Poor management and lack of accountability in the country's Olympic committee has compelled many shining stars of Nigeria to switch sides and compete for other nations.
Growing up in Abia state, Gloria Alozie, her parents and everyone in her world recognized her talent in track and field. She went for competitions across and outside the state, sprinting with impressive speed. The first time she represented Nigeria was in Bouake, Ivory Coast, at the 1995 African Junior Championships.
“It looked like a dream,” Alozie tells TRT World. She kept improving and was qualified to participate in bigger competitions in track and field, especially hurdling.
Few days before the start of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, when she was set to represent Nigeria, Alozie’s fiancé died in an accident. A runner himself, he was in the city as a reserve in the Nigerian 4x400m relay squad. She ran still, in tears, and won a silver medal in the 100m hurdles. According to this LA Times article, a Sydney newspaper reported that “the Nigerian Olympic Committee would not pay for the body to be returned home because [he] was not an official member of the Olympic team.” This claim was denied by Alozie’s agent.
“What happened in Sydney 2000 for me is a forbidden story,” Alozie says, unwilling to discuss the details of the incident. “I don’t like talking about it but all I know is that I lost my fiancé just before the Olympics.”
Shortly after the incident, Alozie obtained Spanish citizenship. She ran for Spain in the 2002 European championship and won a gold medal. In this interview from last year, she revealed that there were several factors that contributed to the switch of allegiance. “As a Nigerian, there was something really missing so I had to obtain the [Spanish] nationality for my career to really flow very well.”
Although she said the events at Sydney had little impact on her decision to be adopted by Spain, it’s often viewed as part of the pattern of neglect suffered by sports representatives in Nigeria. This remains a valid concern for many, particularly with similar patterns already playing out in the ongoing Olympic Games.
Oluwakemi Adekoya, a Nigerian-born athlete who specialises in 400m, defected to Bahrain and represented the country at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. After years of frustration in the Nigerian system, and being removed, unexpectedly, from the team despite qualifying, an invitation email from Qatar changed Femi Ogunode’s life. While studying at the University of Ibadan, he represented his school but he’s at the ongoing Olympics flying Qatar’s flag.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which was postponed from last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, has Nigerian teams in different categories in attendance. D’Tigers, Nigeria’s male basketball team, the only men’s basketball team representing the continent, has taken to GoFundMe page, an online crowdfunding platform, “to help provide training, travel, and organizational support.” Likewise, Nigeria’s women's 4x400m team for the Olympics was disqualified due to “glaring technical errors” by the officials.
Besides the personal pride, winning or representing one’s country on bigger platforms connotes prestige, sponsorships and financial benefits from international sports bodies which can be funnelled into training, grassroot development and paying of athletes.
In a country with a plethora of stories of poverty and abductions, sports serve as one of the avenues to tell a different story. “The use of sports is for development and inspiring people… to take kids out of the street, to start impactful projects,” says Debola Adebanjo, a sports journalist at the BBC Africa. “We have seen over the years how unifying and fulfilling sport is. Countries use it as a tool to make change.”
Injustice and incompetence
Born in 1978, a year after Alozie, Francis Obikwelu too had dreams of making his country proud. A Nigerian-born sprinter, he was ranked number 2 in the world following a silver medal win at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, but he was representing Portugal. In the 1994 African Junior Championships, he represented Nigeria and won the silver medal in 400m. However, the attitude of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) during a difficult period in his career made him question his place.
In this video, Obikwelu recounts his experience after the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He had a knee injury and couldn’t run anymore. “I told my federation, they said I was lying.” The doctor told him his knee was so bad he might not be able to run anymore. The federation told him they didn’t need him, that “they can produce another Obikwelu.” He travelled to Canada for the surgery where he spent months and paid out of his own pocket. “Nobody called me,” he says. “I love my country. This is where I came from,” but he had to leave.
He adopted Portuguese nationality in 2002, and has since won several medals, including two gold wins in 100m and 200m at the 2006 European Championships in Athletics, making him the first male athlete to win both categories in the European Championship. “In Portugal, they respect me,” he says in the video.
Bad reward system is another major issue hindering the development of sports in Nigeria. Chioma Ajunwa, the first Nigerian to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996, was recently in the news. It was revealed that, twenty-five years after winning, the house pledged by the Lagos state government was still unfulfilled. This news garnered attention on social media and, shortly after, the state finally did right. This further reveals that, like other aspects of the Nigerian society, the citizens play a major role in bringing to the fore cases of injustice, corruption and incompetence, and exerting pressure on responsible persons and bodies to make a change.
In demanding accountability, sports fans and general citizens need to be informed regarding where and how to register their discontent. Adebanjo explains that there are instances where the blame is directed towards the AFN or the National Football Federation (NFF), meanwhile the state government might be responsible for the specific issue. “A lot of sports fans don’t know where to channel the right questions,” says Adebanjo, adding that influential sports figures should use their platforms to ask questions and make a stance. Fans have a role to play but “there’s only so much they can do.”
Lack of adequate facilities in primary and secondary schools to train and build young talents is one of the major challenges impeding the advancement of sports. A structured, grassroot-focused approach to discover and develop athletes is pivotal in the process of producing and retaining athletes. “You are only as good as what your athletes produce,” Adebanjo says.
There are short-term and long-term costs of losing talent to other countries. When successful athletes leave as a result of poor management, Nigeria can only claim them by association. “The citizens might be excited but they are missing out a lot more than what the athlete could have given… It leaves a deep dissatisfaction.”
After she retired, Alozie returned to Nigeria to take up a position as hurdles coach, as her way of giving back to the society while being a part of athletics development. “I think the athletes deserve the best when it comes to welfare,” Alozie says.