The National Sports Festival has long proven to be a veritable ground for discovering fresh talent and this year’s edition was not different
It is considered to be the biggest sporting fiesta in the country, and indeed it is. The National Sports Festival, NSF, which ended last weekend in Lagos, indeed lived up to its billing as a great sporting fiesta, Nigeria’s version of the Olympics.
From the East, West, North and South of Nigeria, athletes and officials converged on Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital, to contest for honours in the respective games. As at the time of going to press last week, Delta State was leading on the medals table with 42 gold medals, 36 silver and 26 bronze and looked set to clinch the number one position. The competition winner was rewarded with N20 million cash prize in fulfilment of what the federal government had promised to give the best team in the competition. This was revealed on November 27 by Namadi Sambo, vice president, when the games were declared open amidst fanfare at Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos. It’s not just a winner takes all thing though, as both the second and third placed teams also get cash prizes of N15 and N10 million each. In announcing the prizes, Sambo said that the cash donation was in fulfilment of the promise made by the federal government during the closing ceremony of the 17th edition of the National Sports Festival that held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, two years ago.
The opening ceremony of the 18th NSF tagged Eko 2012 was preceded by the receipt of the torch of unity by Babatunde Fashola, governor of Lagos State, on November 24. The torch arrived Lagos through the sea via the CMS jetty that Saturday and was presented to Fashola by Steve Olarinoye, the South-west zonal coordinator of the National Sports Commission. Fashola was in company of Adejoke Orelope Adefulire, the state deputy governor, who was also the chairman of the local organising committee for the games, as well as Wahid Oshodi, the Lagos State commissioner for sports, when the unity torch was presented to him.
In recent years, every host of the biennial event had sought to leave a lasting impression in the minds of participants with their organisational skills, hospitality and infrastructure, and Lagos, the “Centre of Excellence,” was not left out.
Since being confirmed as host of the 18th NSF two years ago, the Lagos State government never hid its desire to organise a great sports festival. And at different occasions during the past few months, Oshodi often restated the state government’s resolve to host a memorable championship and showcase the “new Lagos.” To achieve this, the state government embarked on rehabilitating infrastructure in the stadia or centres earmarked to host the events. This, the state government said, would ensure that athletes enjoy the best sporting facilities and environment during the games. Apart from this, Lagos State government, between November 27 and December 9 that the games lasted, also recruited a team of 1,000 volunteers to offer assistance and ensure that things moved smoothly.
In terms of organisation, Lagos State was rated high by some participating teams and officials. Francis Sule, a former table tennis player and now principal coach with Edo State, told the magazine that the Lagos State government did well with regards to welfare package for the teams such as the provision of “food and water.” But he scored the standard of table tennis in Nigeria low. “Looking at the games, I think the standard has dropped. During our time, we took Nigeria table tennis to a great level. But from what I’ve seen, the standard of the game has seriously dropped. It is nothing to write home about. During our time, myself, Yomi Bankole, Atanda Musa and others took Nigeria to the first 16th position in the world. That record was achieved in 1985 at the World Championship in Sweden, Gothenburg,” he recalled, adding that although the Edo State contingent to the games did its best, he would want sport administrators in the state to focus on grassroots development as a way of continually discovering talent in the state. Doing so, he said, will keep athletes generally active. “I don’t understand why you should play the sports festival and after that nothing more. That way, people become redundant. They should revisit the grassroots development programmes of the past. Apart from serving as a tool of unity, sport can take a child from despair to any level in the world,” he said.
Mustafa Mohammed Musa, a Kano State-born athlete who represented Ogun State in Langa, a traditional combat sport, also wants the nation’s sports administrators to consider making the sport festival an annual event. “If the games are more regular, athletes will be attached to specific states and that will ensure that the athletes are on the payroll of the states, thereby affording them a regular source of income and taking idle hands off the streets.”
No doubt, the national sport festival, apart from serving as a source of entertainment for the fans that daily thronged the different venues – National Stadium Surulere, Agege Stadium, Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Onikan Stadium, Rowe Park Yaba, University of Lagos, Federal College of Education, Yaba College of Technology, and Teslim Balogun Stadium – to watch the different games such as table tennis, athletics, cycling, handball and swimming was also, for many of the athletes, a learning process. Many of them who failed to win medals this time would go back to their respective states and work on their weak points with the aim of becoming champions in future. One of them is Abdulkareem Yunus, a table tennis player from Ekiti State. He told the magazine that “by coming here, I gained a lot of things, having not participated in any game before, although I was at Rivers for the sports festival two years ago. If I go back home now, I know what to work on,” he said, a tinge of confidence and determination unmistakable as he spoke.
Although many people commended the camaraderie, team spirit and friendship exhibited by the athletes, coming as they were from diverse backgrounds, there was yet some scandal associated with the games. Anambra, one of the underperforming states, with just one silver and bronze to its credit as at the time of filing this report, was discovered to have featured a Cameroonian in its weightlifting team. Not a few people were shocked by this revelation. Even for its dubiousness, the idea of recruiting foreigners to stand as Nigerians in a national sports festival is yet another milestone in the malfeasance that had enveloped Nigerian sports in recent years. Before now, what was common among the states was the predilection to poach or hire mercenaries from rival states. But recruiting foreigners as mercenaries is something many cannot reconcile. “The idea of the National Sports Festival is not to win at all costs, but that of talent hunt and development,” said Kweku Tendoh, the secretary general of the local organising committee, while reacting to news of the scandal.
Prior to the games, Oshodi had noted: “We are hopeful that this games will be one in which all the participants will come and put their hands up when they’ve lost and say we lost fairly.” He added that the bane of Nigerian sports is the propensity by different states to rely on mercenaries to win games. As far as he is concerned, such practice does more harm than good to sports development in the country. “These things don’t aid our sports. That’s why we are not doing very well at the international level right now because we are not developing athletes properly.” Lagos State, he said, “has always been in the vanguard of those complaining about the use of mercenaries and poaching of athletes from other states.”
Ironically, Lagos State was also caught in the web of scandals as one of its female table tennis players, Fatima Bello, was found to have registered for Delta State also. That meant double registration and it was not something the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation was supposed to overlook. It promptly suspended the player from table tennis events for three years with immediate effect, to serve as a deterrent to others. The scandals were the ugly side of an otherwise impressive championship.
Apart from the entertainment that the games provided all through the two weeks’ event, another side attraction was the display of Lagos’ rich cultural heritage, a dose of which was seen on the opening ceremony. In addition to that, the sports festival also featured a musical concert, as well as a beauty show tagged Miss Eko Pageant, which involved 37 young Nigerian women between the age bracket of 18 and 25, from the 36 states and Abuja.
Created in 1973, the NSF was initiated by the federal government as a tool for unity, aimed at forging closer ties among Nigerians of diverse backgrounds, following the destructive civil war of 1967–70 that threatened the country’s existence. Beyond that, the festival, over the years, has been a veritable ground for talent discovery in sports. Since inception, the NSF has been held biennially on all but four occasions – 1983, 1987, 1993 and 1995.