Nigeria

Tokyo 2020: Team Nigeria offers slender hopes

•Team Nigeria at the Games Village in Tokyo

DELAYED by a year following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic late in 2019, the Games of the XXXII Olympics take centre stage from July 23 in Tokyo, Japan. Despite the rescheduling, expect all the thrills, poignancy, low and high moments associated with the sporting ideals as envisaged by Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, when he promoted the first modern Games in 1896 in Athens, Greece. From that inaugural seed of 14 countries and 13 sports, the Tokyo Games will have 206 National Olympic Committees – including Team Nigeria – competing for gold, silver, and bronze medals in 46 sporting events till August 8. The Paralympic Games follow from August 24 to September 5.

Even with fans barred from the arenas, the fireworks would be no less enchanting. There will be unusual moments. Medal presentation will be observed with strict social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. Facemasks are mandatory in all parts of the grounds. There will be tests upon tests to determine the status of athletes, coaches, and officials.

Of particular interest is Team Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country is participating in nine sport disciplines with a total of 61 athletes. Team Nigeria will file out in canoeing (sprint), athletics, table tennis, rowing, taekwondo, badminton, gymnastics, wrestling, and basketball. Frankly, there is little expectation around the team. Boxing, weightlifting and football, which traditionally evoke excitement among Nigerian fans, did not qualify. This dampens the spirit.

The dispiritedness is well pronounced in athletics, which was Nigeria’s mainstay. Since the 2008 Beijing Games in China, sprinter, Blessing Okagbare, has been representing Nigeria because the mill that produces young athletes has slowed down significantly. At 32, Okagbare will compete with relatively more virile athletes. The slender hopes rest on Ese Brume, who leaped 7.17 metres to obliterate Chioma Ajunwa’s 25-year-old African female long jump record of 7.12m and the gold medal in the Atlanta ’96 Games. For the first time since 2013, Brume won a medal for Nigeria in this year’s World Championships in Doha with 6.91m for the bronze.

But Nigeria struggled to qualify for the women’s 4x100m, 4x400m and the 4x400m mixed relays. Significantly, it missed out in its traditional areas of strength, the men’s 4x100m and 4x400m relays. For perspective, Nigeria paraded two athletes in the men’s 100m final at Barcelona ’92 (Olapade Adeniken and Davidson Ezinwa), winning the silver in the relay. The women’s relay quartet took the bronze. Nigeria’s men relay quartet equally won a silver in the 4x400m in Sydney 2000 before the International Olympic Committee upgraded it to gold after a United States runner was disqualified for doping in 2008.

Admittedly, the COVID-19 restrictions hindered preparations. From March 2020, the National Sports Festival (Edo 2021) was delayed till April 2021. As an excuse, this will not stand much scrutiny because the pandemic affects all the athletes participating in the Tokyo Games one way or the other.

The major concern is that Team Nigeria has fallen from its ‘lofty’ heights. From 1952 when it first participated, it witnessed its most brilliant moment (in Atlanta 96) 25 years ago. It marked that Games with an unprecedented double gold haul. Ajunwa nailed the women’s long jump. The Dream Team – the men’s U-23 football team – collected the gold after defeating Argentina 3-2 in the final. That completed a remarkable journey that saw the Dream Team earlier eliminating Brazil in the semi-finals. In all, Team Nigeria won six medals then.

After that high, the nadir arrived in the London 2012 Games, where Team Nigeria failed to win a medal. It was chaotic, exposing the poor preparations, delays in funding and the culture of jamboree within sports administration in Nigeria. It was obvious that no lesson had been learnt four years later at Rio 2016 in Brazil. The allowances for athletes were not paid on time. Threats of boycott soiled Nigeria’s image in the international arena. The Dream Team that gave Team Nigeria its sole medal was ejected from a hotel for bill payment default. It was so shameful that team captain, Mikel Obi, used his funds to settle the hotel bills. Nigeria had to fly a planeload of dollars to Brazil to offset allowances as the Games were about to conclude. All this should not repeat itself, even if there are no medals in sight.

Out of the miasma, watch out for the basketball teams. For the first time in the history of the Games, Nigeria is presenting its men’s and women’s basketball. That is a major achievement. It induces hope. Things even got better in the pre-Games scrimmage for the men’s team. Against all odds, D’Tigers defeated Team USA, the world’s No.1 team and the Olympic champions. In 52 friendlies before that 90-87 downturn, the Americans had lost just twice, but never to an African team. Tantalisingly, D’Tigers repeated the feat by beating Argentina by 23 points in their next match before succumbing heavily to Australia, a team in their group in Tokyo. If D’Tigers, with seven NBA players in their ranks, improve on their cohesion, a medal might be in sight. For D’Tigress, a medal might be a tall order.

This time, there should be no jamboree by a government delegation, especially with the virus still very active.

To excel in these Games, Nigeria should review its system. The bane is that sport is still largely amateurish in Nigeria. Against tested and well-grounded professionals, that cannot yield laurels. The athletes, footballers and basketball players who excel on the international stage train at the top-notch environments in Europe and the US. In Nigeria, the government, which does not have the resources, can only offer amateurism. Thus, professionalising sport is critical. Government should be less involved and allow professionals to run the show. Only then can Nigerian athletes fulfil their potential.

Copyright PUNCH.

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