A few days ago, the National Sports Festival began in Abuja. It happened without a sob. The biannual event was designed 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 three main objectives for establishing the games were to develop and showcase Nigeria’s best in all sports, to unite the youths of a country that had just gone through a 3-year horrific civil war, and to use the games as a social, cultural and economic development tool for the host State.
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.
The dilution of the games’ objectives began with the change of guards at the headship of Nigerian sports, particularly the retirement of Mr. Mogaji, the first Director of Sports in a Sports Ministry that existed side by side a National Sports Commission that was, technically, directly in charge of developing and administering sports in the country.
The commission was under Dr. Isaac Akioye, a thoroughbred professional with sports development ideas acquired in the USA flowing in his veins.
A myopic understanding of the intent of the original visionaries by their main successor in the Sports Ministry became the foundation for the devaluation and dilution of the aims, objectives, goals and successes of the games.
Even in conversations today, the disparity between the few remnants of the original vision still alive, and the present and past administrative actors since Amos Adamu, are planets apart.
That’s why the National Sports Festival has become the shambolic irritant that many State governments presently consider it to be, a time wasting, money-gulping exercise that is riddled with corrupt practices and nothing productive either in sports or outside it to show for all the noise and funds constantly demanded to keep it going.
Indeed, in some States, the festival has become the only major sports programme of their Sports ministries and their only source of getting money for sport in their States and for their pockets.
The National Sports Festival has suffered endless controversies particularly about eligibility and welfare of participants during the games.
Many other unanswered questions have also dogged the festival through the decades – the win-at-all-costs syndrome, elimination of age categorization, and the introduction of bidding to host by States.
Winning medals by all means and at all costs also became the greatest objective of States rather than developing athletes, athletics and society.
The essence of the games was lost, taken over by narrow interests outside of talent discovery, talent display, healthy competition, and the social, cultural and economic spin offs from hosting such games.
Whereas those aspects are the legacies that should sustain for generations after the games, catalyzed, facilitated, accelerated and made a reality by them.
As Abuja settles down to welcome thousands of athletes from all over the country, we can only hope that some positives can be taken away from the shame that has unfolded in the past few days.
There are some faces emerging in some States in the country that should see the 19thedition of the National Sports Festival as their litmus test, the last of such disgrace and the impetus to champion a return to the original vision of the games that still sustains till now.
Delta, Edo and Lagos States may be leading that charge. They have appointed an exciting number of new sports administrators to head their sports. They can start that essential change in Nigerian sports and, particularly, the National Sports Festival.
Another close look at the National Sports Festival must be undertaken after these games with the intention to reposition the games to make it the biggest, the best, most beneficial and most lucrative multi-sports event in the whole of Africa. Nigeria can set that pace and model.