Friday, 16 September 2016

Nigeria and the Rio Paralympics - By Reuben Abati

Whoever came up with the aphorism that “like attracts like” deserves a special place in the Guinness Book of World Records. How true! Our country Nigeria went to the Rio Olympics and came back with a bronze medal in football, looking really pitiable on the overall medals table whereas countries like Kenya, South and Ethiopia tried to put up some struggle for Africa.  But now it is the Paralympics in the same Rio, Brazil, still in the year 2016, and Nigeria’s representatives are suddenly winning medals upon medals and breaking world records.

As at the time of this writing, Nigeria has won 11 medals at the Paralympics, and we are 10th on the overall medals table. We have smashed at least two world records thanks to Flora Ugwunwa in Javelin and to Josephine Orji who shattered the world record with a lift of 160 kg in the women’s +84 kg lifting event. I don’t want to imagine myself in the same room with Josephine. Less than 160 kg as I am, she could lift me with a finger onto a bed, do what she likes with me, and no matter how happy the outcome of that imaginary encounter could be, she could still throw me out of the window with another finger. Woman pass man!  Res-pe-ct!

But that is not how she is applying her talents; she is winning gold for Nigeria! A country where able-bodied men and women cannot achieve results but special persons go to the world stage and save the country’s face is what country: a country of specially challenged people. We have finally found our level. We are a country of gifted, but challenged people. We have economic recession at home. We are winning medals at a strategically recessed international competition. We fail persons who are physically challenged at home.  We treat them like they do not belong. We do not pay enough attention to them. What is going on at the Rio Paralympics is a wake up call on the need for government at all levels to pay better attention to the special people among us: they have always risen beyond their challenges to do this nation proud, but this nation has always failed them.

When our fit and capable men and women went to the Rio Olympics, they came back with not just a face-saving bronze medal, but also with a truck-load of scandals. These include kits that arrived terribly late, flights that had to be arranged through charity, a Sports Minister that perpetually kept his foot in his mouth, hotel bills that could not be paid and just pure shame upon shame, including the spectacle of a Japanese philanthropist, Katsuya Takasu, having to come to the rescue of the Nigerian football team. When the main Olympics ended, the shame was so much, the athletes simply dispersed into thin air. Nobody bothered to receive and thank them for their effort.  State officials insulted the Japanese philanthropist who supported Nigeria.

Not even Chierika Ukogu, the courageous lady who represented Nigeria for the first time at the Olympics in rowing was remembered. Samson Siasia, the man who led the Nigerian football team to a bronze medal was so furious he threw in the towel after the event.  We can’t say he has given up on Nigeria, but he couldn’t hide his disgust. Golden boy, Mikel Obi used his own money to sustain the national soccer team at the Rio Olympics: he paid hotel bills, but nobody has deemed it necessary to send him something as decent as a letter of appreciation and commendation.  In the face of all that Solomon Dalung is still sitting tight as Nigeria’s Minister of Sports. I am surprised he has not uttered a word to encourage our Paralympics representatives. No, I should not be surprised. It must be that he does not consider the Paralympics important. He is too busy attending to the able-bodied athletes, for him the Paralympics must be a parody. It is not like that elsewhere, though, not in Britain or the United States. Dalung must learn to be everybody’s Sports Minister.

The cold shoulder that the Rio Olympics Nigeria team got is unacceptable. Nobody invited the team for a handshake. They were just allowed to disperse without ceremony. This speaks volumes. Could it mean that we no longer consider sports important and strategic? Anyone who has followed the Olympics closely would know that it is an opportunity and a platform for projecting national strength, capability, pride and achievement. Human beings determine the profile and the fortunes of nations. They do so in virtually every field of human endeavour. The British at a point no longer did well at the Olympics and other international sporting events. It was a blow on their national brand. They identified the problem, invested in finding a solution and today, Great Britain is back in contention as a nation of great sporting talents. That is how strategic thinking and diligent policy implementation work. But here in Nigeria, policy flip flops and lack of continuity in policy implementation and the rise of dangerous insularity, exclusion and a me-myself-my people-governance style has produced at all levels a new normal pitched on values different from national objectives and interest.

I’d like to ask for one thing. As soon as possible, somebody in government should arrange for both the Rio Olympics and the Rio Paralympics teams to be properly received at Aso Villa. We also need to say a simple thank you to Delta Airlines, the airline that airlifted the Nigerian soccer team from Atlanta free of charge to Brazil. The boys arrived a few hours to their first match and they went on to win Nigeria’s only medal in the entire tournament. Without Delta United, that would never have happened. They deserve a we-are-grateful handshake, and the earlier the better. I also try to imagine how the first Nigerian to participate in rowing must be feeling.

 She had to raise funds to get to the Rio Olympics. Many of her diaspora-based kind are competing for other countries, but she decided to stick with Nigeria and put this country on the map. And nobody has given her a phone call? Haba! I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ministry of Sports doesn’t even have her phone number. When people are treated badly, they give up on their country. They lose hope. They become angry and inconsolable. They feel used. The message of the god of small things is that small things can transform lives, build bridges, strengthen values and provide everlasting hope. In Nigeria, we trample upon small things, we ignore big things because we easily lose sight of things that matter.

When the National Honours List for this year is to be drawn up (there should be a National Honours List- about time!), the recipients should be strictly those persons who have done something significant for the nation.  I will put all the obvious heroes and heroines I have mentioned or alluded to in this piece on that list, not the men, women and merchants of accidental privilege who suddenly become important because they have occupied some prominent positions in government. For once, let us honour those who deserve recognition, not some persons who have done nothing other than to benefit from Nigeria at everyone’s expense.

It is ironic that Nigeria’s able-bodied representatives at the 2016 Rio Olympics simply disappeared after the event; that should not happen with our gold-winning special athletes at the Rio Paralympics. They deserve a rousing welcome on their return.  All things considered, we need to take sports more seriously. There is a lot that nations achieve with sports. It is a big, brand-building platform that serious nations do not joke with.  Sports turn small nations into big nations. Jamaica cannot be described as a small nation, it is the country of Bob Marley, and it also has Usain Bolt, and other impressive and legendary athletes. Jamaica has no crude oil, but it has great sportsmen and women. Nigeria has over 200 million people, talented and capable men and women but see how we make a mess of opportunities and short-change the entire nation.  The next challenge is to pull that valuable human resource away from the traps of recession and depression.

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