Poor Bolaji Abdulahi. I don’t think I’ve met a more optimistic person than the honourable minister of sports. He’s one man who doesn’t think a bottle is ever half-empty. He’s the apostle of half-fullness.
He must have looked at sports the same way when the President asked him to do the impossible – bring sanity to Nigerian sports.
He must have arrived in London dreaming of a fistful of gold, a bucket of medals and watching a few Nigerian athletes taking a victory lap with the Nigerian flag. In a nation of almost 200 million, that shouldn’t be a pipe dream.
But, this is the Olympics and these are Nigerian athletes. The best part of the Olympics for Nigerian athletes is the opening ceremony where they march in flowing Nigerian attire. After that, most of them fully embrace the Olympic spirit of participation is good enough. I mean how do you explain the Nigerian table tennis team. Some of the competitors have been failures at the Olympics since I was a child. Yet, they got a return ticket to London!
Nothing encapsulates Nigeria’s Olympic misadventure than watching the American team maul the Nigerian basketball team. It was so bad you felt the United Nations should step in and stop one country from massacring the other.
I didn’t even know it was possible for one country, even America, to beat another country by almost a century of points in an Olympic sport. This would be like Brazil beating Nigeria 12 – 0 in a football game!
This was the same American team that struggled to beat Lithuania a few days later. This is the same team people back in America think is not even the best Dream team ever. And, the Nigerians were not exactly area boys and molue drivers rounded up from the streets of Lagos. They are the cream of Nigeria’s phantom professional basketball players, the same guys who have more press in Nigeria than on the team sheets on the clubs they play in abroad. The better Nigerian player, Andre Iguodala, was playing for the dream team and sinking Nigeria.
A friend who knew some of the Nigerians play American collegiate basketball asked if the Nigerians had anything resembling a coach. Good point, I replied, maybe the coach had a cold, couldn’t make the game and asked a four-year old to fill in for him. Maybe, the four year-old got buried in a game of Lego and forgot he should switch between zonal marking and man-marking to slow the Americans. Anything else would be treason.
You can knock the basketball team all you want but they did make it to London. Aside the humiliation, being at the games would have been victory enough. But, what do you say about the other sports and planning?
Most athletes would kill for an Olympic medal. But, most Nigerian athletes will kill for a bonus and limp through their events. There is no sense of national pride in most Nigerian athletes. It seems the athletes, for the most part, take one look at their pot-bellied officials on a shopping jamboree through the Olympics and decide, “Why bother?”
Most countries have a sports plan, Nigeria hold conferences about a sports plan and worry more about which friend gets the contract for staging the seminar. Most countries with the topography of Nigeria would take one look at the Niger Delta, yank the kids out of the rivers, build a swimming center in Port Harcourt and get some of the best coaches in the world to nurture the kids. Other forward-looking countries will raid the Nigerian Defense Academy, pinpoint the best marksmen and train them for the shooting events. You can go on and on but this is Nigeria. It’s so simple a plan there is no money to be made from it so why bother.
You can blame the government for everything. But, the simple truth is, the most successful Nigerians in all walks of life are successful, not because the government pushes them, but because they have that never-say-die Nigerian spirit that propels them to success. And, in sports, you don’t have to look too far from the National Football coach, Stephen Keshi. When the football federation tried to curtail him with a suspension, he went abroad and opened the floodgates to the glory years of Nigerian football.
I always laugh when athletes complain about lack of government support. It’s true the government can do much more constructively but what country really throws money at sports like Nigeria? What, for instance is the difference between a Nigerian athlete and the American athlete in America? They eat the same food, sometimes go to the same schools, have the same coaches and attend the same track meets. They even have complimentarily derided track and field federations. I think the difference is, the American athlete knows glory for country translates into personal riches later. The Nigerian athlete knows making the team is enough because a bonus comes with it.
It’s always easy to blame the government for Nigeria’s problem. The funny thing is, the government is made up of Nigerians. And, sometimes, Nigerian athletes are like their president, they don’t give a damn.