BEYOND RABAT 2019 AFRICAN GAMES

BY KUNLE SOLAJA.

Rabat 2019 African Games reached the crescendo as the skies of the Prince Moulay Abdella Stadium in Rabat were ignited.

The 12th edition of the continental sports fiesta had just come to a close.  Athletes, volunteers and fans went into an all-night celebration as they were treated to the melody and sounds of Morocco.

Fireworks illuminate the sky at Prince Moulay Abdella Stadium

The atmosphere exploded into music across Africa as one artist after the other took to the stage. It has been one exceptional African Games in history. It may have been low in terms of publicity, but the circumstances also warranted it.

It has promised to be difficult Games as Morocco only stepped in to do a rescue job. Hence, unlike in the preceding editions where the events, except that of football are held in one sporting complex, the Games of Rabat 2019 were spread across five cities – Rabat Casablanca, Salé, Benslimane and El Jadida.

The 12th edition is easily the largest in attendance. The host nation, Morocco added to the attendance after returning to the Games following a 41-year politically motivated absence.

For the first time ever in the 54-year history of the Games, gold medal count hit a milestone of 100 as Egypt topped with 102 gold medals.

The Rabat 2019 Games came alive with flurry of upsets and unexpected results. Nigeria’s queen of the track, Blessing Okagbare could not proceed beyond the semi-finals of the women’s 100 metres owing to false start.

Nigeria lost the Men’s 200 metres to Zambia’s Sydney Siame who beat the Nigerian favourite, Ejowvokovineghene. Nigeria also lost the Men’s 4×100 metres to Ghana.

But above all, it was a good outing for Nigeria, which in the first few days of the Games was a glaring absentee on the medals’ table. Steadily, Team Nigeria began a rise from anonymity to second position among the 54 countries that took part.  

A further positive for Nigeria is the topping of the table in athletics, weightlifting, wrestling and badminton. This is why Nigeria has to put up conscious plans for other multi-discipline games ahead.

Rafiatu Lawal

Another edition of the African Games comes up in Accra in 2023. Before then, a more challenging Olympic Games holds in Tokyo, 10 months from now. This will be followed by the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

What are the expectations of Nigeria? The desire to compete; the skills to excel, the courage to overcome and the strength to believe are the qualities of true sportsmen and great Olympians.

These are what one expects from Team Nigeria as other Games beckon. Sadly, the qualities enunciated above are not well reflected in Nigeria’s participation in the Olympic Games, where the country appears just to make up the numbers.

No conscious effort to excel previous marks. Hence, we cannot look back to many memorable achievements in what is universally acknowledged as the greatest show on earth.

Nigeria obviously does not count among the super powers in the Olympics and also not among the best ranked African countries at the Games.

These are the pictures Team Nigeria must strive to erase beginning with Tokyo 2020.

Somehow, Nigeria’s performances since Helsinki Games in 1952 have not reflected the spirit of the Olympic Games’ Motto: Swifter, Higher, Stronger (Citius, Altius, Fortius).

Sports Village Square’s study of Nigeria’s participation at the Olympics shows that a sloppy one often follows a fair outing.

Perhaps, few examples are necessary. The bronze medal that Nojeem Maiyegun won at the 1964 Tokyo Games was followed by a fruitless outing at the 1968 Games in Mexico.

After another bronze medal by Isaac Ikhouria at the Munich 1972 Games, Nigeria had a scandalous and barren-medal outing at the next appearance – the Moscow 1980 Games.  

No medal was won at the 1988 Games after the lone silver and bronze medals at the Los Angeles 1984. The trend only changed when in Atlanta ’96, with two gold a silver and three bronze medals, proved a better outing than the preceding Barcelona ’92.

Yet the feat at Atlanta could not be matched at the Sydney 2000. Athens 2004 proved a return to the sad old cycle as Nigeria won just two bronze medals.

After the Barcelona ’92 Olympics, the nation went into jubilation over the four medal count achieved. A good result it was when compared with past achievements since the Helsinki 1952 debut.

The four medal count comprising a bronze and three silver medals brought Nigeria’s count in 11 editions to eight medals. With medals of 1964, 1972, 1984, 1992 and 2004 added up, they are a mere fraction of what Kenya won at the Seoul 1988 Olympics alone.

The East Africans who have a fair control of the endurance races had a haul of five gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the Seoul 1988 Games.

Since 2000 Games, Nigeria has not won an Olympic gold medal.  The three silver and two bronze medals achievement at Beijing 2008, which were an improvement on the two bronze medals at Athens 2004 was immediately followed by a barren outing at London 2012.

At Rio 2016, Nigeria returned with just a bronze medal. That single bronze medal completes Nigeria’s cycle of fluctuating fortunes. It is time to put an end to this.

One step towards achieving this is to glean intelligent reports that could aid better performances for Team Nigeria at the Olympics.

Allen Dulles, the CIA Director during the celebrated Bay of Pigs episode in the near war between US and Cuba in the early 1960s, remarked that “intelligence is probably the least understood and most misrepresented of the diplomatic profession.”

In short, he meant to say that all nations spy. One can add, that sports teams also spy at potential and actual opponents.

Even though espionage is often linked with sinister activities, to those in international relations, this is a misconception. A bit of spying is necessary to adjust to the right situations if one is to achieve the best possible goal.

This is in sports as it is in relations among nations. Intelligent reports are gleaned on other contestants and opponents – both actual and potential.

This is what Team Nigeria appears yet to employ in place of shooting-in-dark approach in preparation to multi-discipline games. We should ask ourselves the salient question: what do others do that make them table-toppers always.

To achieve the status of an Olympic contender requires long and dedicated training. The burning desire to excel over others creates a champion.

Countries that have succeeded at the Olympics put up serious long and short term planning. Nigeria’s preparation for most Games is often towards the commencement of the sporting fiestas. Olympic champions are not made that way.

One recalls the Barcelona ’92 Olympics, the very first that this reporter attended.

US at the games, topped the medals’ chart and in spite of the country’s upswing and a total medal count of 108 – the third highest in the games’ history – the Americans were worried that the figures could be misleading.

They were conscious that over half of their medals came from athletics and swimming out of the 22 sports entered for. They began a review of strategies to be employed at future games. They planned to upgrade other sports federations.

Still making Barcelona ‘92 a focal point, one recalls the situation regarding Spain, a nation not rated among the super athletics performers.

At Barcelona ’92 Games, their 22-medal count was a result of a four-year programme in which $120 million was spent on competitors and coaches.

The programme was aimed at changing Spain’s poor sports image. At the preceding Seoul ’88 Games, Spain won pitiable four medals. They went to the drawing board. “We wanted to give the world an image of Spain’s dynamic and modern trend, not only for folklore”, said the then sports minister, Hanvier Navarro, at a press conference at the close of Barcelona ’82.

For Spain, more than a dozen of coaches were imported from Cuba and the western bloc. They came as teachers in boxing, volleyball, archery, cycling etc.

They coached over 800 athletes who got subsidy of $80,000 a year for four years. In addition, a one million dollar pension scheme from a Spanish bank was planned for each gold medallist when he clocked 50. The money reportedly came from an insurance policy with an American firm which was to pay for each medal.

Such direct aid to sports is what Nigerian sports deserve to make great impact and produce great Olympians.

It is pertinent to find out how Australia managed to improve on their medals count over many Olympic Games. At Seoul ’88 for instance, Australia had 14 medals which progressively improved to 27 at Barcelona ’92, 41 at Atlanta ’96 and 58 at Sydney 2000.

At Athens 2004, their medal count was 49, though a drop from the previous 58, the Australians up till Rio 2016 have managed to be in the top 10 bracket of the final medals tables.

Australia is taken as a case study since using US, Russia and China may be going to the extreme owing to their overwhelming control of Olympic Games final medals tables.

A study of organisation and funding of sports in Australia showed that the Australian Sports Institute awarded 600 scholarships a year and funded full time coaches.

The Australian Institute of Sport is a high performance sports training institution. Since being established in 1981, it has seen the country shooting up in the Olympics medals tables.

If we may ask: what has become of Nigeria’s National Institute of Sports established about the same time as that of Australia?

Nigeria’s low performance at the Olympics may have also stemmed from the fact that the country is not taking advantage of its natural endowments.

One wonders why Nigeria has not considered investing in swimmers and aquatic based athletes from the Niger Delta Region where water is their natural habitat.

The region should be producing not just gold medal winners in Africa, but also contenders at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

The multinational oil firms that impaired on the people’s natural economic activities and also made swimming impossible in the region can contribute in raising athletes and funding the maintenance of pools.

The control of the overall medals tables at African Games and the Olympics is mainly from the water-based sports. This will help to revive the latent talents in swimming which always account for the bulk of medals in most Games. At the Rabat 2019, 42 gold medals were available in Swimming.

South Africa won 20 of such medals. Egypt had 14 while Nigeria had none. Imagine the complexion of the medals’ table if Nigeria had had a fair share from the spoils from the pools.

We have a choice to make whether to win few medals in the popular sports, or go for the lesser-known ones which fetch more medals and impart more on the overall tables.

Canoeing, may be a way of life in the river side areas of Nigeria, but as a sport, it is insignificant. But the relatively unknown Nigerians won four gold medals for the country in this unrated sports discipline in the country.

Imagine the return on investment on the two athletes, Ayomide Bello and Goodness Foloki that won the four medals.

This brings to the fore, the application of the principle of comparative advantage in sports. As in international trade, Nigeria should look into those sports, even if not popular, that are indigenous to its citizens to make marks in multi-discipline games.

We have seen our strength in wrestling and weight lifting. These are not popular sports by Nigerians’ reckoning, but they brought glory.

The US, China and Russia that always top medals tables at the Olympics don’t rely on football or any other team event that only contribute to shooting up contingents’ sizes and expenditure without having corresponding impact on overall medal achievements.

Archery, canoeing, rowing, diving and equestrian sports among others are indigenous to some parts of Nigeria and the indigenes are naturally endowed.

Canoeing for instance, is part of normal life in the riverside areas. We saw what we did in that sport at Rabat 2019 where Nigeria won four gold medals to be second to South Africa that had eight.

Investing in that sport may breed future Olympic champions. Archery and horsemanship are indigenous to the North.

If the Tony Ikazoboh’s proposal of decentralising sports federations instead of their clustering in the federal capital is accepted; an association for archery and equestrian sports should be located in the North where talents abound. While swimming federation should be located in the South South.

Walking has become a way of life in Nigeria. With proper teaching of the rules, talents for the Olympic Games will not be in short supply in Lagos area and other urban centres where chaotic transport system has created enabling environment for prospective Olympic medallists in walking.

In summary, Nigeria should make concrete efforts at identifying the reasons why other countries perform well at the Olympics and how the country too can excel.