Nigeria's basketball team
Nigeria's basketball team

By OBINNA EZUGWU

The suspension of Nigeria’s sprint queen, Blessing Okagbare, from further participation at the Tokyo Olympics last week, after testing positive for human growth hormone, coupled with an injury to Enoch Adegoke who pulled out of the men’s 100 final on Sunday, appeared to have capped what had been shaping up to be an out-and-out disastrous showing by the ill-prepared Nigerian athletes at the games.

The above tragedies had come on the heels of the elimination of both the D’Tigers and the D’Tigress; the country’s male and female basketball teams – the former which had shown flashes of brilliance with stunning wins against the United States and Argentina prior to the games – as well as the disqualification of 10 athletes from the country for not meeting the minimum testing requirements. But the country’s wrestler at the event, Blessing Oborududu, and long jumper, Ese Brume, have ensured that it won’t return empty handed, by winning silver and bronze medals respectively.

Regardless, it’s been an embarrassing showing by Africa’s most populous country; an eloquent testimony of the terrible state of sports and everything else in the country. Sacramento Kings and D’Tigers player, Chimeze Metu, painted a succinct picture of the situation while narrating the experience of the basketball team and other athletes in the hands of Nigerian officials at the games.

Yet, the Tokyo outing says something more than the obvious poor state of sports in Nigeria and the terrible attitude of sports officials. It has shown that there is a gradual shift, which is attributable to the fact that the country’s sports is no longer driven by local content, but the Diaspora population, and the face of Nigerian sports is changing as a result.

Conceded that there is really nothing strange about Nigeria feeding a team of mostly foreign based players for a global competition – at least, that’s been true of the country’s national football team for as long as anyone can remember – however, while that’s been true of football, understandably so, because the best of the players ply their trade in Europe, it’s not been true of other sports. But that’s changing, too, and the reason is much deeper than one adduced to explain the preponderance of foreign based players in football.

The country’s list of 60 athletes who headed to Japan tells an interesting story. Of the 60, about 36 were either born, raised or trained in the United States, or some other Western countries – overwhelming majority in the US – and that has reflected hugely on the nature of the country’s sports; it’s a paradigm shift.

For the first time in history, the world got to watch a Nigerian Olympic gymnast, in the person of 23-year-old Uche Eke. Dressed in a pair of fitting green Slimline Joggers, Eke wagged and wagged his legs to the administration of the scanty spectators at the Olympics arena, who could not help but clap for the young Nigerian.

He did not, however, go far in the games. He left almost as soon as he came, unable to compete with likes of the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and other nations that have been in the sport for ages. But it was a good debut, and part of the larger picture of the changing face of Nigerian sports, one driven by the Diaspora population.

There was 21-year-old Esther Tamaraebi Toko, the Canada based rowing sensation, and Abiola Ogunbanwo, coming from Australia to represent Nigeria in swimming; first, too, to represent the country in that category. But there is even the biggest of them all: basketball replaced football.

It’s both heartwarming and sad story. On the one hand, the preponderance of foreign born or trained athletes speak eloquently to the strength of the country’s Diaspora population, which can also be a catalyst for its development. But on the other hand, it lays bare the pathetic state of sports management in Nigeria, and how much things have deteriorated over the years.

When in 1996, 50-year-old Chioma Ajunwa-Opara, jumped her way to gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, aged 25, becoming not just the first the Nigerian, but also the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event, she made a clear point; the point that the country had all it took … that with the necessary facilities and grooming, Nigerian athletes can rule the world.

The police officer who started life as a footballer, had subsequently opted for athletics when she was denied a chance to excel in the game by then Falcons coach who she said wouldn’t just let her play, even when it was obvious that she was the best player in the team, later applied herself to track and field, specializing in the 100m, 200m and long jump, and by dint of hard work, won bronze medal at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, gold medal at the 1991 All Africa Games before taking gold at the Atlanta Olympics.

The same Atlanta games, Nigeria’s under 23 Dream Team, comprised of young players who had grown up playing in Nigeria, with little to no European experience, beat both Brazil and Argentina en route to winning gold medal in the football event. 1996 turned out to be Nigeria’s golden year. The Relay Team of Olabisi Afolabi, Fatima Yusuf, Charity Opara and Falilat Ogunkoya won the silver medal, while Mary Onyali and Ogunkoya took bronze in their individual track events. The medal table was capped by Duncan Dokiwari who also boxed his way to bronze, bringing to the number of medals won by Nigeria to five.

Before 1996, the country had only managed eight medals since it started participating in the games in 1952, five of which came from boxing and three from athletics. Indeed, the country won its first medal in the 1964 games held in Tokyo, with Nojim Maiyegun winning bronze in boxing. This was followed in West Germany 1972, by another bronze won in boxing by Isaac Ikhouria. And in 1984 in Los Angeles, Peter Konyegwachie won the country its first silver medal in boxing, a feat matched by the Relay Team of Sunday Uti, Moses Ugbisie, Rotimi Peters and Innocent Egbunike which took silver, too, in the track event.

The 1984 record was yet bettered by the 1992 athletes in Barcelona – after the 1988 team that went to Seoul, South Korea returned empty handed – with the Relay Team of Chidi Imo, Olapade Adeniken, Davidson Ezinwa and Oluyemi Kayode winning silver; David Izontitei and Igbinegbu each winning silver in boxing and the Relay Team of Mary Onyali, Christy Opara-Thompson, Beatrice Utundu and Faith Idehen winning bronze.

So, when the country amassed five medals four years later in 1996, it must have seemed as though this African giant was now emerging into a sports powerhouse, poised to challenge the likes of the United States, Russia and China. But things went rather downhill, slowly but surely, like everything else about “the African Giant.”

In the following event in Sydney 2000, the country managed three medals; one gold medal, courtesy of the Relay Team of Nduka Awazie, Fidelis Gadzama, Clement Chukwu, Jude Monye, Sunday Bada and Enefiok Udo-Obong; as well as two silver medals one by sprinter, Gloria Alozie and weightlifter, Ruth Ogbeifo.

Four years later, in Athens 2004, it came down to two bronze, won by the Relay Teams of Olusoji Fasuba, Uche Emedolu, Aaron Egbele and Deji Aliu; as well as James Godday, Musa Audu, Saul Weigopuwa and Enefiok Udo-Obong. This was slightly bettered in Beijing 2008 by the four medals won by the country’s athletes, including two silver medals won by Blessing Okagbare and the Relay Team of Gloria Kemasuode, Franca Idoko, Halimat Ismaila, Oludamola Osayemi and Agnes Osazuwa. Chika Chukwumerije and Mariam Usman won bronze in taekwondo and weightlifting respectively.

The country failed to win any medals in London 2012, and only managed bronze in football at the Rio de Janerio games in 2016.

Of the total 25 medals won by Nigeria since 1952, for instance, boxing accounted for six, athletics 13, football three, weightlifting two and taekwondo, one. But of the 60 athletes representing Nigeria in Tokyo, there is no single boxer, and no single footballer, as both the male and female Olympic football teams failed to qualify for the games.

Football has always been Nigeria’s favourite sport, with Olympic gold, silver and bronze to show for it, but the badly managed local football leagues has ensured that no football team represents Nigeria in Tokyo. The country had eyed basketball for glory, a radical departure from the usual. While both the male and female football teams failed to qualify, the two basketball teams; D’Tigers and D’Tigress, made it to the games.

Unlike the football teams that featured players born and raised in Nigeria, almost all the country’s basketball players are either born or raised in the United States. Indeed with the exception of Ike Nwamu, who plays for Samara, Russia; Obi Emegano who plays for Fuenlabrada, Spain; Caleb Agada, who plays for Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel and Ekpe Udoh, who just completed a move Virtus Bologna in Italy, all other members of D’Tigers squad, are based in the United States, and ply their trade in the NBA.

They include Josh Okogie (Minnesota Timberwolves), Miami Heat’s trio of Gabe Vincent, KZ Okpala and Precious Achiuwa, Jahlil Okafor (Detroit Pistons) and Miye Oni (Utah Jazz), Jordan Nwora (Milwaukee Bucks) and Chimezie Metu (Sacramento Kings).

Now, these are not Nigerians who simply went to the US or Europe to ply their trade. Most were born in the US, Canada or other western countries, or at least grew up there. It’s same with the female basketball team, D’Tigress. Only four of the 12 – Adara Elonu, Spain; Ify lbekwe, Italy; Ezinne Kalu, France; Aisha Mohammed, Kosovo; Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Italy; Atonye Nyingifa, Spain – are based in Europe, even as most were born in the states, where the rest – Promise Amukamara, Oderah Chidom, Erica Ogwumike, Nneka Ogwumike, Nnenna Amy Okonkwo and Elizabeth Olatayo Williams – ply their trade.

The athletics teams also saw a large contingent US born or trained athletes, including Chidi Okezie, Chioma Onyekwere, Favour Ofili, Ruth Usoro, Knowledge Omovoh, Tobi Amusan, Rosemary Chukwuma, among others. Nigerian sports is increasingly being driven by its Diaspora population. In a sense it’s a crying shame that a country of over 200m people, cannot groom athletes that can compete for medals in the grandest stage of all. The hope of this ever happening, now increasingly lies with the Diaspora population, as sports like everything else, keep going downhill in Africa’s most populous country.