An Olympian let down By Uddin Ifeanyi

Ifeanyi Uddin

Usually, we get by with the “Supporters’ Club” enthusiastically launching into a refrain that is fast becoming shorthand for our tunnel-visioned and spendthrift ways. However, at this Olympics, something gave. As always, we did not plan in any meaningful way for success, so this could not be the “why”. Whatever it was, though, our “miracle-working God” just failed to turn up at the different arenas; and event after event, hope faded faster than the winning athletes breasted the tape. Hopefully, Team Nigeria’s many dropped balls are easily explained by the absence in London of the “Supporters’ Club”. For then, all we have to do over the next four years, is to organise “Supporters’ Clubs” around Olympic events that we hope to take part in. Infuse them with the passion that attends our football matches. Find sponsors for their kits. And, importantly, begin to prepare the Brazilian authorities for the plethora of visas that the official Nigerian contingent will need ahead of our participating at the next Olympic Games to be hosted there in 2016.

Otherwise, as with every department of the country, our relative failure (remember that the league of countries without medals includes a few worthies) at the London Olympics speaks to a failure to upgrade domestic sporting assets, and invest in new capacity – both personnel and infrastructure. It helps that Lagos State (and its government) is often cited as first amongst sub-national governments in the country, so we may use examples from here as national proxies. Between Iju (a Lagos suburb) and Yaba (on the mainland), there is about 35 kilometres of roads that pass through built up spaces. At both ends, there are two stadiums: one at Agege, and the other at Rowe Park. These, besides the exclusive private clubs that minister to the fancies of the middle-aged concerned about their rising blood pressures, exhaust the options for sports and recreation available to millions of people resident on this axis.

The facility at Agege is a poor, distant relative of the one at Yaba. But even then, none is quite close to the standards that produced the times and spectacles that we just witnessed at the London Olympics. No doubt, stadiums of the right specifications will encourage adolescents and teenagers to play hooky. And there may yet be the odd world-beater amongst this lot. Largely, however, better stadiums should also welcome parent/guardians (with the means) and whose children/wards express a desire to take part in competitive sports. For this latter category, it is as crucial that our sports facilities support a variety of disciplines, as it is that there are coaches in place who pass muster (technical abilities, and mentoring know-how). Folk, in short, that you may leave your six-year old with (during vacations), go to work, and return to be briefed on progress, and suggestions there about.

Invariably, the medium-term goal should be to have such facilities and competences in every local government area of most states; thus, holding out the possibility of intra-and inter-local government competitions that help drive national performance. However, there are short-term hurdles that we will need to surmount along this path. Kidnappers (for ritual and ransom) and sectarian bombers of public places, currently mean that most parents/guardians will be loath to leave their children/wards in the care of these public spaces however up-to-date their facilities may be. So, there is a security dimension to this business too, as with the rest of the economy.

But beyond the ease and convenience of would-be sports persons’ access to public sports facilities in their formative years, there is the not-too-minor difficulty of their access to sporting activities in school. Sadly, with the public school space in the country (for academic pursuits) shambolic, it is better imagined what state sport infrastructure there would be. The jury is still out on the quality of instruction/tutelage in the private school sector (better than a chaotic public sector offering cannot be good enough), but it is a safe bet that sporting instruction is the first casualty of the confined spaces in which most private schools in the country are located.

Therefore, even if, sub-national governments manage to square the circle round the provision of public sports and recreational spaces as close to our communities as is practicable, we run the danger that our would-be Olympic medallists lose, as they proceed through secondary school and university, all the skills gained growing up. How do we incentivise private responses that conduce to the public good? This is the central challenge of governance in the country today. I suspect it has always been so. But today, a most unusual type of government seems more focussed on rousing our “miracle-working God”, than deploying the talents He so obviously gave us the way other more organised people are.

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