Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria: Much Ado About Open Sports Festival

The 18th edition of the biennial National Sports Festival is ongoing in Lagos and athletes all over the country are competing for honours in different events but the issue in the front-burner as far as the sports festival is concerned is the decision as announced by the Minister of Sports on the day of the opening ceremony.

On Tuesday, while delivering his speech at the opening ceremony, the minister of Sports, Malam Bolaji Abdullahi announced that subsequent editions of the National Sports Festival would be open to all Nigerian athletes. He said the move is aimed at encouraging the best athletes from the country to compete in the country's own version of the Olympic.

However, the minister's declaration has not gone down well with most of his critics who feel strongly that his decision is capable of extinguishing what is left of Nigerian sports. Meanwhile, other Nigerians are of the opinion that the decision is a step in the right direction as they say it would provide the ample opportunity for Nigeria's best athletes to compete and raise the standard of the festival.

It will be recalled that the National Sports Festival was introduced to help arrest the drift towards inter-tribal morass occasioned by the 1967-70 Civil War and most essentially, to checkmate the declining standards of Nigerian sports.

The Federal Government then a biennia multi-sports competition involving all the then 12 States of the Federation, now commonly referred to as the National Sports Festival. Perharps, it could be arguably insinuated that the Sports Festival was one of the bye products of the 3Rs of (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement) enunciated as a way of reuniting the country; emphazised and amongst youths.

The founding fathers had the twin objectives of promoting mass participation in amateur sports from the grassroots level throughout the country with a view to discovering hidden talents and promoting healthy and keen competition amongst the competitors and states under a climate of sportsmanship and friendly interaction, thereby enhancing and strengthening unity.

Since its inception, the festival has contributed immensely to the discovery of talented athletes who went on to represent the country at international competitions. Most notable athletes like Segun Odegbami, Falilat Osheku-Ogunkoya, Chioma Ajunwa, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, the Ezenwa brothers, and a host of others emerged from the National Sports Festival.

It is imperative to reiterate that the National Sports Festival has always been a breeding ground for budding talents. However, with the present steps by the National Sports Commission, the sports festival is certainly going to take a new direction in terms of approach even as the objective may remain unchanged.

Consequently, the minister has come under heavy criticism from those who feel his decision to throw the festival open will make nonsense of the objective of the National Sports Festival but the sports commission was quick to add that it would introduce a National U-17 Sports Festival which would feature 10 selected sports.

Those opposed to the new idea have since condemned the proposed festival as they say after over-stretching themselves to get foreign based athletes to represent them, states would not have anything left to participate in the National U-17 sports festival.

This was the view canvassed by Dr. Rashid Balogun who went on to accuse the minister of carrying out the agenda set for him by the Governor of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan.

"As a consolation the Minister claimed that there will be National Youth Festival but he does not understand that sports development cannot start with festivals rather from training. The costs incurred by various states to engage professionals from abroad most definitely will reduce any funds available to train the Youth or even attend the National Youth festival.

"A single foreign based athlete attendance will cost at least $10,000 for airline tickets, accommodation and allowance. That amount alone can prepare over 100 Youths to attend the festival. Quite frankly, a boycott will likely occur by some states if this decision stands", he posited.

Former commissioner of sports in Bauchi State, Malam Ahmed Sani Toro however supported the decision to throw open the sports festival as he said if the objective is to get the best athletes to represent the country in international competitions, it is very much in order.He said "I think the move is in order because if you look at the previous rule which says athletes who have participated thrice should not compete again, it did not help in bringing out the best athletes for the country. Although such athletes had so much to offer, they were denied the opportunity to compete.

He said by throwing the festival open, every Nigerian athlete would have the opportunity to compete in the Games and it would also afford the grassroots athletes the chance to compete against their idols.

But former Gombe State F.A Chairman, Alhaji Ahmed Gara-Gombe toed a different path as he vehemently opposed the decision. According to him, the move is detrimental to sports development and the minister should be asked to reverse himself.

He argued that if the festival is thrown open, mercernaries would hijack it to the detriment of sports development. Gombe said such foreign based athletes would compete for states that would afford to pay them huge sums of money and the whole essence of the games would have been defeated.

"It is totally unacceptable. How can the minister wake up and say he is throwing open the National Sports Festival? Did he make enough consultation with the relevant stakeholders? What he has done is to call for final extinction of Nigerian sports.

"He should be called to order. The Presidency and the National Assembly should stop him before he makes more nonsense of Nigeria sports. He is acting out of ignorance. He seems not to know the spirit behind the National Sports Festival".

At the moment the debate as to the suitability or otherwise of the decision announced by the minister of sports rages but the 18th National Sports Festival is on in Lagos with its attendant challenges.

As usual, it complaints galore over issues of accommodation, transportation, feeding and sharp practices by technical officials. However, the festival is on and will come to a close on December 9 at the Teslim Balogun stadium Lagos.

Rivers State is the defending champion having won the festival as host earlier in the year. In keeping with the pledge of the President, N45m would be taken home by eventual winners. Over-all winner would take home N20m, runners up, N15m and third place N10m. There is, therefore, a lot of medals and cash to compete for.

With Agency Report

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