Nigerian Sports at 45: The Way Forward

By Lilian Onuoha
Updated: October 1, 2005
Dick Tiger
Dick Tiger

NIGERIA—Sports in Nigeria in the last 45 years had been something of a mixed blessing for the country, like in some other sectors. If viewed as a man, at this age, he is expected to be a full-fledged adult, capable in all ramifications.

At 45, sports in Nigeria had developed from stage to stage, often leaving in its trail indelible marks in the history of the country.

It officially started in the 1950s, about ten years before the country gained independence, although it was basically more on individual basis than a country.

Nigeria’s first major appearance in world sports was at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, but like a toddler that the country was, it turned out to be a case of the country making history more as a “been to” than a winner as nothing was won.

Four years later, Emmanuel Ifeanjuna won a gold medal in high jump at the Cardiff Commonwealth Games.

Other individual efforts and victories were made by Hogan “Kid” Bassey, who became the world feather-weight boxing king in 1957 and Dick Tiger, who won the middle-weight crown as well as the world light heavyweight crown later.

The trend of individual participation, however, changed in the 1960s, particularly in 1962, two years after independence when the National Sports Council was created to co-ordinate the affairs of sports in Nigeria.

This foundation period in sports recorded the qualification of Nigeria’s Green Eagles for the Olympic Games held in Mexico in 1968.

In 1971, the National Sport commission was set up with its terms of reference being “to coordinate, raise the standard and performance of sports.

It was also empowered to encourage, develop and organise sports in the country. Not long from the establishment of the commission, Nigeria hosted the 2nd All-African Games 1973 in Lagos. The experience garnered from this game led to the introduction of the National Sports Festival which was aimed at discovering athletes that would be groomed to represent the country in continental and international competitions. This turned out to be the launch pad for Nigerian sports.

The 1970s was remarkable in the history of sports in the country. There was mass participation in sports in the country as the senior football team won a gold medal during the said second All-Africa Games, while the country’s contingent to the games won an overall 2nd position on the final medals table.

Victories were also recorded in continental championships through Shooting Stars and Rangers International of Enugu in the Cup Winners Cup competition.

Nigeria’s name continued to ring like bell in the world and African sports, especially in 1985 when the country’s Under-17 football team went to China and conquered the world in the first ever FIFA Under 17 (then U-16) World Cup.

This was after Peter Konyegwachi won the country’s first ever Olympic silver medal at Los Angeles 1984.

The Flying Eagles team in 1989 created another record in Saudi Arabia at the world cup after the team narrowly lost to Portugal in the grand finale.

The country did not only excel in football in the 1980s and 90s, five of its US-based athletes also won gold medals at the world university games which took place in Edmonton, Canada, and in 1990, Nigerian athletes in the Auckland, New Zealand Commonwealth Games won five golds, 13 silver and seven bronze medals.

Sports development from then climbed from glory to glory. The earlier mentality that sports was made for school drop outs who take it as a part time business gradually ceased.

Attention was drawn to victories and honour accorded to successful athletes who also received financial reward from governments, companies and individual, whose interest were on the unifying nature of sports.

The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Rivers State Sports Council, Mr. Barisi Wifa, confirmed this in a chat with Tidesports.

He said sports have developed from a part time affair to to a full career through which families are sustained unlike what it was during its foundational stages in the country.

Nigeria’s sports has also recorded achievement in infrastructure. Various world standard stadia have been built in several states across the country.

This achievement in sports facilities accounted for the hosting of international sports events like the All African Games in 2003 tagged “Abuja 2003” COJA. Before then Nigeria had also hosted the World Youth Championship (WYC) in 1999.

Development and achievement in athletics dates back to 1950s and has improved greatly. The head coach of Rivers State athletes, Silas Ogwama tied the achievements to mass participation as was witnessed in 1972 when the National Sports festival was introduced, and which resulted in mass interest in sports.

The mass participation also attracted the interest of well-meaning individuals and companies which gradually got involved in organising competitions or sponsoring same.

The focus was, however, more on football, which has recorded more history at the world stage.

In football, everybody knows that it has developed and that Nigeria is the “gaint of Africa”

With the introduction of female football in Nigeria in the eighties Nigeria soon shot to the world stage again in the game.

In 1991, Nigeria finished 10th in the Women’s World Cup. In 1995 the country finished 11th in the Women’s World Cup but the position changed in 1999 when the country finished 1st at the African Women Soccer Championship.

In spite of these developments though Nigeria still lags behind in several areas, notably, sports management, a factor which had greatly punctuated the country’s progress in sports.

The Assistant Coach of Rivers State Boxing Association, Mr Jonathan Odidi puts it this way: “right now, sports has gone scientific, in the sense that training, organisation and managerial systems have all gone scientific in the world, and so Nigeria should make haste to attain that standard”.

This had been confirmed by various sports gurus in various fora, which had resulted to recommendations at given points.

Sensei Emmanuel Charles, PRO of Kickboxing in Rivers State said one of the way forward “is to eradicate corruption from sports, especially in the selection of athletes that will represent the states and nation in any competition.

“The right people should also be appointed to manage sports and the environment should be made possible to enhance performance.

On his part Mr Wifa moved that the state and nation should base on those sports in which it has comparative advantage in order to increase her chances of doing well in competitions.

“There should also be an update of sports facilities and equipment to meet up the world standard. The masses should learn to demand for the implementation of sports budget and more fund should be release for sports”, he said.

Sports fan, Christian Chigbu noted that the way forward is the elimination of unfavourable sports policies by politicians and budget allocation for sports should be increased to take care of the demand of the sector.

Coach Silas Ogwama sees the way forward to be the involvement of “local governments in sports as attention to grassroots sports is the only way to sustain the future of sports in the nation while Coach Odidi called for eradication of personal interest as none technical crew should not be allowed to have a hand in the selection of athletes and preparations for competitions should be started earlier to enable athletes master their skills”.

From all indications, Nigerian sports has a bright future and is a big industry which has not been tapped enough as there are more to achieve in the sector, more talents to discover and expose, more trophies and medals to be won and more glory for the nation. All that is needed is just a little push.