Nigeria’s Participation In The Olympics Was A Sobering Reminder Of Its Negligent Sports Administration
For shameful reasons that have only gotten uglier, three medals across the last three Olympics is a painfully fitting haul
For shameful reasons that have only gotten uglier, three medals across the last three Olympics is a painfully fitting haul
At the latest edition of the Summer Olympic Games, held from July 23 to August 8, Nigeria finished on the medals table with one silver and one bronze. Ese Brume won the bronze medal in the Women’s long jump event, and Blessing Oborodudu earned silver in Women’s freestyle (68kg) wrestling, making history as the country’s first Olympic medallist in the sport.
With a total haul of two medals, Nigeria’s outing at this year’s Summer Olympics was abysmal, but not entirely shocking considering recent outings. At the last Olympics, held at Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Nigeria finished with a solitary bronze medal, and at London 2012, the country’s sporting contingent finished with a total of zero medals. The medals won at the last three editions of the Olympic pales in comparison to the five medals won at Beijing 2008—Nigeria’s best haul in this millennium—and continues the country’s two-decade-long gold medal drought.
The last time Nigeria had its national anthem played in an Olympic arena, with its athlete(s) standing atop the gold medal podium, was in Atlanta 1996 when Chioma Ajunwa won the Women’s long jump event and the under-23 football team pulled off the same feat—which quickly went on to become local sports lore. At Sydney in 2000, Nigeria’s 4×400 metre relay team initially finished second, but that position was revised upwards following a doping investigation that stripped the winning Team USA of its gold medal. These account for all of Nigeria’s gold medals since athletes began representing the country at the Olympics in 1952, which is apt when its total Olympics medal haul currently stands at 27.
This un-glittering Olympic record didn’t exactly swell hype for Tokyo 2020—held a year later than scheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic—and winning only two medals was painfully fitting given the negligence of our sports administration. More than playing into its consistently bad record, Nigeria’s participation at this year’s events, like previous events, is an indictment of its consistently inept sports administration. If Nigeria’s performance at this year’s Olympics was abysmal, its overall participation was grossly shameful and, perhaps, more embarrassing than ever. In the weeks leading up to Tokyo 2020 and during the two-week-long games, Nigerian sports was in local and international headlines mostly for the wrong reasons, offering an even clearer view of how terribly run the country’s sporting management is.
About ten days before the games were scheduled to start, it was confirmed that Chika Chukumerije would be leading Nigeria’s Taekwondo contingent despite allegations of physical assault dating back six years ago. Chukwumerije was accused by several athletes of being grossly abusive, reportedly slapping them and hitting them with “a rope tied with paper” as corrective measures for not doing “certain things correctly.” On May 31st, a judge at an Abuja High Court dismissed Chukwumerije’s libel suit against Yemi Adeyemi-Enlari and Delateur Foundation, having claimed that they published a letter on Facebook to the President of the Nigerian Taekwondo Federation (NTF). The post alleged that he assaulted female athletes Fatimah Abdullahi and Esther Uzoukwu while they prepared for the 2015 African games.
In dismissing the libel suit, Justice U.P. Kekemeke stated that the defendants proved that their claims were true, effectively indicting Chukwumerije of being abusive. The judgement tallies with the report of the internal investigation carried out by the NTF when the allegations were fresh, but no actions were carried out due to the impeachment of then NTF president George Ashiru, an undermining move ostensibly catalysed by the influential Chukwumerije, who’s a former bronze-winning Olympian and son of late Nigerian senator Uche Chukwumerije. “I am spending for Taekwondo…nobody can control me,” Abdullahi quoted him as saying, claiming that they would be no punitive consequences from his actions.
So far, Chukwumerije has not only been proven right, he’s seemingly been handed the keys to Nigerian Taekwondo, a sinister development that doesn’t happen in isolation. Even with increased awareness, Nigeria is still notorious for failing to deliver justice to survivors of assault, especially when the alleged abusers are people with proximity to power. Also, it doesn’t help that we live in a society where survivors are nudged to hush in order to avoid public ridicule. These factors considered, coaches and officials abusing athletes definitely isn’t a one-off thing that starts and ends with Chika Chukwumerije’s currently bungled case, and it creates an inherently toxic environment for home-grown sporting talent.
Like most of its country’s systems, Nigerian sports is deeply plagued by dysfunction. As highlighted by the Chukwumerije case, it’s a combination of terrible appointments to key positions, consistently bad decisions, corruption and lack of funding (as shown by his quote), a bunch of factors that start from the top and trickles down to athletes who aren’t ideally supported to reach the peak of their potentials. The same way Nigeria does little to aid the potential of its youth population, its sporting complex provides the barest nudges to its athletes, both unproven and proven.
Documenting his experiences at Tokyo 2020 for Zikoko, sprinter Enoch Adegoke revealed that nationally recognised athletes in Nigeria have to combine gruesome training with jobs/hustles that will keep their bills paid. During the Men’s 100 metre final, Enoch Adegoke pulled his hamstring and couldn’t finish the race, a major blow to a young sprinter who should, ideally, be expected to make a full recovery and continue developing. Writing for Zikoko, however, he’s not entirely sure if this period in his career will pan out positively, exuding cautious optimism due to the tenuousness of promises issued to athletes by the Nigerian government. (Chioma Ajunwa only recently received her government-promised apartment, 25 years after her gold medal win.)
I wonder if Enoch’s colleague Divine Oduduru would be in the same uncertain position if he’d gotten injured. Gaining popularity from a hilarious interview which went viral, Divine seemed like the prototypical Nigerian athlete giving it his all in a country that doesn’t properly value its athletes. Not too long after that interview, he joined Texas Tech University’s sprint team on a scholarship, broke the NCAA 100m record, and he signed a sponsorship deal with Puma a few years later. By leaving Nigeria, Divine placed himself on a stable career path that helps him continue developing and will most likely give him a better life beyond being a sprinter. It’s the umpteenth example that Nigeria isn’t an ideal place for sports talent to bloom.
Without a doubt, Nigeria’s failure to compete and win on a wide scale at major events like the Olympics is not for lack of raw talent. One of the many worst-kept secrets in the country is that grassroots sports is terribly underfunded and undervalued, and marred with empty promises from the government, and benevolence of financially buoyant individuals—sometimes at a negative cost, like Chika Chukwumerije has shown. Even its local professional leagues and events aren’t exactly in the best position to maximise home-based potential.
This gnawing failure to cultivate capacity on a wholesome level, locally, is a huge reason Nigeria competes at a limited amount of events at the Olympics, and even at that, the best bet for most Nigerian athletes is to grow outside of the confines of the country’s appalling sports development system and abhorrent management practices. For example, Uche Eke became the first Gymnast to represent Nigeria at the Olympics in Tokyo, a feat made possible by growing up and being trained in the U.S.
Even when athletes are born, raised and trained in better environments outside the country, representing Nigeria at international events comes with its unnecessary hurdles. Nigeria’s basketball teams at this year’s Olympics—both male and female—mainly comprised of players who had found their feet in countries with better basketball programs, but it doesn’t seem farfetched to blame their unceremonious group phase-ended outing on Nigeria’s grossly inept sport administration. After high profile, preparatory wins against top ranked teams, USA and Argentina, it became public knowledge that Nigeria’s basketball teams were planning to embark on this year’s Olympics through crowd-funding means. To add salt to injury, kits donated pro bono by Peak were held up until the last minute by Nigeria’s customs authority.
In regard to sporting kits, during the Olympics, news broke that the athletic federation of Nigeria (AFN) had breached a contract with German sportswear manufacturing company Puma. Reportedly worth 2.76 million dollars for a 4-year period, Puma was meant to provide the kits for Nigeria’s athletics contingent at the recent Olympics, but the deal never materialised due to political in-fighting. While the details are a bit muddy, it seems as though it’s a tussle between the AFN and the sports ministry, stemming from the seeming clandestine manner in which the deal was signed by top AFN members and a feeling of being excluded by the other party.
According to reports, Nigeria’s sport minister Sunday Dare blocked the kits from reaching the athletes, claiming they were part of a criminal investigation. Puma has since terminated the contract and is expected to sue the AFN, an inevitable outcome from the embarrassing situation. To make matters even worse, Chukwuebuka Enekwechi, who represented Nigeria at the Olympics in the Men’s shot put event, shared a video of him washing the sole jersey he was provided with after his qualifying rounds, since he was set to compete in the finals the very next day. In his reaction, Mr. Dare claimed that the video was only shared to embarrass Nigeria, failing to address the real issue behind the well-deserved embarrassment.
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These lackadaisical attitudes from our sports administrators is representative of the failing Nigerian system where our leaders generally eschew accountability, choosing to lord themselves over those they’re meant to serve while failing woefully. Another example being the reported case that Nigerian officials had withheld some of the Samsung phones distributed to athletes at the Olympics. The phones were meant for 10 athletes who were declared ineligible by the Athletics Integrity Unit, as they failed to meet requirements of athletes from ‘Category A’ countries—which Nigeria is a part of due to weak domestic testing. While the ineligible athletes stated their support for their eligible colleagues, they went on to protest against Nigeria’s inept sports administration for being instrumental in their non-participation at the Tokyo games.
“I have said it before and I will say it again, if you don’t know the sport, no passionate about it/us (the athletes), then you have no business being there as an administrator,” veteran sprinter and Olympic medallist Blessing Okagbare tweeted in the aftermath of athletes being disqualified. She’d go on to send out a few more tweets indicting Nigerian sports administrators of bickering over contracts while forgetting that athletes are their major responsibility, an assertion that stung even harder when it was reported, shortly after, that she’d been disqualified from the games after testing positive for human growth hormone (HGH).
These shameful pitfalls at Tokyo 2020 could’ve been avoided is better officials were at the helm of sports management in Nigeria. It’s a simple enough solution, but it’s more complicated in practice because these positions have been highly politicised. It’s not really about who are the best people for these roles, as much as it is about gaining admission to positions to be vied for in typical Nigerian fashion.
At Athens 2004, Nigeria finished with bronze medals in relay events. It’s one of my most vivid memories of the dysfunction in Nigerian sports, partly because the media jokingly referred to the medals as “golden” bronze. In the same breath, though, sports analysts were critical of Nigeria’s shambolic display and were hammering on the need for across-the-board reforms, as well as immediate preparations ahead of the next Olympics in another four years. The critiques took into consideration Nigeria’s grossly inadequate, corrupt and disorderly sports administration.
Seventeen years later, the same evaluations are apt. The administrative issues at Tokyo 2020 aren’t entirely new, they’re just uglier within the context of an increasingly globalised world where news filters through to us a lot quicker. There are no new recommendations, however, bolstering the country’s sports system from the ground up has been a dwelling point for as long as many young like Nigerians like myself have been lucid. It’s a shame that golden moments like Chioma Ajunwa’s and Nigeria’s ’96 football dream team belong are extremely, and they happened in an era where a significant portion of its population were barely lucid. For those moments to not become some unattainable relics of our past, the same sweeping reforms that have been forever echoed by sports journalists and concerned individuals need to be set in motion—and fast.
The only way forward is to completely revamp our sports administration and appoint capable and proficient individuals who are equipped with the knowledge, tools and power to turn around the country’s luck and reaffirm our place as one of the most talented and gifted nations in the world of sports.
@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.