championship events.

The UK Government revealed that four-year awards are implemented in the context of a twelve-year horizon in 3 different streams, Podium, Academy and Progression, to develop a more sustainable, healthy and efficient sporting ecosystem.

  • Podium investment is designed to enable athletes to realise their potential for medal success and prepare them to thrive in the context of international competitions. Investment is made into named athletes and teams capable of achieving medal success within 4 years.
  • Academy investment is designed to ensure the complete preparation of athletes (physical, mental, knowledge and culture) and enable them to graduate to podium level. Investment is made into named athletes and teams that have met minimum standards and have confirmed their capabilities to pursue medal success and make a positive contribution to their sport.
  • Progression is a new investment stream designed to accelerate the development of sports by stimulating change in their performance development system and culture. The intent is to build a more sustainable performance system and thriving high-performance culture. The initial investment initially features seven sports – Climbing, Surfing, Skateboarding, Fencing, Table Tennis, Weightlifting and Basketball.

They added that core investments were also designed as a contribution to the cost of leadership, administration and other overheads required to prepare British Athletes for World and European Championships.

The American Collegiate Sports System:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a union of over one thousand universities in 3 different divisions, engaging in sports, giving students the ability to study and earn scholarships to play sports, and if good enough, turn professional. The NCAA is the bedrock of America’s Olympic squad and most of the athletes were trained and competed in the programme before turning professional, or are still student-athletes competing at the Olympics.

The system is also very profitable for the universities, as the NCAA earned the sum of $1.05 billion from its basketball tournament in 2019 alone (pre-pandemic), as nearly 50 million Americans wagered an estimated $8.5 billion on the tournament, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA).

Universities also compete in high competitive and lucrative sports including American Football, Baseball, Hockey, Soccer, Volleyball, Swimming, Golf, Softball, Water Polo and many others, scouting High Schools across the country for talented youth in the senior year who also have access to standard sporting facilities built by their high schools.

What Nigeria can do

Nigeria can implement a mix of both the UK lottery funding model and the American Collegiate Sport System. At the state and local government levels, a special gambling tax can be implemented to fund the building of auditoriums and gyms for secondary school sports in highly specialized sports that Nigeria needs to focus on, including Wrestling, Judo, Hockey, Volleyball, Handball, Track and Field events, Swimming, and others.

The best in the secondary school category are scouted by highly ranked State and Federal Universities with top sports programmes, offering full-ride scholarships, which can be an advantage to youths from low-income households.

This will need long-term planning and standards development by all parties involved (the State Education Board and the Sports Board also with the Tax administrations), using the lottery funds to build the necessary infrastructure required to reduce crime, increase the standard of living and give youths a productive career, preventing the need for cultism and banditry.

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