About two weeks ago, we arrived London for the 2012 Olympics with a contingent of 51 sportsmen and women competing in 8 sports namely, athletics, weightlifting, taekwondo, boxing, wrestling, table tennis, canoeing and basketball. We were competing in the last two for the first time ever.
Even though we did not expect to win the competition, we had arrived hoping to make a decent showing. We even had reasons to believe we could surpass some of our recent achievements at this level of competing. Why not?
We had arrived London riding on the wave of a short but intensive preparation of our athletes in different parts of the world where they did not only have the benefits of high quality facilities and technical support but also had the opportunity to match up against some of the best athletes from other parts of the world, and on some occasions, beating them.
Many commentators agreed that while not ideal, we have had one of our best preparations coming into this competition in recent years. This, coupled with a system that put athletes’ welfare at the heart of planning and an atmosphere devoid of rancor and acrimony, we believed would guarantee us a couple of medals.
However, here we are, only a few days to the end of the competition. Team Nigeria is still not on the medals table. I must say this is as disappointing for my team and myself as it is for all Nigerians everywhere. But even as painful as this disappointment is, we must have the courage to see it for what it is. This, therefore, is a scientific diagnosis of our condition; a clear testimony to how far our sports have fallen behind.
We shall therefore not attempt any excuses or indulge in any unproductive blame game. Rather than see this as a failure, we must see it as an opportunity to rebuild. When other countries have found themselves in this kind of situation in the past, they have used the galvanizing power of disappointment to get down to work. At Atlanta 1996 Olympics, Team Great Britain won only one gold medal. Returning home, the right questions were asked, and the necessary actions were taken. Four years later in Sydney, they returned with 11 gold out of 28 medals. In Beijing four years ago, they returned with 19 gold medals out of 47, placing them in the fourth position. Today, Team GB is sitting pretty in the third position of the medals table surpassing their own expectation. Today, they are able to look back and say they have moved from “zeroes to heroes.” This is our chance. We can also do it. We must see this crisis as the necessary disequilibrium required for serious actions and drastic change. We will not allow this opportunity to pass.
Having being appointed Minister and Chairman, National Sports Commission only two months to the Olympics, I have had to learn very quickly. And I have not received a better lesson than in the last two weeks of the London 2012 Olympics. I have learnt three key lessons from this Olympics:
1. Olympics medal is about hard cash. It is not a coincidence that the medals table appears to reflect the level of economic development of the countries. But having the resources is one thing, making the right strategic investment is another. Team Great Britain largely owes its dramatic success to what is described as “unprecedented financial investment” totaling up to more than 740 million GBP over 15 years. The current annual spending on sports stands at 100 million GBP. However, only 40% of this comes from the treasury, while the remaining 60% is lottery fund.
Conversely, Australia finished fourth in Sydney with 16 gold medals. In London, Australia has fallen outside the top 10 with 6 gold medals. Australians have blamed reduced funding for elite athletes and a lack of facilities at the grassroots levels.
2. Every medal is clearly projected and carefully planned for both in financial and technical terms over a sustained period of time. Only years of intensive, unrelenting training and preparation can win medals. There is no short cut. Medals are won by people who have worked hardest not by those who have prayed hard. We can only win medals by building systems that are capable of producing medalists and champions not by selecting athletes that we hope can win medals.
3. Olympics are a lifetime commitment. The champion is in the child. Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old Chinese girl that shocked the swimming world by setting a new world record in individual medley was only 12 when her country hosted the Olympics. Lizzie Armistead who won the Team GB’s first medal in this Olympics with Silver in cycling got her first bicycle at the age of 4.
The immediate challenge for us is how to translate these lessons into concrete actions in the days ahead. The process of rebuilding will start with the National Sports Festival in Lagos later this year. We shall use this event to flag-off our preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and thereafter the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Some of our top priorities in the days ahead are therefore as follows:
1. Identifying five sports that give us competitive opportunities.
2. Restructuring the Federations of these Sports to make them more democratic, accountable and efficient.
3. Developing a Sports Calendar that will ensure year-round sports activities both within and outside the schools.
4. Strategic engagement with the private sector with the aim to improve funding for sports.
5. Strengthen our coaching and training capabilities by developing strategic partnership with national and international bodies.
I thank all of you here for your support and understanding. We will keep this conversation going, in our belief that you in the media are our major strategic ally in the great task ahead. I want to say thank you to all my athletes and their coaches. They have all tried their best. Even though they have not won medals, many of them got to the quarter finals, the semifinals and finals of their various events and even setting new national, Africa and Commonwealth records in the process. But this is the Olympics, where micro-seconds have made the difference between gold medals and no medals. You are all our heroes and we can only hope to build on your achievements.
I thank the Federal Government and the people of Nigeria everywhere for their wonderful support and understanding during this difficult time. The task ahead has been made grimly clear. Therefore, lets get down to work.
By Bolaji Abdullahi
(Minister of Sports and Chairman, National Sports Commission)