Lagos State Commissioner for Sports, Wahid Oshodi, is optimistic all the vital points that would make the 18th National Sports Festival a huge success have been tied. He should know; he is vice chairman of the LOC.
The idea of the National Sports Festival was conceived to serve as a rallying point for the unity of the country and to produce talented sporting individuals that will represent Nigeria at future international competitions as well. In recent years, however, the festival seems to have lost its allure and credibility.
However, as Lagos State prepares to host the 18th National Sports Festival, it is hoping to bring back the thrill of the festival and give the rest of the country a unique competition they will cherish for long.
"By deciding to host the National Sports Festival, Lagos State is ready to showcase itself as the hub of excellence even in sports. Hosting the sports festival is in line with the long term reforms of this present administration. You will recall that this administration led by Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola initiated reforms in the sports sector by resuscitating schools sports, grassroots sports development programmes, improved athletes welfare packages, development, continued maintenance of sports facilities, employment of coaches, technical crew and sports officers, to mention a few," Oshodi said.
"Hosting the 18th NSF is a continuation of these reforms. We are aware that it is in hosting sporting activities that we can keep our facilities alive, our youths engaged, hunt for young athletes and continually develop these pool of athletes, talents for other international competitions."
One of the areas that observers appear sceptical about the state's readiness to host the competition is in the area of facilities. However, the commissioner said all the facilities for the games are ready.
"As we speak, our facilities are well about ready to host this event. I can say categorically that all the venues for each sport as well as the various accommodation centres will be in good state, ready to use for the sports festival. This can further be proved by the recent comment of the Joint Technical Committee for the 18th National Festival. This comment was made after the inspection of our facilities and it goes thus: 'Lagos is ready'."
The issue of poaching has always been the bane of the festival as it mostly affects states that are less vibrant financially. Asked how Lagos State has been able to protect its athletes from the prying eyes of oil rich states, the University of Lagos graduate answered thus: "The National Sports Commission (NSC) has approved guidelines for the successful hosting of this festival. The rules have been taken care of. Lagos State has gone a step further by ensuring adequate provision for its athletes. We have provided a welfare package for each athlete that includes allowances, provision of accommodation and food, to mention a few. The state has tried to ensure that the basic needs of each athlete is met, so that at every point athletes can focus on their sports career. We hope in the future we can have an avenue where sport is a profession and an athlete does not have to worry about the basic necessities of life but focus on their profession - which is winning medals.
"Also, through our amiable governor, we have engaged the services of international coaches to train our athletes with the highest international standards. These coaches with experiences of several years will also provide the necessary leverage and counsel on international opportunities for these athletes. Lagos State is not so concerned about poaching of its athletes, we are only concerned about satisfying the needs of our citizenry, providing what the government can; this way, we never had problem with poaching," he said.
Given the lacklustre performance of Nigerian athletes at the London Olympics should ordinarily spur early preparations for the 2016 Olympics. On whether athletes that can represent the country in Rio could merge from Eko 2012, the former chairman of the state's table tennis association said: "The sports festival will culminate in a pool of talented athletes who will represent the country in international competitions. I am assured that with the proper structure in place, this festival can produce athletes that can represent the country in sporting competitions anywhere in the world. However, a lot of work needs to be done. Lagos State through its sports associations now has a calendar full of sports activities.
"With well over 30 sports associations, we ensure that each athlete has a shot at a competition within the state at least three times a year and this is excluding other inter-state as well as international competitions. The aim of this is not only to keep our sporting facilities bustling with activities but also to ensure that our athletes are engaged all year round. We know that there is still so much to be done in this area, but with the proper system in place, we should have a sports academy where each athlete as a professional can focus on what he loves doing the most."
The country has hosted many competitions in the past where facilities put in literarily vanish shortly afterwards. What measures have the state taken to protect these facilities after the festival?
The Methodist Boys' High School, Lagos, alumni said: "The hallmark of this administration is transparency and we are not unaware of cases of theft in the past. However, we have put certain mechanisms in place and with the right structure we will be able to track our equipment. Some of these mechanisms include proper record keeping and storage systems. We are working closely with the ministry of science and technology to assist with various tracking devices to reduce cases of theft to the barest minimum.
"This way, we have proper details of when an item is taken out of the store and returned. Also, punitive measures are in place to ensure that officials remain accountable. Note that some of the items used for the festival are consumables; this means that they cannot be reused as soon as it is taken out of the store."
Oshodi would rather not comment on the issue of vehicles that disappeared soon after Nigeria hosted the All African Games in 2003 and the U-17 World Cup in 2009 respectively. "The games referred to were hosted under the auspices of the federal government; hence I am not aware of such an incident and will not be able to make any comments in this regard. However, we assure you that all equipment, vehicles and items procured by the state for the purposes of this festival will be properly accounted for," he assured.
With regard to the table-tennis team that went on a foreign training tour - a luxury that was not extended to other associations - and the suggestion it could cause discontent among other athletes, he said: "The table tennis team was actually on training tour to China recently and, yes, I was once chairman of the Lagos Table Tennis Association. But the trip in question was a private sector-initiated programme. It was also sponsored by the private sector not the government or I. We agreed to allow our athletes go on this training to further prepare them for the sports festival. We look forward to more of such partnership for other associations as we continue to provide the enabling environment," he noted.
Oshodi explained that "Lagos State has encouraged the spirit of fairness and sportsmanship," driven by the desire to make the festival a truly befitting event. "From the constitution of our Local Organising Committee to the sub-committee, we have engaged the services of excellent professionals. We have good sports administrators ensuring the smooth running of administration throughout this festival. We have accountants, sports administrators, lawyers and other professionals on board ensuring a good festival. Lagos State has raised the standards again. We are set to showcase excellence again."
He is optimistic that Lagos State has a very good standing in all the sports to be competed for at the festival, adding, however, it's not an indication it was desperate to win.
"Lagos State is not hosting to win this festival; but we will host well. As I said earlier, we have very strong talents in some of the sports and we will do well."
Reminded that the ban on commercial motorcyclists from major roads in the state might have an adverse effect on the festival as it could cause a spike in crime rate, Oshodi replied: "Our Security Sub-Committee has been working round the clock to ensure the security of lives and properties of not only the athletes and officials but also the audience. It would be counterproductive to disclose the details of their security plans, but I can assure you that we will all be safe."
The commissioner noted that the festival's benefit should be seen in the enduring goals of infrastructure development and renewal, employment, human capacity development, dignifying athletes' welfare, schools and grassroots sports development.
Editor's Note: Production issues prevented this interview from being published last week