By Ade Ojeikere
The deafening noise from sports venues isn’t unexpected because we are experts in passing the buck. We are specialists in reaping where we did not sow. Planning isn’t in our DNA. We don’t organise competitions, we don’t spot athletes, we don’t nurture them, we don’t have facilities, we don’t train coaches, just as we only remember athletes exist when competitions beckon – if we care to attend such tournaments.
Is anyone shocked that Super Falcons won’t be in Tokyo, Japan, for the 2020 Olympic Games? What did we do to motivate the girls to excel during the qualifiers? What did we do to create the enabling environment for the home-grown girls to mature to stardom? The last time the Falcons played at the Olympics was in Beijing in 2008. Since that time, nothing has changed in the dynamics of the women’s game, largely because we like to rest on our oars. Little wonder we were shocked by the Ivoirians.
Falcons were struggling in most of their matches, needing the individual feats of goalkeeper Nnadozie or the scoring ingenuity of Asisat Oshoala to save Nigeria blushes. What is apparent is the need for new players to displace the ageing stars. The Falcons’ side is almost predictable and cannot surprise any serious soccer nation itching to rule Africa. We should clear the women soccer deck of its irritability. This should start with getting a new coach, who will decide those he or she wants to work with. Those having baggage in the old order should be excused and made to account for their stewardship.
Falcons doesn’t require massive rejuvenation. What the team needs is systematic integration of younger players. This can only happen with a new coach and a management structure. The old hands are burdened by their fixation on what they are used to. They aren’t daring enough to drop some of the girls who are nearer being coaches than playing the game. They have lost the speed to compete with younger girls paraded by other countries, such as Cote d’ Ivoire.
Falcons are a world class brand, rated higher than the Super Eagles in the monthly FIFA ranking. NFF should give the team the attention the Eagles get, if we truly want to make qualification for major events our birthright. The team should never be handled by unqualified coaches, who are neither CAF badge nor FIFA badge holders. The federation should head hunt good coaches for the girls who will add value to what they bring onto the pitch. The Olympic ticket is gone. Now, it is stocktaking time for the players, coaches and federation chiefs. We need a new team.
The case of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria (AFN) is pitiable. I wonder how members haven’t resigned their appointment after the disgraceful manner in which they treated the $150,000 over-payment by IAAF. AFN members knew what they ought to have been paid as support for the local meets was $15,000. When AFN realised they were paid $150,000, $135,000 more, it ought to have raised the alarm with IAAF and returned the extra cash. Nigeria didn’t need to wait until IAAF discovered that it had made a mistake.
Equally disturbing was the twists and turns of returning the cash. How does Nigeria want the international body to bring anything good to this country, given the way we reacted to a mistake. It wasn’t in our interest to blame IAAF accountant, if we returned the money the next day.
Athletics used to rival soccer in results because those who ran the federation were former internationals who knew what to do and were passionate in ensuring that nothing went wrong. These federation chiefs cherished sponsors of the game and religiously stuck to dates of competitions as young men and women. The present administrators wouldn’t be bothered by the dearth of competitions for as long as they can attend tournaments outside the country for estacode, even if our athletes do not make podium appearances.
For a new dawn in athletics, the federation should ensure that grassroots competitions are resuscitated by getting a marketing team to visit corporate firms to sell their programmes. AFN chiefs also need to go to past sponsors to apologise for their gaffes. Perhaps, the defeats of AFN chieftains in IAAF’s elections will send the message that without the athletes, nothing works. When Nigeria dominated athletics, it was easy for them to win elections. Of course, countries with winning athletes had their officials winning elections.
From Doha meet, it is clear that Ese Brume is Nigeria’s poster girl in athletics. Brume lost the second place in the women’s long jump by one metre. She should never be allowed to cater for herself through meets. What such things do is that the athletes burn out before the major competitions and the only way to have control over our elite athletes is for AFN to discuss with the sports minister how he could use his influence in the corporate world to get sponsors for our star athletes, such as Brume and Divine Oduduru, who specialises in the 100 metres dash and 200 metres. They should be monitored and given the star treatment Americans and Jamaicans give their top athletes. Oduduru holds personal bests of 9.86 seconds for the 100 m and 19.73 seconds for the 200 m. Oduduru made his debut on the 2019 IAAF Diamond League circuit at the 2019 Herculis meet, but finished in last place.
Raymond Ekevwo,20, is the 2019 African Games 100 metres champion. He was also a member of the Nigerian 4 × 100 m relay team that won a silver medal at the games. He became the Nigerian junior champion in the 100 metres at the 2016 Dr Olukoya Youth and Junior Championships, winning with a then personal best of 10.35s. As the national junior champion, he was selected to represent the country at the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships. He, however, missed the race as the Nigerian team did not arrive in time for the competition. The other poster boy, Chukwuebuka Cornnell Enekwechi, 26, is a Nigerian-American track and field athlete, specialising in throwing events. He is the 2018 Commonwealth Games Silver medalist and reigning African Champion in the shot put. He is also the 2019 African Games Champion and the reigning Nigerian National Sports Festival Champion.
The Mobil Athletics Championship used to draw huge crowds to the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. They were mostly attracted by what they saw in the previous editions or were enthralled by the rave reviews the athletes got in the media, prior to the event. The arrival of top stars, such Mary Onyali, Fallilat Ogunkoya, Adeniken, Ezenwa brothers and Chidi Imoh as well as many others, made newspaper headlines. The athletes wore tight-fitting wears that trended even after the competitions. Mobil athletics was a fiesta many loved to watch and the Sportscity was centrally located for workers to troop in after work to watch the elite races which were deliberately timed to hold from 6pm.
Those who did well at Mobil were categorised, such that it was easy to differentiate the elite from others who also ran. In fact, Mobil was the basis for picking the country’s representatives at big events. Selection for Mobil was as problematic as picking Nigeria’s final list of 23 players at the World Cup.
If Nigeria must return to the glorious years, AFN chiefs must replicate the good things of the past. And it starts with giving our elite athletes a sense of belonging. They must see themselves as our ambassadors, not in name but in deed.
We must make their welfare our responsibility. We must get them coaches and give them training grants, which will stop them from running for cash.
Perhaps, if Blessing Okagbare had been treated like the queen of the tracks, which she was, we would have set the templates for producing equally talented replacements, if not better ones. Nigeria only remembers Okagbare when we want to attend competitions. But for the benevolence of the former Delta State Governor Dr. Uduaghan, Okagbare couldn’t have attained some of the feats she achieved. Since Uduaghan left office, Okagbare has been tottering.
The majority of our good athletes had scholarships in American universities where they developed into top stars. Some of the previous athletes have left school. We need to tap from their experience by ensuring that they are given jobs which will rub off on our emerging stars. I was excited when the sports minister appointed Mary Onyali as his SSA. Nothing could have been better than that if we truly want to rediscover our good past in athletics.
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