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Nigeria’s sports silver linings at 60

Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has made appreciable strides on the global sporting map from the Olympic Games to the Commonwealth Games, continental meets and World Championships. Despite some silver linings over the last six decades, stakeholders argue the returns should have been better given the abundance of sporting talents in the country, report OLALEKAN OKUSAN and TUNDE LIADI

Since independence, Nigeria has recorded several accomplishments in sports from boxing to athletics; from football to cricket and a host of others and what amazing runs these have been in the six decades.

Among the country’s milestones achieved in sports included that of policewoman Chioma Ajunwa who became the first Nigerian and indeed black African to win an Olympic Gold medal in a field event at the 1996 Atlanta Georgia Olympics in the United States. Till date, she remains Nigeria’s only individual Olympic gold medallist.

In football, Nigeria’s record within and outside the country is there for others to emulate as the country Under 23 team became the first African nation to win an Olympic gold medal in football also at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games in the United States. They also won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China and a bronze in the last edition in Rio, Brazil four years ago.

Also Nigeria’s U-17 football team, the Golden Eaglets have stood out in the course of time being the first country to win the FIFA U-17 World Cup at its inaugural edition in China in 1985. Nigeria is also the most successful team in the competition with five world titles overall following the success of the Golden Eaglets in the 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015 editions.

Equally, the Super Falcons are Africa’s most successful football team, winning the African Women’s Cup of Nations for a record 11 times, with seven titles coming consecutively between 1991 and 2006; and they are the only team in Africa that have attended every editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup since its launch in 1991.

Elsewhere, the Nigerian Paralympic team have stood out since they debuted at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain and have totalled an impressive 70 medals including 36 gold medals, 18 silver medals, and 16 bronze overtime-having participated in every subsequent edition of the Summer.

The national soccer team the Green Eagles that was later rechristened Super Eagles, have won the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) thrice with its maiden victory in 1980 in Lagos as host. Away in Tunisia ‘94, the team captained by late Stephen Keshi claimed Nigeria’s second trophy at the expense of Zambia. Also under late Stephen Keshi as coach, the team coasted to victory at the 2013 edition in South Africa.

Over the last six decades, there have been individual outstanding performances at major international competitions.

Apart from the competitions that the country has taken part in as participants, Nigeria has also hosted several international competitions including the All Africa Games in 1973; FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups respectively in 1999 and 2009 as well as several other international engagements across different sports.

Yet despite these impressive milestones that have long put the nation on the global sporting map, Nigeria is still struggling to secure a befitting, permanent spot in the comity of superpowers in the world of sports much to the displeasure of many stakeholders.

They argued more efforts are still needed to raise the profile of Nigeria in the sports arena.

Chika Chukwumerije, who represented Nigeria at three Olympic Games, said the number of medals won by Nigeria in international competitions has not reflected the country’s potential.

“Our youthful population is not only massive, but it is a talented legion but regarding international medals won across sports at major tournaments, our collective medal haul over the decades do not reflect in any way this vast potential,” began the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist.

He added: “As a potential contributor to the nation’s GDP, we are yet to crack the code of using sports as a business tool to contribute to our nation’s economy.

“Achieving this will also help lift many youths out of poverty while securing many sports-related jobs. Overall, there is progress on some fronts, but it is slow and uncoordinated.”

But a former Principal Special Assistant on Grassroots Sports in Lagos State, Adewale Oladunjoye, noted there must be deliberate political will to change the fortune of sports in Nigeria.

“We have tried but we need to do more as a people, government and nation,” explained Oladunjoye, who is the tournament director of the annual Tennis Governor’s Cup in Lagos. “These are what we need to focus on to get there better and steadily going forward.”

He offered some solutions: “We need to fully democratize our sports federations and encourage them to get registered with constitutions to guide all their operations.

“Physical Education (PE) should be made compulsory and scored from JSS1-SS3 and to be taught by PE graduates as a daily subject with a practical last period of every week for these students to feel and know different equipment/materials most likely for the first time.

“The government must support and provide equity participation for nearby functional mini facilities in each local government with 5-year term replaceable equipment/materials. These would provide both competitive and recreational activities with attendant better health for the general public to be so attracted when provided.

“National Federations should be encouraged to mandatorily organize at least 2 to 3 quarterly national Championships from their own sponsorships or resources from members annually to remain in office.

“Public and private companies, LGs and Armed Forces like we had in the ‘60s to the ‘80s, must be persuaded to set up more clubs in all sports and federal/state offices.

“With the National Federations responsible for local activities/competitions, the federal government should encourage participation in international competitions by supporting and sponsoring Nigerian athletes to participate so that they can fly our flags proudly and adequately all over the World,” Oladunjoye noted.

Meanwhile, President, Badminton Federation of Nigeria, Francis Orbih, stressed that the growth of sports in the country would remain erratic if nothing was done to ensure that the government hands off the day-to-day running of sports.

He said until sports was taken as a serious business and private sector allowed to call the shots with the Ministry of Sports only playing supervisory role, Nigerian sportsmen and women may continue to struggle in international competitions like it has been for successive decades.

“At some time we had done well and at other times we didn’t do too well,” explained the Barrister. “So I would say that it has been full of ups and downs but without mincing words, we have not been able to attain or achieve our full potential in sports because of the way and manner sports have been run over the years.

“It is only recently that the Government categorised sports as business. Before now it was seen as mere activities. Like the way one of my friends used to call it ‘it was seen as ‘play-play’ because nobody took it seriously but of course in other climes sports is seen as a serious business taken seriously. The kind of seriousness you attach to it will determine the kind of efforts you put into the sport.

“We have had a knee-jerk approach over the years and that is because of the level of seriousness given to sports generally by previous governments. Sports weren’t taken as serious business and because of that the things that needed to be done were not done. The foundation that needed to be laid which is the proper foundation for proper governance structure was not laid.

“It is the reason why we have not excelled as much as expected but we hope the government will see through the new categorisation given to sports now. We need to create the enabling environment for sports to blossom. Government cannot continue to fund sports. All over the world, sports is business and Government has no business running it. It belongs to the private sector.

Chairman, Imo FA, Amanze Uchegbulam, hailed the contributions of sports to the development of the country in the past 60 years, saying it has helped to build the image of the country.

He therefore tasked the government to invest more in sports: “Honestly I will tell you that if there is something that has given Nigeria some credibility in the world it is sports.

“Sports have marketed Nigeria so well that anywhere you talk about Nigeria it is just in the area of sports that people think about the country.

“Sports have wiped away almost all negativity about Nigeria. When you get to an embassy or immigration outside this country and you mention that you are a Nigerian, they will start calling Nigerian footballers names like Kanu Nwankwo, Austin Okocha, Rashidi Yekini and others.

“Sports have given us a lot of positive images but unfortunately we have not invested much in sports. If we put back the same proportion of what sports has done to the country back to it, we would have been in high heavens.

“The much we have achieved in football and the little investment that has been made are highly commendable because if you look at football for instance, we do not have proper infrastructure. “Nigerians are playing in virtually all leagues in the world. Nigerians are even running for other countries and are playing for them too at all levels. If we actually put correct investment in sports Nigeria will explode.

“Most of our sportsmen and women who have done Nigeria proud in athletics for instance, have all been trained abroad where they enjoyed good infrastructure.

“We need to put a lot more investment in sports because it has given us much joy. Sports and entertainment with Nollywood is the key to the success of Nigeria. I can’t imagine what they would think about Nigeria without sports, particularly football,” noted Uchegbulam.

In the same vein, President of the Super Eagles Supporters Club, Vincent Okumagba, also called on Nigerian government to improve sports infrastructure in the country to ensure that talents are properly groomed.

Okumagba recalled with nostalgia some of memorable moments in Nigerian sports, especially football, but he stated that these successes may be hard to replicate with the level of decay across sports facilities in the country.

He said: “Nigeria is blessed with an abundance of talents. What we lack is the infrastructural environment to enable them to develop to world standards.

“My heart bleeds when I see the amount of talents that we have but no facility for them to train. So many talents are being wasted because the system is not aiding their development.”

A grassroots sports promoter, Oluseyi Oyebode said: “60 years of sports in Nigeria has come with lots of ups and downs. Our colonial masters created a good foundation of purpose for Nigeria sports just like other sectors, which at the beginning, supported the growth of sports, followed with many achievements in boxing, football and athletics, among others. These achievements came with good structure that engendered the growth of sports development in the 60s, 70s and 80s and mid 90s that propel Nigeria on a global pedestal.

“However, lack of good structure to sustain earlier achievements and progress into the global millennium sports agenda and dearth of the proper growth plan badly affected sports in Nigeria. The inability to deliver a sports policy and also to sustain existing growth plans led to the downfall of sports in Nigeria. Grassroots sports development with education was the earlier focus but it was later abandoned,” Oyebode said.

Unique milestones @ 60

October 10, 1964 – Nojeem Maiyegun won Nigeria’s first ever medal at the Olympics when the light middleweight boxer shared the bronze medal with Józef Grzesiak of Poland. Isaac Ikhuoria won another bronze medal in the same sport on August 26, 1972 at Munich Olympics.

December 12, 1976 – Shooting Stars became the first Nigerian club side to win a continental title after a 4-2 aggregate win over Roger Milla inspired- Cameroon’s Tonnerre Kalala in the African Cup Winners Cup competition.

March 22, 1980 – In front of enthusiastic crowd, including President Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s Green Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time after a 3-0 victory over Algeria in the final played in Lagos, Nigeria. Later renamed Super Eagles, Nigeria added two more AFCON titles on April 10, 1994 in Tunisia and February 3, 2013 in South Africa.

August 11, 1985 – Nigeria beat Germany 2-0 to win the inaugural FIFA Under 16 Tournament in China. It was the first time a team outside Europe and South Africa will win a major global event. The Golden Eaglets won it four times more in 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015 to become the most successful team in the history of the cadet competition.

October 8, 1993 – For the first time since debut entry in 1959, Nigeria’s Super Eagles qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals held in the United States in 1994 after a 1-1 draw with Algeria in Algiers. The Eagles have featured five more times at the World global fiesta(1998, 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018) since their maiden appearance.

August 2, 1996 – Chioma Ajunwa produced an amazing first round leap of 7.12m to become first Nigeria and Black African to win an Olympic Gold medallist.

August 3, 1996 – Nigeria’s Under 23 team won the Olympics Gold medal at the Atlanta Georgia Games to become the first African to achieve the feat. The same team also won the Silver and Bronze medals on August 23, 2008 and August 20, 2016 to become the first nation to win all Olympics medals.

October 31, 1998 – Nigeria’s Super Falcons won the inaugural African Women Championship when Super Falcons beat Ghana 2-0 in the final match played at Abeokuta. They have won a record 11 titles overall including winning the first seven titles consecutively.

December 12, 2003 Nigeria’s Enyimba won CAF Champions League. It was the first time a Nigerian side will do so since the continent’s premier club competition began in 1964. Enyimba went ahead to win the Super Cup for the first time for Nigeria. The People’s Elephant on December 12, 2004 defended the title at the expense of Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia. They also won the Super Cup again.

March 8, 2008 – Samuel Peters beat Oleg Maskaev in Cancun, Mexico to become the World Boxing Council (WBC) champion.

August 1, 2010 – Nigeria’s Falconets emerged the runners-up in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Germany after losing the final match 2-0 to the hosts, Germany. It was the best performance by an African side at the tournament.

The Falconets were in the final again in 2014 in Canada but they were beaten by the same Germans for the second time on August 24, 2014.

August 30, 2015 – Nigeria’s men basketball team, D’Tigers won the Afrobasket for the first time, beating Angola 74-65. Nigeria’s Chamberlain Oguchi also emerged as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

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