In the 21ST century, the sport has grown beyond being just a form of entertainment. It has become a most serious endeavor that earns more for both individuals and states. Even in its ancient form, individuals participate in sports for fame and glory. From its first appearance as a pan-Hellenic festival from 776 BC to 393 AD to its modern incarnation in 1896 and up to date, the Olympics has become the ultimate celebration of individual feats and the tenacity of the human spirit. Earning the wreath after participating in the Olympics, as far back as ancient Athens, was the ultimate in competitive sports. However, the event has gone beyond its individual characteristics to encode some significant socioeconomic ramifications, especially for nations hosting the event.
And those nations participating in the Olympics also wield their participation as a form of ideological demonstration; what has come to be known as national soft power. In Olympic history, most people will never forget Jesse Owens and his exploit at the 1936 Summer Games. Apart from being regarded as one of the greatest and most famous athletes, especially in track and field, his feat in winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics is taken to have “single-handedly crush Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.” Unfortunately for him, however, the United States did not consider that ideological victory worthy of recognition. But then the US benefits immensely from its dominance in some sporting events, a projection of its world superpower status.
The projection of a nation’s soft power is a signifier of that nation’s institutional and governance capacities that is demonstrated globally on a stage like the Olympics, even though it is often more demonstrated and calculated in socioeconomic terms through various indices. It is in this sense that my reformer’s sensibility would latch on to the recent disqualification of 10 Nigerian athletes for their failure to meet the minimum testing requirements demanded under Rule 15 of the Anti-Doping Rules. No keen observer of Nigeria’s sporting administration and trajectory of achievements and failures will ever have been surprised by what just happened at the 2020 Olympics. Sports enthusiasts in Nigeria, who see sport as a form of redemption for Nigeria, usually have their hearts in their mouths anytime Nigeria goes to any regional, international, or global sporting events, from football and boxing to swimming and basketball. And the narrative remains the same: something is always institutionally and administratively wrong from home.
I have heard tales of woes by sportsmen and women who complained of nepotism, favouritism and pure neglect. And it is these neglected sportspersons that we expect to perform wonders in global games. And if they are not available, we need not worry since the foreign-based professionals are always there. Indeed, it is always better to call on the foreign professionals to step in after we have used the home-based ones for the drudgery of training and preparation. It does not matter that some of these foreign professionals left Nigeria in frustration. It also does not matter that better training and grooming can provide home-based coaches as long as the foreign ones are available. Nigeria now celebrates Anthony Joshua, not minding that if he had decided to stay here, he might not have become anything near who he is today. All this points attention to the parlous state of sport administration in Nigeria.
And the urgent need for reform. We routinely hear in the news tales of malfeasances and intrigues of corruption in not only the ministry of sport but also the National Sport Commission as well as all the other sport administration bodies. And it takes little reflection to see how such an administrative instability can translate into lackluster sport performance in global sporting events. Thus, the Nigerian postcolonial development predicament has circumscribed her capacity to project her soft power through sport. One easy diagnosis of Nigeria’s dismal sporting profile is the larger environment of clientelist and neo-patrimonial dynamics that constrains national development.
It seems logical that if the development of Nigeria is under the grip of prebendal network of corrupt patronages, then no sector of that state’s national life is immune from its limiting framework. For instance, many have wondered why the head of either the sport ministry or the NSC should not be someone who has made sport a profession—a former sportsperson or a sport enthusiast. But when a square peg is not inserted into a round hole, how does anyone expect some serious performance? This worry speaks to the relevance of leadership in sport administration, the same way the Nigerian state is plagued. At the 2012 Olympics, Nigeria’s woeful performance led the Goodluck Jonathan administration to initiate a one-day retreat to address the problems with sports in Nigeria.
The report of the retreat has not seen the light of the day, but the new Muhammadu Buhari administration has commissioned another report. And then the cycle of abandoned reports and institutional recommendations for reform goes on, from new commissioned committee to abandoned reports. How can Nigeria break out of this vicious cycle of institutional dysfunction in sport administration? Like a bulk of Nigeria’s institutional dysfunction, sport administration also has the fundamental issue of governance at the core of its predicament. There are usually well-intentioned reform ideas encapsulated in beautiful documents with clear-cut pathways that could lead to performances and the achievements of objectives. But such ideas do not get implemented because those at the helms of affairs, in sport for instance, do not really care about such documents and the agenda and objectives they hold.
The fundamental question for me here, from which other issues are generated, is whether the government at the three levels in Nigeria, consider sports a critical ingredient in national development. This is a crucial question for me because, as I have argued recently, the federal government in Nigeria often invests rigidly in the tangibles of development usually defined by infrastructures, from roads to structures. And less attention is paid to the intangibles like human capital development. Sports constitute one of those areas where the intangibles of national development can be harnessed for the cultivation of Nigeria’s soft power. However, with a comatose educational system, one cannot expect that sporting activities that ought to be part of a rounded educational training would be available.
I doubt that Nigeria’s higher education system is wired, like North America, to award scholarship founded on the sporting prowess of any student. Sporting activities and festivals, from primary schools’ inter-house sports, universities’ inter-collegiate games and national sport festivals have all receded to the background of educational activities. It is time to bring them back. And the solution lies in a multidimensional reform effort that begins with a visionary political leader whose understanding of national development is comprehensive enough to perceive the relationship among all the sectors of the national economy, from infrastructural development to sports. First, no institutional reformer will neglect the place and role of any national policy document in the restructuring of any sector. Thus, this makes the Nigerian national sports policy a crucial place to start reforming the role of sport in national development. However, while the sports policy is a well-crafted document that especially recognises the fundamental significance of the grass-roots in sporting development, the significance of this insight will continue to be lost if that document is not synergised, for instance, with other national policies in cognate sectors of the economy, from youth development to employment.
Olaopa is a professor of Public Administration & Directing Staff, NIPSS, Kuru, Jos, Plateau State
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