Loud silence from Nigerian universities… grooming sportsmen In ivory towers

Athletes competing at the last NUGA Games

Athletes competing at the last NUGA Games

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At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the high wall covering parts of the football pitch announces to any visitor that this is a sports’ arena.

A walk in reveals several facilities, including tennis, basketball and volleyball courts. There is equally a swimming pool and building for indoors sports, such as judo and taekwondo. However, the arena is littered with uncompleted and abandoned projects.

Inside the arena, everywhere seems a thoroughfare. Students and staff walk in from different sides of the school premises, unhindered. The Olympic size swimming pool is without protection. The water has turned green, an indication that it may not have been maintained for some time.

A few students are seen milling around the area while some are praying, others are reading. How far the school pays attention to sports facilities could be gleaned from the office of director of sports of the university, which is opposite the arena.

The weather-beaten building has not been maintained for a very long time. Yet, it was this office that attracted and hosted the Nigeria University Games (NUGA) and West African University Games (WAUG) in 2015, as well as, groomed some of country’s notable athletes such as, Ezinwa brothers (Osmond and Davidson), Obinna Metu and Paul Egeonu.

The situation at the University of Calabar is not different. Aside from the Abraham Ordia Stadium, which is still manageable, facilities for indoor games like, basketball, handball and volleyball need serious attention.

The facilities are no longer there for such grooming of talents. From the North to the West, East to the South, sporting facilities in Nigerian universities are appalling, rickety and poor. The university budgets for sports in a year cannot even lift single sports to any meaningful level and when applied to the multi-NUGA Sports programme, it amounts to nothing.

It is little surprising,therefore, that the Nigerian university system is a lame duck, unable to make any significant impact in the nation’s quest for sports excellence.

Years back, tertiary institutions played key role in the training of athletes for local and international engagements. Those, who excelled in sports, were usually the targets of sports councils. These days, reverse is the case.

Prof Ademola Abass of the Department of Human Kinetics and Health Education, University of Ibadan (UI), while assessing the situation, said corruption is on the rise in schools, “a lot of universities now depend on professionals to compete at NUGA Games.”

The don said, “in those days, students were groomed to represent universities, real students, not mercenaries. Today, many schools go to the sport councils to pick athletes and make them ‘fake students’, so as to compete at NUGA and after the games, they cease to be students. Thus, there’s no talent to identify or discover, because the professionals are used in place of students.”

Abass added, “the issue of non-residence universities have also contributed because some schools are non-residential. When a student finishes his lecture, he goes back home. It’s only in residential institutions such as, UI and the older generation schools that sports could thrive. In a university like UI, we still have some level of sport participation among students on campus. They still have competitions that they do, students still come out to the field, participating in sports, but it’s not like that in other universities that are not residential, because, by 4-5pm, everybody has left schools for homes. The institutions are no more producing the athletes, they are actually looking for ready made from the sports councils.”

A sports administration and management expert, Dr. Olayinka Awoyinfa, told The Guardian that universities ought to have state-of-the-art mini-Olympic stadia if they want to properly harness the sporting talents in students.

Awoyinfa, who is also a senior lecturer in the Department of Human Kinetics and Health Education at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) Akoka, said, “more worrisome issue is the care for the existing facilities and equipment. We lack a maintenance culture. The little we have, we find it hard to maintain. That is why some PhD candidates in UNILAG have taken it up to find out the best way to maintain these facilities and for people to have a change of attitude towards maintenance.”

He argued that holding crusades, parties and other social functions at stadia could only be justified if the proceeds are ploughed back at effectively maintaining the facilities.

He said that UNILAG has facilities for football, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, handball, and others, but that they are all sub-standard, noting, “they cannot be compared to modern facilities in say Princeton. But we have facilities for all sports quite all right. But they are moribund and outdated.”

On the implications of the poor state of the facilities on sports development, he said the country would continue to suffer a drought of medals in many international competitions and continue to lose talent to other countries, adding, “One of our Olympians was robbed of a gold medal, because there was no facility for her to practice in Nigeria. When she came back, she had to mention it at the airport. Our universities should be the breeding ground for athletes. We should be the one churning out athletes that would represent the country at international competitions. And we have been suffering medal drought in some sports, because we don’t have modern facilities to be able to compete favourably with our counterparts overseas.

We would continue to suffer until we provide modern facilities for sports in the universities.”

He said the Nigeria University Games (NUGA) could only do little in developing sports in universities, because it is bedeviled by paucity of funds as well as delay in the release of funds for the host university to properly prepare for the competition.”

According to the Deputy Director of Sports (Technical) of the Bayero University, Kano (BUK), Saluhu Alhaji Usman, the close to total absence of funds for sporting activities has been solely responsible for universities inability to participate and ultimately host NUGA, as well as WAUG. So, also is the AUG.

“These Games are victim of circumstances,” he lamented. “Even at FISU level, Nigerian universities report late, most times, because NUGA Games do not hold, how can we get those that will compete at the world level.”

On the state of facilities at BUK, Usman said, “we are very lucky because both the management and the vice chancellor have deeper interest in sporting activities that is why we are satisfied with our facilities.”

He added, “because our VC and the management have special interest in sporting activities, we organise inter-faculties, inter-departments, inter-unions and inter-campuses competitions. We also organise Kano State Higher Institutions Staff Games, all in an effort to keep sporting activities alive.”

The deputy director also lamented the moving of National Schools Sports Federation (NSSF) from the National Sports Commission to the Federal Ministry of Education.

“When the NSSF was under the Commission, schools were doing well. Why then shouldn’t government revisit that issue with a view to taking it back to the Commission. This will go a long way in making tremendous progress in the area of sporting activities in our universities,” he advised.

Usman insists,  “it is the absence of proper sporting activities in our universities that force students to take part in cult-related activities and other vices common among people of their age.”

For him, “when students are very busy with their studies and engage in sports during their leisure time, such criminal activities will not be seen.”

On whether the school has enough and qualified staff to manage the sporting activities in the university, Usman said they have very skilled staff. He said, “BUK is able to employ even national coaches that work with the sports directorate of the university.  For example, we have national coaches in volleyball, taekwondo, and others.”

“Our problem here is the of lack of sporting equipment. But we are happy that we have facilities on ground,” a student of Physical and Health Education, who identified himself as Nasir, said. “You will notice that for example a volleyball coach has only two, or at most three balls, in all to work with. This is very unbecoming of a proper coaching system, especially, for students, “ he lamented.

Though, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has one of the best sporting facilities in the country, and in fact, provides training ground for universities in the Southeast, the school’s director of sports, Mr. Godwin Ogbobe, however, admitted that the university is no longer breeding ground for Nigeria’s athletes to major sporting events, as a result of negligence and obsolete infrastructure.

He said: “Most of Nigerian universities, particularly in the Southeast, cannot boast of adequate sporting facilities. The essence of any university hosting NUGA is to develop its facilities, and once it is done, the school can groom athletes.”

Ogbobe added, “the facilities dictate the quality of athletes that are produced. We have hosted NUGA games and the West Africa Games, as well as the Southeast University Games. All the universities in the southeast usually come to UNN for their training activities, because we have the facilities.”

Lamenting how the dearth of sporting facilities has retarded the breeding of stars, as well as, affected the NUGA Games, he said: “My handicap is the completion of the projects here like the indoor sports hall. We have the judo and taekwondo mat, but the building is uncompleted. Look at the stadium, it is not properly done, no sitting arrangement, no flood light, no clock, in fact, it has not been given the attention it requires. The cricket pitch is uncompleted, same as the hockey pitch. The stadium is uncompleted; the indoor sport hall, everywhere. You can see that there is no roofing of the VIP stand of the stadium, nor is there a proper sitting arrangement, the pool has no perimeter fencing. My role is to groom the athletes, nurture them and get them ready for competition. I bet you that, if we have all these projects completed, UNN will rank number one in sporting activities among universities in Nigeria.”

He recalled how the university had groomed athletes in the past, who in turn, won laurels for the country. “I will pick my swimmer, Merit Jebi, she won nine gold medals in NUGA Games and was given about N1.84m as scholarship by Prof Barth Okolo for winning the medal. She read here. There is Obinna Metu (400 meters). He represented us here during NUGA games and left. He was in the Olympic team. He represented Nigeria in two meets at the Olympics. Then talk about the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond), all from here. Osita Okeagu, Ngozi Ajoku, Paul Egeonye. These are Olympic athletes, who were nurtured and groomed here before taking off.”

He said the Vice Chancellor, Prof Benjamin Ozumba, so desirous in meeting the sporting needs of the school, has asked corporate organisations and well-meaning Nigerians to come to the school’s aid.

Chinyere Okonkwo, a part three student in the department of physical education, told The Guardian that there was need to boost the morale of students participating in the various sports, stressing, “the much I could say is, we have facilities, but we cannot say they are put to best use, unless there is a competition. If you see how awkward looking the sports arena is at the moment, you will appreciate why there is need for improved budget for sports development.”

It is on record that Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun State, one of the five oldest universities in the country, has contributed immensely to the training of the country’s sportsmen and women. However, investigation conducted by The Guardian on the state of sporting activities in the school revealed that there has been a sharp decline in its contribution.

The school’s facilities were recently upgraded, when the university hosted the NUGA Games, in 2013, but they are now underutilised due to poor funding of sporting activities by the management of the school. The ugly situation seems to have been compounded by accusation of gross mismanagement of fund meant for sports.

Some students in the physical education department confided in The Guardian that sport, which is supposed to be a major aspect of their education, no longer provides the attraction and attention due to lack of encouragement by the university.

The students, who craved anonymity, alleged that the school management does not provide enough encouragement capable of making them contribute their quota to sports development.

They claim that the school allocates big budget for sports yearly, but to their dismay, this has not reflected on the athletes’ training and retraining programmes. They cited 2013 NUGA Games hosted by the university, which the school came third, and yet, the school has not deemed it fit to appreciate them.

One of the students said, “here in OAU, sports development has been relegated to the background. The situation has been like that for along time. You find out that students, who have potentials, are not encouraged and supported by the school management. What is happening to us is a reflection of what happens in the society at large, where athletes are not encouraged or given proper training. The facilities on ground are good enough, but what can we do when those who are supposed to listen have turned deaf ears? We are suffering, because of the ‘I don’t care’ attitude by the management and this is killing our potentials.”

The student said, “if they want something better for the school, the management should change its attitude to sports development. They should make money and sporting kits available to serve as encouragement to us.”

He continued, “if you move round, you will see facilities, but to what extent are they being utilised? At the Federal level, they too have their own faults, because there is a dichotomy between the states’ sports councils and the university.”

A coach in the sports council, who craved anonymity added, “apart from the fact that students on their own organise Dean and HOD cups for football matches, the culture of sports gradually has almost died, what we do now is cajole them to do sports. There is no provision for them to excel again and after NUGA Games, what next? You wait for another two years, no activity. It’s only those of us who are coaches that try to organise them so that the states’ sports council can come and recruit one or two of them.”

The coach said, “check the people, who will represent America at the next World Universities Games, they will be in the Olympics immediately after. The four-year period is used to develop the person for the Olympics, but here, we don’t have that kind of initiative.”

He noted, “the primary and secondary schools are lost in sports development programme. They are supposed to feed the university system, but most of them don’t have facilities for sports, because the people, who design their curriculum, will go and copy the America curriculum, and yet, will remove some parts, because they know they are not good in those parts. The only school I can give it to now is the University of Port Harcourt, then University of Ibadan. They are more serious about sports development.”

He added, “students now prefer to attend church fellowship programmes than sports practice. In those days, when we went out for sports, people followed us to watch. We even had kits and panache that always gave us edge over other students, but this is not the case now. Can we blame the seeming lackadaisical attitude of the management on cash crunch that has affected virtually every sector of our national life?”

The school’s Director of Sports declined comment when The Guardian visited. However, a coach, who offered to speak on condition of anonymity, said, “during our days, we had incentives, our accommodation was almost free, same as tuition, because it was heavily subsidised, but now, all those things are not there. So, the athletes that you are expecting to put up that extraordinary performance cannot do so. He or she is not given any concession as a sports person, even if he misses a test for going to practice, he is already in trouble, so, this is a hindrance to sports development.”

The school’s Public Relations Officer, Mr. Biodun Olanrewaju, however, disagreed with the allegation of mismanagement of fund meant for sports development.

He said the university system runs programmes involving money through various committees that are headed by academics of repute, including professors.

According to him, the claim on fund mismanagement by the authorities did not arise, attributing the allegation to an attempt to discredit the school management.

Olanrewaju said, “in this university, there are various stakeholders, who are always critical of any issue. This is not surprising, because OAU, as an institution, has trained them to have independent and critical mind. They are entitled to their opinion; so long they do it within the ambit of the law and the regulations laid down by the university. All I know is that it is difficult in OAU to withhold; divert or refuse to release money meant for a particular purpose. The university to the best of my knowledge is doing everything possible to promote and develop sporting activities on campus.”

The University of Benin seems to be enjoying from the sports development programme initiated by the founding fathers. The immediate past Vice Chancellor, Professor Osayuki Oshodin, was from the physical and health education department; hence, the sporting facilities in the university are standard and up-to-date.

The school hosted the 2010 edition of the Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA), two years later, the Nigerian Universities Staff Sports Association (NUSSA) was held in the university. And to host NUGA, a school must provide Olympics standard facility.

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