By Reuben AbatiIt is no longer enough to participate in the Olympics. Nations go to the Olympics to win medals, because an Olympic victory is an effective vehicle of national rebranding and assertion. The Jamaicans have Usain Bolt. They beat the Americans in the 4×100 men’s relay. They won 4 gold medals, broke two world records, and grabbed a total of 12 medals.
All that raised the level of Jamaican patriotism a few more notches. It was a case of a country re-affirming its confidence in its ability to impress the world. The Americans, forever sure of their own supremacy, were again excited by their dominance at the London 2012 Olympics.
They came first with the largest collection of individual heroes: Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Gabrielle Douglas, Serena Williams and more. China again wrote its name in gold.
Britain, good old Britain, almost a second or third fiddle or a non-starter in many of the games that it gave to the world, this time around, showed up on the final medals table in the third position, with many of its athletes including Andy Murray, and Jessica Ennis, posting historic feats. Andy Murray who lost to Roger Federer only a few weeks earlier at the Wimbledon Finals, took the shine off the world’s greatest tennis player convincingly.
The London Olympiad brought Britain clear intimations, and affirmations of glory, not just on the field, but also in the overwhelming applause that its organization of the events attracted worldwide. The games are over, now. Jamaicans are walking tall. Grenada, (pop., 105,000) is celebrating its single 400m gold medal. The nations that won nothing are ashamed. In 1996, Nigerians remained awake as the country’s football team won gold, and Chioma Ajunwa took a long jump gold at the Atlanta Olympics. It was an unforgettably fine moment.
In 2008, Nigerians again found cause for cheer with four medals in Beijing. In 2012, we have returned empty-handed, and with jeremiads by the Sports Minister, the National Sports Commission, athletes, and an angry commentariat.
President Jonathan was angry too, I can report. On Wednesday, August 15, council meeting had just ended, and it was time for AOB. Something about setting up a committee to prepare the White Paper ASAP, on the report of the Presidential Committee on Police Reform and the volunteered, additional report on police reform by the Retired Inspectors General of Police Forum. Everyone was in a relaxed mood, until the President said he was surprised that the Minister of Sports had not briefed Council about the outcome of the London Olympics.
“You are taking your time eh”, he said jokingly. “Okay, don’t worry, we understand.”Peals of laughter. Then, the President’s tone changed.
“How can we possibly go to the Olympics and come back with nothing?,” he asked rhetorically. “Four years ago, we did better. It is something that we have to address. Nigeria is a country of talented people. We must identify those talents, all over Nigeria, and begin to train them for the next major sporting tournament. This idea of starting preparations at the last minute and achieving nothing must stop. We must get the private sector to invest in sports and governments at all levels must also do their bit. We are a country of gifted people. We must identify those areas in which this country can excel and work hard at them. We must win medals and bring glory to our nation.
“And I don’t mean going to the bus stop to recruit athletes. I mean serious business. We must get our acts together.
“I remember one man who won an Olympic gold medal in the past. A Nigerian!. When the medal was announced, they said it belonged to Canada, because the fellow was representing Canada. We have to address that too,” he said.
The Minister of Sports raised his hand. The President acknowledged him.
“Minister, I have provoked you to say something at last. Okay, go ahead.”
The Sports Minister thanked Mr. President for his concern, and the interest that Team Nigeria’s performance had provoked with a pledge that his Ministry was prepared to do everything possible to address observed lapses.
The President’s clear message was that winning glory for the nation through sports is not always about finance and money alone. It is also about higher values, commitment, patriotism and the determination to excel by all persons and at all levels.
“I watch these things on television. I listen to the commentaries. We have to take the matter seriously,” said Mr. President.
A keen sportsman, himself, he understands the transformative power of sports: its psychological impact, its physical value, and its economic potential, its political strength and its ultimate relevance as a tool of international relations and diplomacy. At least twice a week, President Jonathan plays squash. I have watched him play at the State House Squash court, and in Government House, Yenagoa. He also plays table tennis. Each time he picks up the racket or the tennis bat, he tells his opponents. “You play your game. Don’t say because I am President I must win. Just play a normal game.” And he goes into the match, a completely different man, sweating for victory. And the aides who take up the challenge, actually play hard and ferociously as if they had been sent by the ACN or CPC. But it never matters. The President is a sportsman. Gracious in victory, magnanimous in defeat.
A compulsive reviewer of situations, after every event, every trip, he wants a post-mortem. He wants serious criticism and honest ideas. And he keeps warning:“don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. That is not the purpose of this meeting. I want us to move this country forward.”
If there is any lesson arising from Nigeria’s performance in the 2012 Olympics, it is that certain issues must be addressed. In Nigeria, excellent performance in sports is perhaps the strongest symbol of unity. Nigerians love sports. They enjoy victory. They crave it. When their country fails, the people mourn. The situation calls for leadership.
Faced with our performance in London, President Jonathan believes that it is time to have a comprehensive rethink of sports administration in Nigeria with a view to working out a clear and implementable strategy for returning Nigerian sportsmen and women to winning ways.
As one who sees him up close and personal each day, I know the President will insist on a thorough review of our entire sports architecture. He will get all critical stakeholders and actors to sit together to identify what went wrong and the best way forward. If it means revisiting the past and reviving the culture of the private sector sponsoring yearly athletic meets like the Mobil Open and such like, then we must revive that. If it takes a reinvigoration of the Inter-House sports tradition in our secondary schools then it will be done. If it means developing sports academies in every state, then that must be undertaken.
But certainly, what Nigeria must do is to properly utilize her sporting assets. Many sportsmen and women of Nigerian origin won medals for various nations including the U.S, U.K and Canada to mention a few. What makes them choose to fly another nation’s colours? Is it remuneration? Is it alienation from Nigeria? Whatever it is must be identified and addressed.
These and other steps I see the President taking.
President Jonathan is determined to transform the country’s sports sector. That is one silver lining to the clouds of Nigeria’s Olympic 2012 defeat. What he requires, however, is not the cynicism of the commentariat, not the brittleness of the nay-saying absolutists, not the one track-mindedness of the opposition, not the hypocrisy of sports bureaucrats, rather a national team spirit –that same spirit that propelled Nigeria to its Olympic glory in 1996 and the Flying Eagles to the miracle of Damman in 1989. What this moment requires is not rhetoric, but action.
Fittingly, when the Minister of Information went ahead to brief the press about Council’s deliberations, the Sports Minister was not with him as convention requires. He had gone ahead as directed to begin the process of change in the sports sector.
Dr. Abati is the Special Adviser (Media and Publicity), to President Jonathan