By Nnamdi Okosieme
When Salwa Eid Naser blazed past Olympic champion Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas to take gold in 48.14 seconds at the 2019 Athletics World Championships in Doha, very few Nigerians had heard of her.
For them the disappointment of their nation flunking the grades once again at the Worlds once was bad enough without them having to worry about a foreign athlete about whom they knew little or nothing.
Yet Eid Naser was their very own; born and raised on Nigerian soil. Born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu on May 23, 1998, to Nigerian parents, Naser participated in athletics competitions in Nigeria until 2014 when she took on Bahraini citizenship. 1n fact, one year earlier, she had emerged the school sports champion in her event.
Her victory in Doha at the worlds has been received with mixed feelings in Nigeria since her true identity became known. Whilst some have “annexed” her victory for Nigeria insisting that she remains a bona fide Nigerian her new status notwithstanding, others feel a deep sense of disappointment that Nigeria’s athletics officials allowed such a talent slip through their fingers.
The lure of the Golden Fleece
Eid Naser is not the only Nigerian athlete dumping the country in search of better opportunities abroad. Since 2000/2001 when the duo of Francis Obikwelu and Glory Alozie switched to Portuguese and Spanish nationalities, Nigerian athletes have been leaving the country in droves in search of the mythical Golden Fleece.
In a 2004 article, ‘African Drain’, Yomi Omogbeja, a leading athletics writer in Africa and publisher of the athletics website, athleticsafrica.com, decried the exodus of African athletes to other continents in search of better career opportunities.
“Many talented Africa athletes are changing nationalities in droves in search of the elusive greener pastures,” Omogbeja said.
“The rush by African athletes to change their nationality to just any country ready to offer them citizenships abroad has never been so alarming as it is now. This year’s Olympics Games in Athens may witness the highest participation by Africans in the history of the modern games, yet only about 50% will actually be representing African countries. Nigeria is the most populous black nation with a population of over 120 million, yet can only send 24 athletes to Athens, whereas South Africa is sending over 200.
“Nigeria officials blamed lack of funds to take a large contingent- especially those without realistic chances of winning – thus depriving all the long-distance and field athletes the Olympic opportunity and exposure irrespective of their form. These officials seemed to have forgotten that Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medal came through Chioma Ajunwa in the long jump in Atlanta 1996, at a time when she was outside of the world ranking in the event,” Omogbeja added.
Funding sports in Nigeria has remained a problem in Nigeria and has been at the heart of the challenges faced by athletes and their coaches. But this is not the full story. Beyond poor funding of sports is the shoddy treatment meted to athletes by sports administrators who have been more concerned with advancing their own personal interests.
A familiar refrain with Nigerian athletes who switched nationality is their abandonment by Nigerian athletics federation officials at critical moments. The case of Francis Obikwelu, the sprinter who represented Nigeria in the 100 and 200 metres as well as the relays is a classical case of the insensitivity of Nigerian sports administrators.
Obikwelu, a 1999 bronze medallist for Nigeria at the World Athletics Championships in Seville, Spain, was injured racing for Nigeria at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. He went to Canada for treatment and found himself paying the medical bills himself even when the situation became life-threatening and he sent an SOS to the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN).
With Nigeria turning its back on him in his hour of need, Obikwelu, who was already based in Portugal, had no difficulty switching nationality to the European nation. Nigeria’s loss was Portugal’s gain as the sprinter went on to win laurels including one Olympics silver medal, three gold and one silver medals at the European Championships, a gold at the European Indoor Championships among others, for his new country.
Patience Itanyi, a USA based former African champion and Nigerian record holder in the Heptathlon, believes Nigerian athletics officials are the biggest drawback to the development of the sport.
“Talent has never been an issue with our athletes. We have consistently produced athletes capable of dominating the world. The challenge has always been the incompetence and lack of vision on the part of the individuals who run the sport,” said Itanyi, a University of West Virginia, USA Hall of Famer whose Nigerian Heptathlon record set at a meet in France in 2000 was unbroken for more than ten years.
The former African Heptathlon champion said it was deplorable to note that despite the plenitude of talents in its bowel, Nigeria has consistently underperformed at international athletics meets.
“We are punching well below our weight. Over the years we have had African and other nations across the world overtake us to the extent that we are now playing catch with countries that in my time were not in the top ten bracket of top athletics nations,” Itanyi noted.
Indeed, Itanyi’s era and the period just before hers were halcyon days for Nigerian athletes. In those days, Nigeria was a global athletics powerhouse with its athletes like Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali, Davidson Ezinwa, his twin, Osmond Ezinwa, Olapade Adenekan, Adewale Olukoju, his wife, Fatimat Yusuf-Olukoju, Chidi Imoh, Clement Chukwu, Chioma Ajunwa,Taiwo Aladefa, Orode Oyiki, to mention just a few pushing top nations like the United States of America and Britain to the limits of their ability. A World Championships bronze medal in Triple Jump by Ajayi Agbebaku in and silver medal in the 400 metres by Innocent Egbunike at the Athletics Worlds in Rome four years later in Rome were proofs of the resilience and ability of Nigerian athletes.
At the Olympics, Nigeria had established its presence way back at the 1984 Los Angeles Games with its sprinters winning a silver and a bronze medal. At the Barcelona Games in 1992 three silver medals and a bronze signposted the quality of performance of its athletes on the world stage.
Nigeria’s defining moment in athletics came at the Atlanta 1996 Games when Chioma Ajunwa leapt 7.12 metres to win gold in the Long Jump. Four years later in Sydney, Australia, its men’s 4×400 metres team finished in second place in the final to pick silver, which was later upgraded to gold after a member of the American team, which won the gold was found to have engaged in doping leading to the withdrawal of the gold from the Americans.
“It was not just that our athletes were picking medals at the Olympics; their performances were consistent. They were in the top bracket of their events and consistently produced world-leading times,” said Mike Okafor, a sports analyst.
Today, things are different. The country, whose athletes used to titillate athletics fans with world-class performances, is a shadow of its once glorious self, its lowest point being its woeful outing at the London 2012 Olympics Games. At the World Championships, it has also failed to rise to its full height. In fact, at the 2019 Athletics worlds, which ended on December 6 in Doha, it was Ese Brume’s bronze medal in the Long Jump that consoled Nigerians giving them the feeling that they at least participated in the championship. The medal was also Nigeria’s first in the last five editions of the global athletics championships.
At home in Nigeria athletes are dispirited as officials concentrate more on furthering their personal interests instead of advancing the cause of the sports, and paying serious attention to the athletes without whom the sport would not exist in the first place. Instead of formulating policies and designing programmes that would change the face of the sport in the country, they often revel in intimidating and harassing outspoken athletes who call them out in their shenanigans.
Aside from their lack of attention to technical and administrative matters, which was on display at the 2019 World Athletics Championships where Nigeria’s Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, ordered Sunday Adeleye, Technical Director of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria back home for almost causing the disqualification of two Nigerian athletes, Divine Oduduru and Blessing Okagbare Ighoteguono, a good many athletics officials have itchy fingers. They have routinely cheated athletes of their allowances in addition to misappropriating other funds meant for the administration of the sport.
Their greed was on display when in 2017 the world athletics governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) mistakenly sent to the AFN the sum of $150,000 as prize money for the Warri relays and Grand Prix instead of the actual amount of $15,000. For two years, the AFN refused to return the balance of $135,000 prompting the IAAF to withhold prize money belonging to Nigeria and threatening to ban it from fielding athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Our situation is pathetic. We have hit rock bottom”, says Okafor.
“It is tragic that a nation, which once stood tall in the global athletics arena, is today lying prostrate at the feet of mediocrity. What we have today is a near hopeless situation with poor facilities for training, poor welfare for athletes and corruption underpinning the administration of athletics in Nigeria’” he added.
He says that whilst Nigeria basked in the glory of its accomplishments, serious nations went to work.
“Whereas countries like the United States and Japan are making in-roads in sports where in the past they were no-hopers (America took gold for the first time since its participation at the Olympics, in women’s 800 metres, and Japan took silver, yes Japan and not America, Britain or Bahamas, in the men’s 4×100 metres relay), Nigeria is fast relinquishing stake in those events that had earned it global respect in sports,” Okafor noted.
Taking the easy route
So, how did Nigeria arrive at the present situation where its athletes dispirited, are opting to try their luck as nationals of other countries?
Yomi Kuku, Executive Director of Search and Groom Youth for Development Centre, a non-governmental organisation using sports at the grassroots to empower young Nigerians, says the tendency for Nigeria’s sports administrators to look for quick fixes among their many other lapses, is responsible.
“Sports federations officials in Nigeria are jeopardising the future of Nigerian children by not helping the sector to develop. Instead of providing Nigerian athletes with the right tools and methods to train, they go abroad to lure children of Nigerian descent to represent in international competitions especially in sports like athletics and football. We all know that this attitude defeats the purpose of strong competition and development for results,” Kuku stated.
He said that people like him who have been at the forefront of using sports for social and economic development, and have invested their time, energy and resources into developmental programmes, are treated with scorn by Nigeria’s sports federation officials and frustrated at every turn. Citing an example of the attitude of Nigeria’s sports federation officials, he said:
“I was involved in applying to FIFA to bring the legacy project of the first FIFA World Cup in Africa in 2010. The “20 for 2010” was an official legacy project of FIFA through the “Football for Hope”. The plan had classroom blocks, football pitch, health centre all put together to be situated in the heart of a community a supported NGO by FIFA through the “Football for Hope” puts forward.
“We made the application for Nigeria through Search and Groom Youth for Development Centre, which had program funding from FIFA over the years FIFA sent officials to inspect and meet with people we proposed. With the exception of Late Deji Tinubu who was then a member of the Nigeria Football Federation, nobody else showed interest in the sports fraternity. This is how you know who is genuinely committed to the development of sports in Nigeria,” Kuku averred.
He said the attitude of Nigeria’s sports federation officials is sustained because there are no attempt by Nigerian governments at all levels, to hold them to account.
“We have been screaming for decades been screaming for decades, telling those in authority to pay attention to the reason sports federation officials fight tooth and nail to remain in their positions in their positions, despite not producing results at home. Because of their incompetence and lassitude, which are not queried by government, they rely on finished products in the form of foreign-born athletes of Nigerian descent to cover their monumental inadequacies and gross incompetence,” Kuku said.
He said the Nigerian government and public should be interested in finding why Nigerian athletes are representing Bahrain, why young British footballers with Nigerian roots prefer to represent England.
“Why are the officials running after athletes who don’t want to represent Nigeria? These are the issues to be interrogated and not begrudging the young men who make professional decisions regarding their own personal lives”, Kuku added.
Admitting that Nigerian athletics officials have not been living up to expectation, Olukayode Thomas, a journalist and an award-winning athletics reporter, says the incompetence of athletics federation officials is not the only reason for Nigerian athletes changing their nationality.
He says a key reason is lack of patriotism on their part.
“I agree we have managerial problems but which country doesn’t? Our case is not even worse than those of other countries. Jamaica and Bahamas, two countries that have consistently produced top athletes globally, have the same problems but you don’t see their athletes dumping them for other countries. I think that it’s just basically lack of patriotism. We don’t see ourselves as Nigerians but as individuals who want to make it with or without honour,” Thomas said.
On Agbapuonwu’s decision to become a Bahraini and the subsequent change of name to Eid Nasar, Thomas said If the lady is talented and she followed the path of former top Nigerian athletes like Yusuf Alli, Innocent Egbunike, Falilat Ogunkoya, Chidi Imoh, Olapade Adeniken and others who went through the American sports collegiate system, she would still become a world champion as a Nigerian with a free degree from America.
“The truth is that some of our athletes today are not getting the right advice. In some cases even when you offer sound advice, they ignore it and take decisions, which end up having negative consequences on their careers. If you observed closely, you would notice that in the years we dominated Africa in athletics particularly in the sprints where our athletes held their own against the best in the world, the majority of our leading athletes were based in America where they were college and university students. There, they were exposed to first-class facilities and had their minds developed by the training the received in school. This helped them think, plan and coordinate themselves better. Today, it’s a different ball game. It first began by our athletes preferring to chase money by going to Europe to compete for athletics clubs, and later to Middle East countries like Qatar and Bahrain,” Thomas stated.
He said would not be celebrating athletes like Eid Naser who had dumped Nigeria for other countries regardless of their achievements.
“I will not celebrate her. Instead, I am celebrating Nigerians who are wearing our green and white colours regardless of their performances at the world championship and other international events but that is not to say that I will no,t tell the heads of Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and the Sports Ministry that track and field is off the track and that all hands must be on the deck to put it back on track.
Getting back on track
Getting the sport back on track will certainly not be an easy task considering the years of neglect and maladministration but Itanyi believes it is doable.
“Our athletics officials need to force school sports into the curriculum of every school in Nigeria. That is one sure way of rejuvenating the sport. Nigeria’s success in athletics in the 1980s and 1990s derived largely from the fact those of us who competed in that era were products of the Nigerian and American school sports system. We were discovered when we were very young and were nurtured and groomed into champions through the efforts of our coaches at the grassroots and universities. It is a fact that some of my best performances as an athlete came whilst I was a student of West Virginia University here in the United States,” Itanyi said.
She adds that whilst enforcing the schools’ sports system, it is equally important to treat the welfare of athletes as an important component of the sports administration and development strategy. She says globally, that sports had moved from being a mere pastime to become a powerful tool for empowerment of youths and the general population, a platform for diplomatic leveraging and a unifier of peoples.
“We must get serious about sports in Nigeria. With the myriad of challenges the country is facing particularly in the area of security and the economy, sports can be used to keep our youth off the streets and from engaging in deviant behaviours,” Itanyi noted.
For Kuku, the key challenge is getting Nigerian sports federation officials accountable. He says acts of omission and commission, which lead to the decline of any particular sport, must be punished.
“You cannot hand people responsibilities without an adequate control system. When you put money in people’s hands to run sports, you must find out from them how they expended the money. We have seen in this country how federation officials divert funds meant for the organization of competitions and payment of athletes’ allowances, into their own pockets without anyone holding them to account. This must change if we must pull our sports out of the mire it is wallowing in presently,” Kuku said.