Nigerian Sports and the Drawing Board: Implementing Sports Policy

The London 2012 Olympics have come and gone. Along with it went a nation’s hopes for at least a medal. From the sprinter to the fighter, no Nigerian was able to bask in the euphoria of a podium finish. Even the basketball team that would want to boast of being the first African team to win a basketball match at the Olympics has its argument watered down by the fact that the only team it beat was, in fact, an African team. As has mostly been the case in Nigerian sports over the past decade or so, it was another outing to forget. Many have focused on the decline in football, but it is not hard to notice that this is the first time Nigeria has failed to win a single medal at the Olympics since 1988. IOC President, Jacques Rogge stated that the London 2012 Games have refreshed the Olympic movement, but for Nigeria, the experience has only refreshed calls for a reform of our approach to sports. Perhaps, this is the cue for the cliché – back to the drawing board; but, what if there is no drawing board to go back to? What is the basis for assessing our sporting achievements vis-à-vis investment and what are the indices with which to project and plan for the future. There is need to shift from the paradigm of mere government financial handouts for which account is hardly ever given, towards actually implementing a practical sports policy.

Our national sporting dilemma is not without precedent. In the 1980s in England, they were losing the sport they invented. Football was beset by hooliganism, inadequate infrastructure and exodus of the best talents. In post-apartheid South-Africa, a National Sport and Recreation Plan had to be implemented to position the country in global sporting circles. Whatever the location, one thing is common – a sports policy emphasizing increased participation, well-spaced infrastructure, adequate funding and quality coaching. All these are necessary within a legal framework that allows for ease of regulation and non-crippling dispute resolution. Till date, all Nigerians are familiar with is a series of post-mortems, which probe failure after failure in sporting events. Several reports have advocated the implementation of a sports developmental programme but these reports like the S.O. Williams report, the Samuel Ogbemudia Report and the Emeka Omerua Report have not been given any form of life. Nigeria is undoubtedly blessed with huge sporting potential; however, as is the case with the diverse natural resources, harnessing this potential remains a problem. Nigeria’s sporting history has had some golden moments, graced by a few exceptional sporting icons. Unfortunately, the current trend is one in which any exceptional talent with Nigerian nationality is trained abroad. Of the over 150 million people resident in the country, Nigeria has to outsource its sporting talent.

The 1989 sports development policy was hinged on the local perception of sport as a cultural phenomenon with the aim of relaxation and physical/mental development. According to the policy statement: “Nigerians are by nature a dynamic and very energetic peoples; such virtues find expression in the active engagement of our people in various traditional sporting events for entertainment and for the development of body, mind and spirit”. Apparently, the main objective of the policy was to arouse sports consciousness and encourage participation among the citizenry while encouraging competitive sports at national and international levels. In modern reality, the above philosophy should be divided into two parts. While sport will continue to be a tool for physical, mental, social and even political development, it is obvious that competitive/professional sport requires a more calculated approach. Phrases like “it’s just a game” and “it’s all about competing” have been shoved aside by the “in it to win it” philosophy. This explains the huge investment in sports development by countries such as USA, China, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The benefits are obvious. Putting it into perspective, Team USA, comprising 539 athletes bagged a total of 104 medals, which translates to almost a medal for every five athletes. For Team Nigeria’s 55 athletes there is no need for a pen or calculator because the answer is an easy zero!  Many are of the belief that Nigeria lacks a national sports policy but the problem is not the lack of policy, but the implementation of it. In 1989, a Sports Development Policy was produced and 20 years later – as recently as 2009, the National Sports Policy of Nigeria was produced. It is a wonder that the 2009 policy failed to attract attention, although the failure of implementation is unsurprising. A comparison of both policy documents has been undertaken by S.O. Aibueku of the Department of Health, Environmental Education and Human Kinetics at the University of Benin.

The 2009 sports policy aptly delineates responsibility for sports development to each of the three tiers of government and could indeed be the basis for the implementation of a practical sports development programme. Three years have gone by and nothing has been heard of this policy. Fortunately however, such policies provide for periodic review and the 2009 National Sports Policy of Nigeria provides for its review after every Olympics. Perfect timing! The burden and pressure should now shift from the shoulders of our conquered athletes and on to those of the National Sports Commission (NSC) to commence an all-inclusive process of the much needed review. The review process must involve a strategy for implementing the National Sports Policy and task each tier of government to be alive to their stipulated responsibilities. With a well-structured framework, private sector funding would become available to ease the burden on government. For instance, while the government of Nigeria spent billions of Naira funding the 55 athletes of Team Nigeria, the USA Olympic Committee catered for its 539 athletes by generating its own revenue. According to recent media reports, officials of the NSC are clamouring for the Commission to be listed as a beneficiary of the National Sports Lottery. This is aimed at copying the UK model where the lottery scheme accounted for as much as 60% of funding.

Finally, for things to change, the approach must be different as was aptly stated by Aibueku, thus: a critique of both policy documents will highlight the fact that both the 1989 and 2009 sport policies represent the thinking of just a handful of highly placed sports theorists as both policies have not had the luxury of being inaugurated. There is no evidence that efforts have been made in bringing stakeholders in the field together with a view to brainstorming on producing a synthesis of all the ideas generated and using same as the core basis for the formulation of a sports policy. There was virtually no publicity at all at the publication of both documents coupled with the fact there were no conferences, seminars, workshops put together to critically examine issues connected thereto.

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