I’m hanging out with friends under a tree near the track and gym at my alma mater, savoring the news from London that another alumni who used to be part of this midday ritual had just won gold at the Olympics.
A few moments later, we got a text message that Bryshon Nellum will be carrying the flag at the closing ceremony. What made it remarkable is that Bryshon was only four years removed from a career-threatening gunshot wound a few blocks away. Now, he’s a silver medalist in London.
I start to chuckle because earlier that day, another friend from two oceans away had sent me a news link where the sports minister had lamented Nigeria’s failure. It’s a sad admission because Bolaji Abdulahi doesn’t believe in failure. But, then he’s new to Nigerian sports, probably the most diseased national institution after politics.
I look down the tracks and see a sprightly, young woman who missed the Olympic team this year by the whiskers. She’s training hard under the scorching. California sun. There is no coach in sight and no funds from the Olympic committee or the government to put some springs in her step. She knows that in four years she could be like Alyson Felix, another alumni who was training on this track a few weeks ago and had just won her third Olympic gold in the London games.
I turn to Facebook and see a posting from an athlete claiming Nigeria failed in London because the government does not support the athletes. I’m laughing because it’s as true as it’s an excuse. The biggest lie the Nigerian athlete rolls out after every failure is that the government does not load up their accounts with support dollars.
In America where sport is an institution and big business, grassroots programs identify talented kids and the colleges groom them. I know because I went to a school known for its Olympic traditions and I have friends who competed at the highest levels. We have forty athletes in London. We have won more medals than the whole of Africa combined and, within ten minutes last Thursday, we won six medals, including four gold.
Sometimes I wish my school would fly the Nigerian flag.
Back in Nigeria, the talk is how the athletes and officials are going to hold up the customs lines with their shopping bags. If only Nigeria had lobbied for shopping to be an Olympic sport, we would have had a gold medal.
Nigeria always thinks there is a short cut to success. Money don’t win Olympic medals, facilities do. Once, the high schools and universities roll out talents. Today, the pipeline is dead. Once, corporate bodies competed to sponsor and promote Nigerian spirits. Today, they’ve largely disappeared because corrupt sports officials make a mockery of their efforts. Once, young men and women competed at the Olympics. This year, the Nigerian table tennis team had competitors who have been to five previous Olympics and failed. Once, Nigeria had great stadia in regional capitals. Today, she has a graveyard of stadia. Nothing epitomizes this more than the National stadium in Lagos.
Not long ago, the National Stadium in Lagos was a place to behold. The grounds were abuzz with weightlifters, wrestlers, footballers and athletes. They all knew if they work hard enough and sweat enough, glory may be theirs someday.
Today, the only mammals you’ll find in the main bowl are overfed rats. In place of sports circles and offices, there are beer parlors, clubs, restaurants and churches. Meanwhile, up country in Abuja, football officials have to beg people to come watch Nigeria play.
And, the athletes are not much better. Schools, especially American schools, scour the globe for talent because victory means prestige and dollars for them. Once, Nigerian athletes were a huge part of that traffic. Today, schools roll their eyes at the undisciplined, drama-heavy Nigerian athletes who think winning a West African meet means they have arrived. Nothing epitomizes the Nigerian athlete mentality that the athlete who celebrated her last place finish in the final of a race while the silver medalist was in tears. Nigeria, it seems, is comfortable with losing.
Abdulahi got it right when he said money translates into gold at the Olympics. What he didn’t know is if he adds up the funds Nigeria has thrown at sports at all levels in the last 15 years, it would be close to most of the winners at the Olympics. The difference is while other countries spend money on developing athletes and facilities, Nigerian sports officials loot the funds.
Abdulahi couldn’t have been more wrong when he claimed the success of the Atlanta Olympics was an accident. The success from Atlanta was a result of the most conscious sports development program in recent Nigerian history. An influx of big pocket, connected Nigerians took charge of sports federations. There was a meet every other month in most sports and the athletes were always busy. The pipeline to foreign schools and training camp was very active.
And, the government was active too. Ibrahim Babangida effectively handed over sports to his deputy, Augustus Aikhomu. Although they were disgraced out of office in 1993, they left a legacy that led to the glory years of the mid-1990s in Nigerian sports.
Maybe the accident was that, for once, Nigeria cared. Maybe it’s time we repeat that accident again.