Where do Nigeria’s problems lie?

There is no argument that sports administration and lack of funding are two of Nigeria’s biggest impediments to sports development. However, the problems are more than these.

Nigeria prefers to spend money on sports like football which is a crowd pleaser compared to the top nations which prefer to focus available funds on those sports that offer lots of medals. Team sports like football, hockey and basketball are expensive because many players have to be funded, but typically add only single medal to the scoreboard. Compare these with sports like swimming, cycling, archery, table tennis and even track & field which have a team medal as well as multiple individual medals on offer. Nigeria must make deliberate efforts which clearly identify high medal winning sports and focus resources on developing competitors for these sports if the country is to increase its woeful medals return per athlete count which was at 1% in Rio, compared to the 22% posted by the United States or the 18% of Great Britain.

The system of identifying skills at youth level which used to be a feature of Nigerian sports no longer exists – even in Football. This differs deeply from Kenya which sees the identification of talent (male and female) among local youth competitions as the core of its national athletic strategy – its school system is well renowned for its sporting competition. Where these investments have been made in Nigeria, we have seen results. Much of the track and field success of the 1990s are traceable to investments made by Samuel Ogbemudia as governor of the Mid-Western State in the 1970s.

The problem is not in our genes

A good number of Nigerian born athletes and athletes of Nigerian descent represented other nations at the Rio Olympics, and while Nigeria barely got any medal at the games, some of them went on to win medals for their adopted countries. Clearly, the problem is not in our genes.

The story of Kemi Adekoya is particularly striking, she switched allegiance to Bahrain in 2014 after she complained that the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) were not funding her training and she was not paid the jackpot she won in the Nigerian golden league. She went on to say she did not regret switching allegiance as she would have been forced to retire early due to frustration. In her first race in the IAAF Diamond league meet, she placed first in the 400m hurdles race and displayed a banner that read “I love Bahrain”.

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Where do we go from here?

In a nutshell, what we have to do as a nation to succeed at future Olympics are clear:

  • First, we must either scrap the National Sports Council, whose mandate is too broad, or the Ministry of Sports. Both bodies overlap in many instances, and are a duplication of effort. Then we should merge the governing bodies of high medal count sports such as athletics, swimming, etc into an elite sports coordinating body
  • Secondly, we must come up with our own clear but brutal strategy – identify sports in which Nigeria had a serious chance of winning multiple medals and launch a full scale assault with clear targets for the next 5 Olympic games (twenty years).
  • We must explore unique funding sources. The British national lottery and the United States Olympic Committee private sector funding models should be considered to supplement government funding. Judicious management of this funding to meet the targets identified in 2 above will be crucial. Safeguards must be put in place to ensure that we do not simply create new bodies that will generate funds and swallow the funds running itself and taking care of its officials. The goal must remain firmly clear
  • Grassroots sports must be relaunched, particularly at the secondary school level. This is where the National Sports Commission should focus its effort, while the elite sports coordinator picks up the best for further development.
  • Funding must go into training those who will nurture these sportsmen – their coaches, their doctors, nutritionists and the administrators that will handle logistics for our sportsmen so that they can focus on the improving their sports as opposed to catering to their own coaches, travel agents and the likes. This was at the core of Ogbemudia’s investments in the Mid-west when he was governor and until today, the best athletics coaches in the country are from the area.
  • We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Different countries have invested in R&D to improve their sportsmen training and equipment. Nigeria should understudy these and adapt what we can to our sportsmen and women in order to leapfrog and make speedy progress. We must also identify sports that will be introduced in new Olympics games and position for them. This requires a different type of research funding, for intelligence gathering and planning.
  • Sports festival models currently in use in Nigeria (by the National Sports Commission and the Nigerian Universities Games Association) has to be dropped as it does not encourage regular day-to-day competitiveness
  • Finally, Nigeria must continue to promote women’s sports at all levels. So far, 34% of our medal haul and our only individual gold medal in all our years of Olympic participation has been from our sportswomen. This was in spite of the fact that the first female medal came at our 11th Olympics. Since that time, half of all our medals have been won by women. We need to create focus on this and make the necessary investments to get more Nigerian women competing at the Olympic games.

If these steps are carried out and preparation is applied to the natural athletic talent of Nigerians, the country can become the sporting powerhouse it is expected to be.