The 19th edition of the National Sports Festival commenced in Abuja few days ago amidst protests, spectator apathy, dilapidated facilities and shambolic organization. Poor attendance, power failure and organizational hiccups characterized the opening ceremony of a biennial event that was last held in 2012, when it was hosted by Lagos State.
Today, Abuja is staging the sports fiesta after the Federal Government wrested the hosting rights from Cross Rivers State which dithered for six years without staging it.
The National Sports Festival was intended to showcase the best athletes in the country, from elite to up-and-coming, exceptionally gifted, young athletes discovered from every nook and cranny of Nigeria, across all Olympic sports, in a festival of healthy competition, cultural exchange, unity, love and friendship in the true spirit and tradition of the Olympic movement.
The major objectives for establishing the games were to develop and showcase Nigeria's best in all sports, to unite the youths of a country and to use the games as a social, cultural and economic development tool for the host state. Some of the athletes that came through the Sports Festival in athletics include Henry Amike, Yusufu Ali, Ezinwa brothers, Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Faith Idehen, Beatrice Utondu and Patience Itanyi, among others.
However, what was easily Nigeria's biggest sports event has now become a charade, a far cry from its initially envisioned objectives. But it is pertinent to note that the objectives were successfully met during the early years of the games even when the games left Lagos after the 1975 edition and were moved to other cities - Kaduna in 1977, Ibadan in 1979, Ilorin in 1981, and so on. Overtime the National Sports Festival suffered endless controversies particularly the dilution of the games objectives necessitated by corruption and postponements. Through the decades, the sports fiesta was dogged by win-at-all-costs syndrome, poaching, athlete's eligibility and the introduction of bidding to host by states. Winning medals by all means became the greatest objective of states rather than developing athletes. Many state governments consider the sports fiesta to be an inconsequential event, a time wasting, money-gulping exercise.
After being virtually knocked to comatose since the last edition six years ago, it took the intervention of the Federal Government and the doggedness of the Minister of Youths and Sports, Mr. Solomon Dalung to get the National Sports Festival back to life.
Dalung who identified misplacement of priorities as the reason states are unable to host the games, said that the festival's importance as a legacy project informed his ministry's decision to fund and host it in Abuja. He said, "There is nothing as worthy of investment as the National Sports Festival. Whatever we are investing in, whether infrastructure or the economy, sports is the institution that supports the unity required for those investments to flourish. It was our intension to ensure that we revive one of our national legacies, which the sports festival is. It is symbolic of our unity... Abandoning it for that long was a disservice and we hope once it regains consistency, the private sector will come in to support us." We could not agree more with the Mr. Dalung as the nation must exert itself, no matter the socio-economic challenges, to ensure the dignity and sustainability of the National Sports Festival. It's a national duty that must be done so as to save the games from obscurity, and to discover and showcase our best talents.
But most significantly another critical look at the National Sports Festival must be undertaken after these games with the intention to repositioning the games. That could be done by removing temporarily the States bidding-and-hosting system to end the unnecessary delays and postponements in staging the festival. We suggest that the country's two most endowed cities, Lagos and Abuja, should shoulder the responsibility of hosting the games intermittently until a time when the states are viable and compellingly ready to stage the multi-sports event.