Preserving Integrity Of National Sports Meets

The 20th edition of the biennial National Sports Festival (NSF)  held in Benin City, Edo State, successfully despite series of hiccups and apprehensions that dogged the organisation of the sporting exhibition christened “Nigeria’s Olympic”  with incredible performances by athletes as various national and festival records were set mainly in swimming events.

President Muhammadu Buhari and the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Chief Sunday Dare, deserve applause for their intervention and doggedness in ensuring the continuance of the games after the furore produced by the Edo State government’s warning to shut down the festival if the counterpart funding expected from the federal government was not released as soon as possible.

Buhari, while declaring open the 20th National Sports Festival noted that it was supposed to have taken place a year ago, but due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, it suffered several postponements. He also highlighted its importance to national peace, unity, development and growth. We agree no less with the president as sports cannot be treated with levity. With the country currently under the firm grip of banditry, terrorism, herdsmen killings, kidnapping and armed robbery, engaging the youth in sports could go a long way in curbing the high incidence of criminality in the country. Let the government understand that investment in sports is an investment in youth development and empowerment which invariably translates to national development.

It is delightful that the 20th edition of the competition, which kicked off with an opening ceremony on April 6 at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, drawing participants from the 36 states across the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), somewhat lived up to its billing as a cultural and religious melting pot.

The national sports festival conceived in 1973  to promote mass participation in sports and to strengthen the fragile unity of the nation following the bitterly fought civil war of 1967 to 1970; also serves as a development and training event for athletes to prepare for continental and other international meets.

It is not a surprise that the incredible rise in Nigeria’s sports profile – until the recent setback – has everything to do with the festival. It was meant to unearth talents in their raw form for nurture to international standards. Since the first edition in 1973, the boost in the nation’s sports has been witnessed across all the disciplines, most especially in football, boxing and athletics.

The festival has equally helped states to develop their sports facilities. Whenever a state is nominated to host the competition, a lot of attention is directed at improving its infrastructure across the board as it was evidenced in the current host state, Edo, whose infrastructural upgrade would become the permanent legacy that would serve the state beyond the event.

However, it is worrisome that the sports fiesta has been described by stakeholders including the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) as the worst ever organised  by the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports Development as the festival was characterised by fracas, antics, manipulations and outright intimidation. Poor officiating and alleged financial inducement of officials by some states were also reported. There was also the participation of non-Nigerian nationals thereby hindering the process of replacing ageing talents.

At the Cultural Centre, where the boxing event held, hell was let loose during a fight between Lagos and Ogun States. Fans at the venue clashed as the declared result of the fight did not reflect what the fans witnessed. Tables and chairs were used freely to scatter the ring, while officials ran for cover. It took security operatives quite a while to restore order before the competition could resume more than two hours later.

There was a crisis and a fight at the football final women where Team Edo supporters and officials tried their best to intimidate and harass Lagos. Edo eventually won the final 1-0 but the men’s final between the same states almost failed to hold as Lagos refused to participate in the game because of what happened to their women counterpart. Lagos had to be persuaded to play.

These developments at the National Sports Festival are indeed ignominious and go contrary to the spirit and objectives of the festival which is to fast track national integration, talent discovery and sports development. There is a need to revisit these objectives. For us, Edo 2020 is a disappointment when compared to the organisations and performances at recent past editions of the competition.

 Sports Federations should ensure that men and women of proven integrity are engaged as technical officials in future festivals while States should prioritise sports funding rather than cutting corners. The win-at-all-cost attitude must be discouraged as it could destroy the National Sports Festival which has produced great sportsmen and women that have made our country proud and ruin the opportunity to discover and prepare new athletes to represent the country at international and global sports meets.

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