interviewBy Duro Ikhazuagbe
The just concluded 18th National Sports Festival in Lagos was adjudged free and fair with a level playing field for all competitors. It was a departure from the hosting state doing everything possible to win. Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, at the weekend revealed to DURO IKHAZUAGBE some of the behind-the-scene moves that made EKO 2012 a success. Excerpts:
Your Excellency, Lagos has raised the bar of hosting the National Sports Festival with the manner the just concluded 18th edition was organised here. What was the social economic importance of Lagos hosting Eko 2012?
In terms of social economic importance, you can't divorce our perspective of the hosting from the origin of the game. This is why for instance, I find recent comments that the festival should hold only in Abuja as not tenable because some of the athletes and officials who came for the Eko 2012 were probably visiting Lagos for the first time. And some of the myths about certain areas are broken when we travel there.
When I was a kid, some of the things I heard about the eastern part of the country exploded when I eventually went there as a young man. The essence of this festival created in a post war Nigeria is basically to build the unity of the country and to make friends.
You get to know the people better when you live there. Just like our country, the impression people have of us change when they come here. Having said that, the festival is an avenue for human capital development. It is not an Olympics and nobody should the performance of the game with even the Commonwealth Games standard in terms of organisation and quality of competition.
My own understanding is that it is an avenue to discover talents and lead them on. I would expect that from the sports festival we can be able to find athletes that we can groom to represent this country in the All Africa Games, Commonwealth Games and even the Olympics.
After the Olympics, those of them that want to turn professional can then go. That is my understanding of the festival and that was why we made everything possible for these talents to find the best possible avenue to realise their dreams. That is why we believe that using athletes who have attended four festivals to compete is not the idea of the games. These category of athletes have become 'professional amateurs'. That is not the purpose of the festival.
One of the most exciting moment of the festival for me was the discovery of a 13-year-old swimmer who won three silver medals. At 13, that is a talent that can be groomed to attain Olympic height. We are already putting up a plan for that. I was fascinated by the Chinese growth in sport and have actually obtained the documents on their school sports. We want to use that as a template for harnessing the talents that we have discovered at Eko 2012. With quality coaching, they will surely get there. I want to say that all of what we are trying to do now has been done before.
For those of you rich in sports history, you will remember one man at the National Sports Commission called Isaac Akioye. That was the job he did at the NSC. He brought coaches from all over the world to Nigeria; from Bulgaria we had wrestling coaches, from Cuba came judo and boxing coaches.
That was how Nigeria attained the standard we attained in those glorious years of Nigeria sports. It didn't happen by accident, somebody was doing the work in that National Stadium. If you walk into that National Stadium after we hosted the All Africa Games in 1973, there was a coach handling every sporting event.
All you then to succeed was to walk off the street into the stadium. I walked in there and joined the Greater Tomorrow football team and was supposed to make the Nigerian team but my father just came and dragged me away from football. I can also remember that in Lagos State you have to first compete for your local government right from school. We used to play in the Somolu first. There was the mini festival at the local level before coming to the state festival. That was how we picked the people that will represent the state.
From your explanation of what you expect of the NSF, do you see this in consonance with the decision of the National Sports Commission to now make it an open affair from the next edition in Calabar?
I have made my opinion known to the minister of sport privately. I do not believe in challenging policies that I do not agree with in the public sphere. The minister is someone who has my respect and I also know that his passion for sport is very strong and I believe he wants to do the right thing.
I have told him that we need to sit down and have a meeting for us to understand where he is coming from, his reason for making the change and to see if he can make me flow with him on this issue of open festival. I can't just jump here and say no, I disagree. I like to hear the argument; the pros and cons. And in any case, that is his job. I can only advise. I can only say I want to see how it (open festival) will help us in finding new talents.
If you have athletes who are already running in the American Collegiate coming to compete here at the festival, how are we going to discover Ayomide (the 13-year-old swimmer) for instance? How do you then get athletes to replace the ageing ones?'
But your Excellency, the argument is that the NSF is no longer a developmental competition and that we should treat it like our own Olympics and that the U-17 national competition will take care of talent discovery....
I don't know the argument yet. When I speak with the minister on the matter, I will have a clearer picture of what he is trying to do. I will have a better understanding. I believe has informed opinion on this matter. Challenging him will mean that he has thought it through with his team of experts at the NSC. I do not know him to be that kind of person.
Let's go back to your handling of Eko 2012 with not a single incident of security challenge. There were no robberies or security breaches at venues of competitions and even at the Games Village. How were you able to achieve all that in a city like Lagos?
Hosting Eko 2012 was an audacious decision for us because the festival has fallen out of sync. Rivers hosted after three years. The rhythm had changed from every two years. We then needed to host it under one year to bring it back to how it was originally planned to be a biennial festival.
So when the commissioner for sports, Wahid Enitan-Oshodi brought the matter to the meeting, the question I ask him was; can you do it in one year? This was going to be his first major assignment since he was appointed a commissioner. He said it was possible. I then asked the council meeting to record it that he agreed to do the festival in one year and if he fails, he resigns his appointment.
He agreed to give me his resignation letter if he fails. Those are some of the challenges we set for ourselves in this government to succeed. It is in the council minute that the commissioner agreed to quit if he fails. With that kind of decision, the whole team got behind him.
We know that there are going to be security challenges, transportation challenges and even health challenges in hosting the 36 states and the FCT. But we tapped from the experience of Lagos hosting the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. The experience was there. The facilities that have been built for that purpose were also there. We did the expansion of the Funsho Williams road and everywhere was cleaned up to look good for the FIFA team.
Having walked that high way before, we knew which doors to knock and which not to knock to get result. With all that, security and health challenges were not going to be anything new, since we know how to handle them.
Of course, the security challenges have changed a little bit from what we were dealing with in 2009 and now. We had our first security meeting way back in March. From there, we produced our GIS maps of all the locations; the venues, the hotels, roads etc. All the security personnel had these maps of all the locations were athletes and officials were going to be during the festival. We were having monthly meeting to review every detail; how many streets lead to the places and how to police them, who was to be where, what to do.
We realised that some of the streets had illumination problems and how to fix them. That was why up till the last minute, we were still fixing street lights in all the areas in the mapped zones. Everyone took his brief seriously with no room for any slip.
There was this assistant commissioner (Brown) who led the operation himself. But unfortunately, he got posted out of Lagos, with just a week to the festival. I had to call the Inspector General of Police to say that nobody is indispensible but if Brown had led this operation till this 11th hour, he should be allowed two weeks to conclude his assignment before been posted away from the state.
The IG granted my request. From there it was a team effort again. My appreciation however goes to the good people of Lagos State played the role of good hosts. They were warm to the visitors from the other states. That is not to say that you don't have little matters like pick pockets here and there.
You can't have an event of this magnitude and not have one or two matters like missing phones and wallets. A friend called from the London Olympics that when he took his kids to the Olympic park he lost his wallet and phones in similar manner. These are not the type of stories to warrant front page treatments as they are common problems of multi sports festival of this nature.
I want to say here that it is not an easy task to secure 15,000 people crowded in venues within so short a period. I want to thank God for as you said, Lagos has raised the bar of hosting. But I also want to repeat as I said in my closing remark that Calabar must also exceed whatever we have done with this edition.
Every edition must strive to do more than the previous host. That is the only way we can be better as a nation. I have already told my people to warehouse this experience and be ready to make it available to Calabar on request any time.
We cannot continue to wallow in self pity. The people who made the London Games the success story it is today have already move on to Brazil in preparation for the 2014 Games. That is how it ought to be to achieve our goal.
Why was it difficult for Lagos, the commercial capital of the country, to be unable to attract partners to take the burden of financing the festival off your shoulders?
I don't it is accurate to say that the private sector did not respond to our requests to partner Eko 2012. They did. There not responding to us would have been nonsense Lagos being the commercial capital of Nigeria.
Let me say here that private it is not that private sectors do not sponsor sports but don't forget that they are not charity bodies. They have responsibility to shareholders, banks from whom they borrowed money.
There must be something in return for what they are giving out. I have private people sponsoring the Governor Cup in the last four years. We articulated in our feasibility to them what is in store for them if they partner the tennis competition. The last Governor's Cup had players from over 40 countries. This is the exposure of their brands to 40 countries. Everybody will be interested in that kind of competition. It was the same thing we did for the festival.
The sponsors brands were exposed to 36 states and the FCT. The brands were strategically positioned all around the venues all through the period of the festival. Coca-Cola provided soft drinks and water. It necessary need not be cash donation. Guinness provided malt drinks for the period of the festival.
Coscharis gave us vehicles at under paid discount, with concession from the Federal Government. Auto Alliance, Skye Bank and several other sponsors did.
Last Tuesday at the cocktail for the state's contingent, I gave out certificates of commendations to all the brands that supported us. If they didn't why would I be commending them?
But if you want to measure support in terms of these brands offered, it is much. Don't forget that sometimes there is no enough time to prepare adequately for cash donation. Before you can get a private company to donate cash, it must be budgeted for. You cannot ask a company to donate its working capital. So if we didn't to them on time we cannot be expecting cash from them. And besides, we made provision for the festival in our budget for the year.
You also said that talents discovered at Eko 2012 will be helped to achieve their dreams through conscious efforts of your administration. If other states are not in sync with your objective will that not pose a problem to Lagos state in terms of funding?
I don't operate with fear. I operate with the clear mind of what to do. It will be an ideal way to create wealth. Ideally, there should be national coaches from the NSC in every state.
We are running a lot of grassroots games from the MTN Street Soccer, the Beach Soccer to the Principals' Cup and the tertiary institution games. These are treasure troughs of talents. We still have not taken the advantage of our diversity as a nation. It is just for the NSC to go round to say they want these and that and they are there for the picking.
Take for instance a 15-year-old boy doing a 10.80secs in the 100m. You will know for sure that with quality training he can be running 10 flat by the time he is 18. It is just to pick the promise and not the finish article.
When Barcelona picked Lionel Messi, he was just a promise at 14 years. When Manchester United picked (Wayne) Rooney from Everton he had barely scored two goals but he was a promise. When they picked Christiano Ronaldo at 17 he was a promise. There is a lot to do to make them stars. Go back and watch Ronaldo's first game for United, he didn't seem to know what to do. Go and see Evra's first game for Man U, he came in as a substitute and was substituted.
And so once you have the coaches properly trained, they know once there is a promise in an athlete. How many athletes really make it big time?
In an academy of 200 players, you will be lucky to find two who will make it big time. It is a generational thing and the frame work of achieving that must be established. It was a conscious plan when we started the MTN Street Soccer.
Without facilities, you don't have sports. Even if you go and pick all the established athletes, it is not going to last.
There is a player in Barcelona today, Xavi, played in Nigeria '99, Joe Cole was also here. We were hoping England will bring Michael Owen but they said no, he is already playing in the senior team and was not needed at that level. That competition is a talent development programme.
For a long time we didn't win the football gold in Lagos but now we are seeing the benefit of MTN Street Soccer. Lagos won both the men and women gold medals in the football events of Eko 2012.
The swimming competition that we sponsored is already yielding result. Same with the monthly boxing event at Rowe Park that I have been attending in the last four years is also producing result. Our annual squash tournament has also given us result. We won three of the four gold medals on offer. It shows clearly that if there is plan, things are possible. It is the result of long term planning.
Who remembers to give credit to an organisation like Mobil that was responsible for funding our athletics for several years?
The Onyalis and colleagues flourished through that competition. Unipetrol used to sponsor annual tennis championship that too is gone. The Kaduna Clay Court is gone. The Ogun Green is gone, Ogbe Hard Court is also gone. I played at the Central Bank Open as a teenager.
For leaders who failed to realise that to get to the top is a journey, then, we won't get it right. I am particularly happy that for the first time in the history of the NSF, every state that competed at Eko 2012 won a medal. It was possible because we made it clear to all officials that we are not seeking any favour. We wanted a level playing field for all competitors. We told umpires and judges in sports were they have discretion not to do Lagos any favour. If we don't win, we don't win.
Sir, there is a culture of facilities not maintained after hosting a major competition in the country. We have seen it happen at the national level a couple of times. The National Stadium in Lagos is a good example. Have you consider what is going to happen to some of the facilities you have in place now in the next couple of years from now?
When we finished renovating the Teslim Balogun Stadium, we appointed an individual who is not a civil servant to manage the facility.
I want so say here that at government level, provision of the facility is essential but maintenance should be done at individual level.
So we hired someone who played football and is retired after private sector practice. Because I know him and his integrity, I went for him to help manage the facilities. He was reluctant because of fear of government bureaucracy. But I told him he was in control. Apart from the tartan track that we changed and painting, we didn't do much at Teslim which goes to show that the person handling the place is alive to his responsibilities of maintaining the place. Campos and Agege stadiums are all responsible to him. With the sports commissioner and the permanent secretary you can be sure that nothing will go wrong.
Were you bothered that for the first time the NSF was not on terrestrial television for the benefit of people outside the state to follow proceedings at Eko 2012?
Honestly, if something wrong had been done I must apologise. People were saddled with various tasks and if there was a failure, I must apologise and not shift blame.
However, I want to say that even as it was not on local television, it was on Supersport, and several other devices. The festival was streamed live on the internet. I watched some of the events on my ipad in New York, USA. Eko 2012 was followed live in several countries in some of these devices.
In a way, it was brought to everyone that had access to these facilities wherever they may be on the planet. It was another raising the bar of some sort. So if you look at the problem with power supply in the country that may have been more effective.