"I think this is my first and last time to come to Nigeria to compete!" These words went viral on Monday, July 30th, because they came from the fastest woman in the world in 2018, Cote d'Ivoire's Marie Josee Ta Lou, who had taken to her social media accounts to vent about her team's long stop-over in Lagos after it took several hours for the Ivoirian team to get connecting flights to Asaba for the 21st edition of the African Championships.
Ta Lou is one of the biggest names at the ongoing championships and was favoured to win the women's 100m title, a feat she easily accomplished on Thursday with a time of 11.15s. Considering that her teammate and defending champion Murielle Ahoure had to withdraw from the competition a few days before its commencement due to an illness, it would have been a travesty for Ta Lou to miss the competition because of the hitches she had to overcome to get to the championships, because it was reported that the Ivoirian team wanted to return home when it was getting too long to get connecting flights to Asaba.
Thankfully, that did not happen. However, this underlines the fact that sometimes there may never be a second chance to correct a first bad impression. For the better part of this week, Nigeria has trended on social media, mainly for the wrong reasons as the internet was flooded with pictures of teams that were stuck at the Murtala Muhammed Airport while waiting for connecting flights to the destination of the championships. For most of these athletes, this was their first time of coming to Nigeria, and the experience was certainly one they would love to forget.
While the Chairman of the Local Organising Committee Chief Solomon Ogba apologized for the shortcomings that has been experienced during a press briefing on Thursday, disclosing that it was only late last year that Delta State finally got the nod of approval from the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) to stage the competition after initial hosts Lagos State pulled out, I believe there is a lot more that could have been done to avoid the embarrassing situation.
The LOC had tried to be magnanimous by its decision to airlift the teams from Lagos to Asaba at no cost to the teams. However, lack of adequate planning and a huge communication gap marred the whole situation. As of the time of the championships, only one airline had direct flights to Asaba, and it was already apparent that more chartered flights would be needed to cater to huge demands of airlifting several teams.
Perhaps the organisers could have considered other alternatives such as flying to Benin or Owerri and then connecting to Asaba from these states. Also, the renovation exercise being carried out at the Asaba Airport was a limiting factor because night flights could not be accommodated due to the lack of adequate lighting system on the runway.
Finally, the absence of the giant screen at the stadium has made it difficult to get instant results during and after the event, not to mention the fact that the timing device hasn't been exactly accurate. Sometimes, the margin is even much wider than the initial result being shown on the timing device. For instance in one of the women's 100m heats, the clock stopped at 11.34s, but when the eventual result was released, the official time was 11.64s.
Having said that, the major positive for me is the massive turnout of the home fans at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, which really gives the competition a championship atmosphere. Having some of the top athletes in the world in Asaba with no crowd to cheer them, would have made the championship a dull and dreary one. For most of the athletes I have interviewed here, the support from the crowd has boosted their performance. Members of the Nigerian contingent in particular have been beneficiaries of the home fans' support.
Also, the volunteers have been very helpful and hardworking and are doing everything to make people comfortable. For some of my non-Nigerian counterparts, this is one of the major highs of the competition. Finally, the presence of the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba should leave a lasting legacy in the state if the stadium is put to proper use and not left to rot at the end of the championships. Having a lot of school children at the stadium for the duration of the championships will definitely birth several future champions who will be inspired by the presence of the stadium.
Chairman of the LOC Chief Solomon Ogba has assured participating teams of an easier transit from Asaba to Lagos immediately after the championship. He said, "We have made plans for six planes to leave Asaba on the 6th (a day after the championship). However, that is dependent on the departure schedules sent to us by the federations, and we have given them a deadline for submission. Any country that doesn't send their schedule on time will have to work out their own travelling arrangements."
I hope more than anything else, that the lessons learnt from the hosting of this championship will be put into good use going forward.