After the 18th edition that was hosted by Lagos state in 2012, the National Sports Festival (NSF) which is usually organized evey two years by the Federal Government of Nigeria, has suffered several postponements until now.
Started in 1973 and staged at the National Stadium, Surulere, the Sports Festival which brings together thousands of sportsmen and women from across the country was originally conceived as a “unifying tool” with the main purpose of promoting peace and cross-cultural affiliation in Nigeria after the Civil War in 1970.
And except in 1983, 1987, 1993 and 1995, the festival has been religiously held biennially until Lagos 2012, and has not been held again since then, as the supposed hosts of the 19th edition (Crossriver state) have kept postponing it owing to technical and infrastructural reasons.
Reacting to this, some disabled sportspersons who had participated – or hoping to participate – in the national event, have expressed their disappointment over the unfortunate development, and have decried the lack of concern of government vis-a-vis the lowered standard of sports activities in the country.
“It’s disheartening. And it’s not fair. It’s been five years since the last festival,” Track & Field coach, Shehu Tijani, told Ripples Nigeria, when asked how it feels not to have been to a major national competition for so long.
“I really cannot tell what is wrong. As one of the regional coaches, I do attend meetings together with national coaches, sports commissioners and top directors, but we never talk about the Festival. And you know, the festival is like our own Olympic games here in Nigeria, but since the last one, we’ve heard nothing.
“This (sport) is what we do for a living, and we cannot start going around begging for alms like other physically-challenged persons. I say we are just being deprived by the government.”
All trainings, no competition
It is general knowledge that playing competitively is the climax of every sport. If competition does not come for a long while, an athlete is bound to lose hope and enthusiasm in his chosen career. And this is the condition that some of the special athletes have found themselves in.
At the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos – the venue of the maiden edition of the NSF – hundreds of athletes (physically-challenged athletes inclusive) train with their coaches every week as they put ears on the ground for news of coming championships.
“I come to Stadium on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for training. I know how much I always spend to see that I come around,” said Hammed Kadri, who finished fifth place in the men’s powerlifting at the Eko 2012 Sports Festival.
“To be sincere, I stopped giving my best in training since 2015. Three years of efforts, no gain for it.
“As a powerlifter, I take a lot of multivitamins. They are very expensive, you know. Again, I’m always on a diet; I can’t eat just any food. I don’t also have sex sometimes in 6months, all to keep fit.
“The sacrifices are not worth it. It is frustrating to keep hoping for a competition that never comes.”
When asked if there are no other competitions they can prepare for other than the national festival, Kadri, who is married and with two children, said there’s hardly any competition in the country, and besides, the festival is the biggest show in terms of prize money.
“Festival is our major finance source,” Kadri continued. “When we go to states like Rivers or Delta for instance, a gold medal can be worth N1,000,000, silver, N750,000 and bronze, N500,000. That money can take care of someone for a long time.
“If you are thinking of such prizes, will you not put more effort in training?”
But Kadri isn’t the only athlete giving up, as one of the female powerlifters, who he casually called Aunty Ify, retorted as she moved away in her wheelchair, “I have not trained since December 2016. There is absolutely no need for it.”
How they manage to put food on the table
While few of the athletes engage in one skill or the other to meet ends in the absence of competitions, others just survive by friends or family support. And this was one of the concerns when some of them expressed their displeasure over the delayed Sports Festival.
Sekinat Abolaji, who was also a participant at the last Festival, said she’s into hair-dressing. She moves with clutches, but says her hands can fetch her money.
“I am a hairdresser,” she said. “Some of us have handiworks that we are managing with. For me, I come to training Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and after training, I go to shop. A ni lati jeun (we will have to eat in Yoruba).”
Speaking about the stress he faces on a daily basis, another athlete Saliu Oresanya wishes he has his own business so that he can choose when to resume work and when to rest after a rigorous training session at the Stadium.
“For me, I make shoes, I do computer graphics, I have other I.T skills; but I work for people,” he said.
“Some days, after training I may be very tired and not feel like working; but my superiors cannot allow that. I will go through the pain of working even after hard training sessions. My bosses don’t know the pain.
“If I can make a lot of money for myself through sport, I can establish my own business. Because if I’m the owner of the shop, then I can make decisions on when to work or not after training.”
Hammed Kadri also spoke on why he does other jobs so he can survive in the absence of competitions. “I have many responsibilities at home, I must meet them,” he stated. “My children ‘s school fees, my rent, my wife, who is also a disabled like me, are all my responsibilities.”
He added: “Sometimes, I join ‘danfo’ buses from morning till evening to help them escape LASTMA
The call for government/individual support for sporting activities
Bello Clement, a Masters Degree holder from the University of Lagos, is one of the well respected disabled sportspersons in the gathering. He was of the opinion that the Nigerian government does not give sports the attention it deserves.
While he never stopped mentioning that “Sports is what we know how to do best”, he accused the government of “sharing the national cake among themselves” not remembering that athletes too will need to eat.
“Most of us here are married, with kids,” he remarked.
“It is only when we represent the country in Olympics or whatever that they will recognize us. And I’m going to say this, the government cannot beat their chest and say they are the ones financing athletes to the level that we get to. It’s just the fighting spirit that we have here that takes us there.
“This is where we get our money. Some of us have one or two things doing, but what about those who don’t have? Government should do something about it for our sakes.
“Because the way things are going now. I’m just so concerned about what will happen next. Athletes are being pushed to the wall,” he warned.
Hammed Kadri also suggested that wealthy citizens in the country can help by organizing private sporting events and call on the general public for participation.
He said no matter the amount set aside as prizes, athletes will be happy about such an event, as they’ll periodically have something to look forward to.
“People like former Governors James Ibori and Gbenga Daniels used to host little events like that, and we all go to participate and make some money. We have many rich people across Nigeria, they can do that,” he said.
“If we have competitions every three or every six months, we will not be complaining.
“Yes, not everybody will win the gold medal or the silver medal; but the camping allowances, feeding allowances and other consolation prizes can keep our body and soul together for some time,” he concluded.
Ultimately, it appears that, the National Sports Festival, though put together for both abled and disabled athletes, is of immense importance to the special persons, owing to its lucrative nature. As most of them can only do sports for a living, such an event is well treasured.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Sports and Youth Development, Barr. Solomon Dalung, had in January, 2017 promised, at an event in Delta, that the Festival will be held this year. But there has been no information on that regard on the official website of the NSF, neither has there been any follow-up comment by the Minister since that time.
In March, however, Dalung decried the inability of Cross River to host the festival, but insisted that the “hosting rights still rests with Calabar until the meeting of the National Sports Council decides otherwise.”
“We shall soon hold the meeting to decide what to do based on the inability of Cross River to host this festival. When we decide, we will let Nigerians know.”
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