Every few months I text my friends who once flew the countries’ flag proudly, some with funny demands and almost all of them with funny American accents. Some of them have done surprisingly well at big meets and some have choked spectacularly. But, they all have one thing in common – a passion for everything Nigerian sports.
I always wonder loudly why they waited for their glory days to roll by before they lit the fire to their nationalistic passion. They all assure me that the fire was always there but “Naija no serious”.
Anytime I text any of them, I normally get a long return call. I listen to them because you can’t doubt their love for Nigeria. And, when you love Nigeria you gotta cry for a country of almost 200 million people that went to an Olympics and came back empty handed. In some countries with some maverick leaders, all the sports leaders will be cleaning their nails in jail. But, in Nigeria, the leaders build new mansions.
You could make a great comedy show about the chiefs of Nigerian sports. You think politics is bad, try sports. There was this new sports chief who identified the biggest problem in sports development in Nigeria and made it a crusade to remove him from his exalted office. The great thing was he’d heard the brash president proclaim the man a thief. So, he thought he had an ally in his boss. One day, he got a call. The boss was removing him. The subordinate whose head he’d put on the chopping block was not only staying, he was spotted grinning with the president not long after. Money talks, ideas die.
Then there was the new sports chief that showed up with a revolutionary broom. Everyone expected him to sweep away the big cogs slowing Nigerian sports down. The biggest cog gathers his fellow directors, writes a big, fat check and visited the new chief. They shook the chief’s hand and he laughed all the way to the bank. Ideas die, money talk.
But, this weekend we were not talking about sports chiefs. We were talking about wasted opportunities. The occasion was the collegiate athletic championship in Oregon, America. The field was packed with the best talents in American college sports, quite a number of who were Nigerians.
The strange thing was that many of the foreign collegians wore their national flags on their sleeves. The East Africans wore their national bracelets. The Europeans brandished their national wristbands and tattoos. The Asians were absent because this was track and field after all, not what Alex Akinyele in his time at the helm of sports called “take one and do”. But, the way you knew the Nigerians was by their very Nigerian names.
I was torn between hurt and anger. “Abeg, go siddon, Naija no serious – how will they know what to do when their own country doesn’t guide them?” a former Olympian told me. That struck me as strange because after the laughable outing at the Olympics, Nigerian sport chiefs told the nation they would start preparing for the next Olympics, just like the failed chiefs before them had done. You will assume preparations include scouting talent. But, in Nigeria sports when there’s no dough to be made no one cares.
Nigeria would be a second-tier sports power if only it does the simple thing of scouting Nigerian-born talent properly. Just from this weekend field alone, Nigeria can groom a medal or two. Representing your school at these finals are as tough as qualifying for the Olympic finals. Giving these kids some love and support for the next three years may just mean glory.
Most of the serious nations had scouts all over the meet. You can bet the “ogas on top” were busy at some party or giving lip service to sports department. In three years they will roll out the same speech of starting preparations right away again. When the coaches submit a program, the chiefs hand them to the groundnut sellers by the roadside.
It’s not only track and field. Nigerian-born future stars are everywhere you look. In boxing, football, swimming, tennis and most other sports. A couple of years ago, I was in England at my favorite team. I have more than a sporting interest in the team so I asked for and got a tour of the facility.
I met a Nigerian kid in the youth team set up. He was surprised I was getting a tour. I was surprised he has never considered representing Nigeria even though his father was once a local star in Nigeria. Kid tells me he knows little about Nigeria. All he knows are from the foreign press – 419, kidnapping, corruption and the other good stuff. His teammates with roots in the Caribbean or some of the African countries sometimes get invitations from the embassies. But, not him or kids from Nigerian like him.
Sad thing is, England and these foreign countries will cap kids like these in a meaningless friendly and dump then. Then they will regret not giving Nigeria a look. But, it would be too late. Just like it’s always late for Nigeria, our dear country who starts preparing for the next Olympics on the day of the past failure. Only that we all know that preparation is not in talent. It’s in making the chiefs’ account fat.