I am writing this on Friday morning. A new Minister of Sports for Nigeria has been in office for one week. The sports fraternity welcomes him to the beleaguered sector.
Senator John Owan Enoh does not even have time to ‘warm up’ and head to Budapest ‘23, the theatre of the ongoing feast of global athletics. That would have been his baptism, his first international assignment.
Instead, he settles down at his new desk inside the premises of the Moshood Abiola International Stadium, Abuja, and starts a foray into the uncharted world of sports.
One of the first things he will learn will be the interpretation of the medals table from Budapest. It will reveal, as was the case with several ministers before him, that all is not well with Nigerian sports. Budapest ‘23 has been a barren expedition.
He will also find that there are as many solutions to the myriad of challenges as there are ‘expert advisers’ forcefully expressing them, every one of them claiming to be right, and that failure to heed their advise would bring the world to an end.
In short, lesson number two is that ‘in the matter of sports, particularly football, every Nigerian is an expert.’
On the day the new minister was being sworn in, Nigeria’s men’s national basketball team, D’Tigers, were playing on home ground in Lagos, and losing their African crown to minnows. The team played without most of the country’s best-known players, who ply their trade in the NBA in the United States. The basketball players were either not invited or refused to show up for the Olympics qualifiers.
This may be as a result of outstanding matters from previous experiences, particularly when the players had to protest on the streets of Tokyo during the last Olympic Games to be heard, to be respected, and to get their rights and entitlements.
As a by-product of that wahala, three years ago, Nigeria’s men’s basketball team have paid the price with their current defeats, and will not be at the Paris 2024 Olympics. This is the country that has the largest contingent of the best basketball players out of Africa in professional basketball abroad.
Lesson number three is, therefore, that the welfare of athletes, across all sports, is a major determinant of teams’ performances during major international competitions.
In Budapest, Nigeria’s Ese Brume, long-jumper and silver medalist at the 2022 World Athletics Championship in Eugene, Oregon, one year ago, has failed to reproduce her last year’s success. She finished without a medal.
Nigeria’s current and greatest track sensation, current world record holder and the most celebrated sprints hurdler over 100 metres in the world in the past one year, up till close to the start of Budapest ‘23, Tobi Amusan, has crashed landed, failing to sustain her stranglehold on the event through unfortunate, avoidable technical miss-judgment.
She looked out of sorts, distracted, subdued and not her usual boisterous and confident self. She ran the final of the 100 metres hurdles two nights ago without fire in her eyes, feebly surrendering her exalted position as the current best in the world.
Her matter deserves immediate critical examination and study. The events of the past few weeks surely took a mental and physical toll on her. During this period, she had to set aside her regimented training schedule to get out of the embarrassing quagmire, and manage to overcome the trauma of her situation.
Lesson number four is that Nigerian athletes, particularly when they climb to the pinnacle of success, need close monitoring and guidance. The evidence of such a need is in the litter of once-great athletes caught in the web of avoidable and unnecessary self-inflicted shenanigans.
There are plenty other lessons. As I am looking at the medals table of the ongoing World Athletics Championships in Budapest, it is clear to me that Nigeria may return from the global games not listed among countries that win medals. Even the sprint-relays for which the country has a well-established tradition of success at all levels, may not yield any harvest this time around.
In the same breath, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Uganda, even Burkina Faso, all from Africa, secured a medal or two at the games. This speaks volumes about how Nigeria deludes herself as a powerhouse in African sports. What the rest of the world sees clearer is Nigeria’s potential in sports much more than her achievements.
Talking of potentials, even a cursory look at the goings-on at the Budapest Championship provides glaring and interesting revelations, especially the preponderance of black athletes of African descent at the finals of the sprints and jumps events, and their dominance of middle distance races. These athletes light up the biggest stages of international athletics meets, and make countries outside of Africa such as the U.S., UK, Jamaica, and so on, to maintain their status as the major centres of sports achievements in the world.
Several African countries also have harnessed what is obviously nature’s raw gift to peoples of African-descent in speed, strength and endurance, to achieve sports success.
From Budapest ‘23, the list of such countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Uganda, South Africa, and even Burkina Faso. These are countries that have medals attached to them on the medals table. Nigeria’s name is conspicuously missing at the end.
This situation should attract the new minister’s attention. What can be done immediately, in the short term, and in a long haul so that sport can be better utilised to fetch greater international honours for the country and her athletes, to win more medals and trophies, to more effectively engage and empower the youths in the global sports industry, to unite the people, to add value to the sports economy of the country, and, diplomatically, to be an active change agent for the Black Race on earth. And more.
Nigeria, with the largest population of this human specie on earth, is well endowed.
Late Lee `Evans, the Legendary African/American athlete and foremost coach, salivated through most of his life as an international coach about how easily Nigeria could dominate the world of field and track athletics if only a proper development structure, good programmes and local facilities are established in the country to hone the abundantly available natural raw talents all over the country, instead of exporting a few abroad for refinement, and getting even fewer number still, to return and serve the country.
At the finals of the 400 metres hurdles for women, for example, of the eight finalists two were Nigerians, Adekoya and Folorunso, running for Italy and Bahrain. There were other Nigerians in the colours of the U.S., the UK, Ireland, and so on.
It has always been obvious that when Nigeria gets its act right, and channels more of its energy to developing sports domestically rather than exporting all her raw talent abroad, the country shall continue to end up as potential giants only, never achieving her full potentials in breeding champions.
Lesson number five is that the country must shift its focus from ‘competition’ to ‘development’, from exporting all athletes to honing more of them at home.
That’s why the new minister must be courageous enough to dare to be different. To succeed, he must be ready to think outside the box, to do things differently, and to aim for higher goals. The good thing is that, because he is coming to the table neither with huge sports credentials nor any baggage, expectations of him are limited. That gives him the opportunity to surprise and shock Nigerians. In short, he will have little to lose should he ‘fail’, but a whole world to gain should he succeed. He must, therefore, start his eventful adventure into Nigerian sports with the mindset of doing things differently.
The answers to Nigeria’s sports challenges are surely not in this short welcome article, but in the words of Steve Jobs: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
I wish Senator John Owan Enoh the best of luck.