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The Miracle Of Birmingham, By Kazeem Akintunde

When the 2022 Commonwealth Games started in Birmingham, England, on July 28, many Nigerians did not pay much attention to it. This is due to the day-to-day survival race that most Nigerians face, coupled with the rising level of insecurity across the land which is enough to drive one round the bend. That our Nigerian athletes, like Tobi Amusan, who recently won gold at the World Athletics Championship, and also set a new World Record in the 100 meters hurdle, as well as Ese Brume, for long jump, and Asisat Oshoala’s nomination for the Baloon d’Or would bring so much glory to the country at a time of so much strife, rekindles hope that Nigerians anywhere can prove their worth, and nothing stops the country from making a positive turnaround for the better, given the will and mindset.

Prior, many have written off Nigeria to be among the top contenders for honour at the meet. The rot that has pervaded all strata of Nigeria, has also crept into Sports. Early this year, the Super Eagles crashed out during the last qualifying match against Ghana which means that the country’s flag would not be flying in Qatar, when the FIFA World Cup begins in a few months’ time.

However, by the time the tournament was drawing to a close, Nigeria occupied a pride of place on the medal table. When the curtains finally drew on the competition last week Sunday, Nigeria was among the top 10 countries on the medal table and number one among other competing African Nations. Nigeria garnered 12 Gold, nine Silver and 14 Bronze, making a total of 35 medals. The gold medal haul in Birmingham is the highest at a single Commonwealth Games outing for Team Nigeria. It was the country’s best performance ever, with the seventh position placement on the medal table.

For once, many Nigerians forgot about their misery, occasioned by bad leadership and economic deprivation, to celebrate our sportsmen. The Nigerian National Anthem was on the lips of many, during medal presentations.  Some even shed tears of joy alongside the athletes when our national anthem was played during the medal awards ceremony. It was a time to feel good and proud of being a Nigerian. At that moment, Nigeria became a country many were proud to associate with.

This time, there was no religious, ethnic, or tribal divide. Nigerians were one all over the world. The celebration was genuine and the hope it stirred was felt by many. Many of our compatriots took to social media to celebrate the team. But they did not stop at that. They reminded their fellow compatriots that the feat was achieved without any recourse to federal character, there was no quota system, as only the best were selected to represent the country.

Golden girl, Tobi Amusan, who had few weeks earlier, won the 100 meter hurdle at the World Athletics Championship, led the gold medal rush for Nigeria. Other ladies that did the country proud by winning gold medals include Ese Brume. (Long Jump), Amusan, Ofili. Nwokocha. Chukwuma. (4 x 100 Meters relay), Chioma Onyekwere. (Discus), Miesinnei Mercy Genesis (Wrestling), Oduntayo Adekuoroye. (Wrestling), Blessing Oborududu. (Wrestling), Folashade Oluwafemiayo. (Powerlifting Para), Rafiatu Folashade Lawal. (Weightlifting), Adijat Adenike Olarinoye (Weight Lifting), Goodness Nwachukwu. (Discus Para) and Eucharia Njideka Iyiazi (Shot Put Para). Nigeria’s golden era in sporting events appears to be gradually returning.

Prior to the Birmingham event, Nigeria was a force to reckon with in Africa and the globe in track and field events as well as in football, boxing, and table tennis. Once the era of a generation of athletes was coming to an end, another set would smoothly take over from them.

But the gradual rot in the Nigerian system became noticeable in the late 90s when it became difficult for Nigeria to qualify for most sporting competitions. Even when we qualify, we are easily knocked out by other countries without much pedigree in sports. With the turn of the 21st century, and especially in the last seven years, Nigeria seemed to have completely fallen off the ladder and was no longer reckoned. Most Nigerian athletes began competing for other countries, while other countries were taking the glory of the milestones achieved by Nigerians. Nigerians only got the consolation that the star athletes were of Nigerian heritage.

All facets of the Nigerian system—economy, security, education, health, manufacturing, infrastructure, agriculture, national cohesion and the like – have been badly affected by the malaise the same way cancer spreads through the human body and corrupts the entire system.

The success story that we are witnessing in sports now began three years ago, when the Federal Government, through the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports Development, headed by Sunday Dare, redeemed its pledge of offering hope and assistance to athletes and youths through its policy of ‘adopt an athlete’ campaign to enable them realize their aspirations and dreams of qualifying and attaining optimum and podium performances in their different fields of sports at the level of the Olympic Games and world championship events.

While launching the programme at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos, the Minister, in his keynote address, said, “These athletes, our youths, have hope, the hope to succeed in whatever they do. The hope of the athlete is to be at the Olympics, or the World Championship for their sports, to stand on the podium, and fly their country’s flag. They want to be the reason why Nigeria’s flag should be hoisted and the National Anthem sung while the world watches. This is their reward but it is also our honour, prestige, and pride among Nations.’

And it wasn’t long before many Nigerians keyed into the programme. Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, few days after the launch, offered to sponsor six Nigerian athletes. Okowa’s chosen athletes are Ese Brume, Blessing Okagbare, Divine Oduduru, Raymond Ekevwo, Itsekiri Usheorise and Ogho-Oghene Egwero. His counterpart in Ogun State, Dapo Abiodun, also adopted golden girl, Tobi Amusan.

The adoption of Amusan by Abiodun was facilitated by Dare, who personally took the athlete to the governor. Since then, other state governors, individuals, and corporate bodies have shown the desire to adopt some of the athletes. Essentially, what the adoption means is that Nigerian athletes based outside the shores of Nigeria would be provided with the sum of $20,000; while the home-based athletes are primed to get $10,000 from the individuals and corporate bodies who adopted them. The money is to ensure that the athletes hire a good coach, money for drugs if injured, and are generally comfortable while training for major sporting events. And within three years, the results are there for all to see.

Ese Brume, one of the athletes adopted by Delta State, set a new record at the games by claiming the gold medal in the women’s long jump event. Brume, 26, leaped to a new Commonwealth Games record of 7.00m to reclaim her crown at the event. The Delta-born athlete earlier set a new games record of 6.99m with her second jump of the day.

Team Nigeria ended the final day on a resounding note with Oluwatobiloba Amusan winning a gold medal in the women’s 100m hurdles, and then inspired Nigeria’s women relay team to win an elusive 4x100m relay gold with a new African record of 42.10 seconds which erased the one-month-old 42.22 seconds African record they set in Oregon, USA, at the World Athletics championships.

What Amusan and others did for Nigeria with that feat was far larger than all that the government has been doing through public relations, advertising and other forms of communications meant to burnish the image of Nigeria. For hours and even a day or two, Nigerians put aside all the negative issues bedeviling the country and enjoyed the feeling of victory that Amusan and others brought.

The Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, for their show of appreciation and pro-activeness, has also showered cash gifts on the athletes, with gold medalists receiving $5,000 each, while their coaches were given $3,000 each, just as silver and bronze medalists also received $3,000 and $2,000 respectively.

To consolidate the miracle of Birmingham and ensure that the win was not a fluke, it is time for the federal government, through the Ministry of Sports, to pay more attention to schools’ inter-house sports at the Primary and Secondary levels so that future Amusans would be discovered and nurtured for the country.

One noticeable fact about the athletes that did the nation proud is the fact that many of them are based outside the country. They are exposed to world-class facilities as well as experienced coaches to guide them to the top. There is no reason why we cannot have world-class sporting facilities across Nigeria. The Sports Ministry must also ensure that it creates enough motivation and incentives for athletes to compete so that they can sharpen their talents.

We have the talents in Nigeria as well as the undying spirit that push Nigerians to the top wherever they may find themselves. It is time to revive sports in the country and use it as a unifying force. It is only when Nigeria excels in Sports that the spirit of oneness became manifest for us as a country. A thinking government would do whatever it takes to achieve that, if that is one of the ways we can achieve national unity.

I felt proud to be a Nigerian during the Commonwealth Games. Many Nigerians felt the same. Let our leaders pay more attention to Sports. We might as well kill two birds with one stone by achieving national unity as well as creating jobs for our youths, through sports development. Once that is achieved, crime will be reduced, as those youthful energies would now be channeled into something productive. The ripple effects of that would be many. Indeed, we can use sports for our national rebirth.

See you next week.

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