Let’s stop the farce ‘National Sports Festival’

The Qatar 2022 Football World Cup was unique and outstanding in many ways. It was the first to be held in the Middle East and the Arab world – not in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates but in Qatar, an oil-rich country of about three million people, and what a show they put up. They built state-of-the-art stadia and for a small country that is 11,571 km square, the farthest stadium was 40km from the city centre. Transportation, organisation and security were top-notch and although accommodation was expensive for some, they made adequate arrangements for all classes of visitors.

The Qataris were roundly rewarded with a high-level competition that was breathtaking, exciting, laced with mind-boggling upsets and several records. Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favourites, went from grass to grace (having suffered a humiliating 1 – 2 defeat by Saudi Arabia bounced back to win the trophy to crown Lionel Messi’s outstanding football career). Morocco upset the 2010 world champions, Spain, in the group stages and went on to become the first African country to reach the semifinals. And what a final the sports world got!

There were two generations of football superstars on the pitch – Lionel Messi of Argentina and Kylian Mbappe of France – separated by a little more than a decade in age – and they did not disappoint. Both of them, no matter how you slice it, delivered one of the best finals in the history of the World Cup; with the victory going to the nation that it meant the most to. Needless to say that Nigeria, with a home match against Ghana to qualify, did not make it to the 2022 World Cup.

However, while the entire world was focused on Men’s FIFA World Cup, Nigeria, the ‘oil-poor’ nation, was tucked in one corner holding its National Sports Festival in Asaba, Delta State.

The NSF debuted in Lagos in 1973 with very lofty goals. The two major ones were to engender unity in the country and to hasten the development of sports in the nation by identifying and developing talent. It did not disappoint. It became Nigeria’s mini Olympics with the regions and then the states taking it really seriously and developing sporting talent in their domain. Some went as far as inviting other nations to play friendly matches to win the football gold which was then regarded as the ‘star’ medal. You represented a state either because you lived there or you schooled there. I know because I represented Oyo State in Tennis as a student of the University of Ibadan in the “Oluyole 79” NSF. We were camped for weeks, paid handsome allowances and were properly kitted.

The NSF started to go on a downward spiral when some low-performing states ganged up to demand that the NSF become an age group grassroots event in order to discover younger talents. Of course, the underlying objective was to dilute the field and make the underperforming states become a little more competitive. Their wish was granted and there began the age-cheating syndrome in Nigerian sports with state officials, even sports commissioners, almost coming to blows to push through obviously overage athletes. Standards dropped, the media lost interest and sponsors turned their backs on the NSF.

It got so bad that I was constrained to make a submission to the Minister of Sports, Samaila Sambawa, in 2006 through the late Babayo Shehu who had retired as Director–General but was well respected in sporting circles.

The late Shehu and I met at the Le Meridien in Abuja and I detailed the benefits of an open NSF and even went as far as to suggest that international athletes in the diaspora should be welcomed to represent their home states or the state that produced them to make the NSF our own mini- Olympics. The highly convinced former director-general took my paper to the minister and the end result was the Conference of Directors of Sports accepting a semi-open NSF with, if I remember correctly, a 50 -50 participation of adults and juniors.

The Ogun State 2006 NSF became a very successful event; attracting sponsorship and excellent media coverage. Records were broken in many sports events and ironically, the directors in the Ministry of Sports turned around to claim credit for the outcome of the festival. The Sports Reform Committee of 2016, which I was privileged to be the team lead, also recommended an open NSF with sportsmen and sportswomen in the diaspora welcome to participate – a recommendation the then minister, Solomon Dalung, dutifully implemented.

However, at this point when the potentially lucrative NSF was expected to be a commercialised, private sector-driven, well-organised celebration of our best sporting talent, the competition has become flawed, extremely corrupted if you like, in certain respects. I am here not interested in the subpar organisation of the Delta 2023 NSF as far as accommodation for officials and athletes, transportation and facilities – specifically athletics – were concerned. I am more piqued by the shenanigans in representation, qualification and the purity of the competition. States have made it a dubious sporting enterprise where medals are literarily bought. Medals are going to the highest bidder for the services of sportsmen and sportswomen.

Although there is a six-month or so residency rule, the states with the cash are finding legal excuses to circumvent that. Players, they argue, could be sent to any state or even overseas to prepare for a competition as long as they are on their ‘payroll.’ A payroll which is often doctored. So, you find athletes representing a state they have never visited in their lives. In every NSF year it becomes a race to engage and hold down the champions in every event or one of the top four, no matter where they reside or hail from. These are funds that would have better benefitted the youth in the states if invested in facilities and sports competitions at the grassroots. Hence, good money is wasted on mercenaries for two weeks of fame!

But beyond that, as I wrote in my book, ‘Sports in Nigeria – Going Round in Circles’, there are believable allegations of athletes with a 95 per cent chance of winning medals ‘contriving’ to lose to opponents from ‘medal-buying’ states so they can share the cash. Some states ‘promise’ as much as one million naira for a gold medal.

The NSF has become a joke; serving only the top athletes, the sports commissioners and directors of sports in the states, the host state, and the Federal Ministry of Sports. If a country with close to 40 sports federations has to depend on a biennial sports festival to discover its potential sports stars then that nation is using the wrong sports compass. There was even talk of making the NSF international.  Of course, the real motive for such an absurd plan is very easy to decipher.

I wonder if the NSF would have held at the time it did had Nigeria qualified for the World Cup.

  • Kienka is the Director of International Tennis Academy


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