By Emeka Obasi
Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey made history at the Palaisde Sport, Paris on June 22, 1957, when he beat homeboy, Cherif Hermia, to wear the World Featherweight boxing belt. That was three years before Nigeria gained freedom from Britain. The future looked so bright.
Independence achieved, Richard ‘Dick Tiger’ Ihetu, kept the flag flying. In 1962, he battered America’s Gene Fullmer to win the world boxing middleweight crown. Four years later, the same pugilist acquired the Light heavyweight title following a victory over Puerto Rican, Jose Torres.
Today, the successes of the past remain in the past. Nigeria cannot boast of a world champion in any sports category. All the efforts of our heroes past are barely recognized and the future does not look bright.
The country should be among the best 10 in the world. The potentials are there. What is missing is the will to go beyond where we have found ourselves. The government has done much to destroy sports and little to think out of the box. Sports minister, Sunday Dare, is in just over a year in office and needs to be given time.
Before him, there were more than a dozen and half sports ministers. From Damishi Sango to Steven Akiga, Mark Aku, and the crowd. There are names that are hardly remembered. The last sports minister was neither here nor there.
The first international exposure was on June 15, 1904, when students of Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, defeated a British team, HMS Thistle, made up of sailors 3-2. That was the year President Nnamdi Azikiwe was born and he later became one of the famous old boys of the school.
Zik was a sportsman and he encouraged Sports. At Storer College in the United States, he was outstanding in boxing, tennis, and athletics. The Owelle, as Premier of the Eastern Region, encouraged sports by building a terraced Stadium in Enugu. Under him, Port Harcourt Red Devils won the Challenge Cup.
Azikiwe introduced the Phensic Cup for football among secondary schools in the region. He was at the ringside to cheer Hogan Bassey to victory in 1957. As Governor-General, he introduced the Zik Cup to replace the Jalco Cup between Nigeria and Ghana.
Nigeria’s first international game was in 1938. It was an intercolonial duel with the Gold Coast in Lagos. And the hosts were captained by Alfa Bello Fashola, the Works minister’s uncle. That was long before the UK Tourists of 1949.
A Nigerian, Adegboyega Folaranmi Adedoyin, was at the London ’48 Olympics and made it to the final of the Long Jump event. He was an Ijebu Remo Prince and medical student at Queen’s University, Belfast. Nigeria was a British colony and the Brits took credit.
Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a student of Dennis Memorial Grammar School [DMGS] Onitsha became the first Black African to win a Commonwealth medal, in 1954. He achieved that in the High Jump, at Vancouver ’54. Sadly, the past does appear to be better than the present.
The First Olympic gold medal came in 1996 through Chioma Ajunwa in the Long Jump. It is remarkable that the same event that highlighted Nigeria in 1948 would fetch our first gold. Kareem Olowu got to the finals at Melbourne ’56 and like Adedoyin, finished fifth. Wariboko West improved on that at Tokyo ‘ 64. He was one step below a medal.
Atlanta ’96 also gave Nigeria Africa’s first soccer gold medal. Led by Nwankwo Kanu, the Dream Team beat the best teams in the world, including Brazil and Argentina. Victory over Brazil was important because the South Americans prepared so much to win their first Olympic soccer gold.
A third Olympic gold medal came through the board room. The 4×400 relay quartet of Sunday Bada, Jude Monye, Clement Chukwu, and Enefiok Udobong, silver medalists at Sydney 2000 were awarded the prime medal in 2013 after Antonio Pettigrew, a member of the US team was discovered to have aided the Yankees with drugs.
The picture is of Nigeria winning just three gold medals at the Olympics which is the height of global sports. This is a country that produced a Commonwealth golden boy in 1954, had a world boxing champion in 1957, and one of the best boxers in the world in the 1960s.
To break it down, when Nojeem Maiyegun won our first Olympic medal, a bronze in boxing at Tokyo ’64, Nigeria placed 35th out of 93 nations. Countries like Kenya, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Ghana, and Ireland shared that position as well.
Kenya showed class four years later at Mexico ’68 winning three gold medals, four silver, and three bronze to finish 14th out of 112 participating contingents. The import is that as far back as 1968, the Kenyans had won three gold medals which is what Nigeria has won in our entire Olympic history.
It is simple logic. You cannot reap where you did not sow. Nigeria did well in the past because the government showed interest in sports development. Schools were the training grounds for future champions.
The same schools today are training ground for criminals and street urchins. How can we have schools without sports facilities? It is so easy for anyone to wake up and start a school even inside a garage. There is no regulation. What you get when you train kids inside such a facility is better imagined.
When attention was paid to school sports, the Eastern Region had Phensic Cup for soccer and Wilson Parnaby Athletics Championships. The result was Ifeajuna. Okwudiba Nnoli who won the Phensic Cup with Government Secondary School, Owerri moved to Stanford University, California, and was a soccer captain from 1962 to 1965.
The Western Region had the Thermogene Cup. Dele Odegbami captained Ebenezer Grammar School, Abeokuta to victory in 1964. His younger brothers, Segun and Wole, later played soccer for Nigeria. Godwin Alabi-Isama had captained Ibadan Grammar School to win, before independence.
In the North, there was the Davis Cup. Winners in 1958 were St. Paul’s [Kufena] College, Zaria. Skipper Chukwuma Igweonu became a member of the Green Eagles and was among the first at the Africa Nations Cup, Ghana ’63.
In Lagos, there was the Grier Cup for athletics, and soccer had Bergedorf and Zard Cups respectively. There was the Hussey Shield for schools all over the nation. Notable winners, Mid-Western State led by Bruce Ijirigho in 1972, enjoyed a ship cruise after victory in the Garden City.
When attention was paid to schools, the country produced world-class athletes. From Games Masters right from primary schools, students were exposed to winning tactics. And reward continued through scholarship.
Chris Ohiri went to Harvard University in 1960 after playing for the Green Eagles in Roma Olympic qualifiers. Harvard officials came right from the US to pick him and many other Nigerian sportsmen. Clemson University followed and took away Dominic Ezeani, Yomi Bamiro, Sunday Izevbigie, Keneth Ilodigwe, and Tunde Balogun.
Scholarship from America helped our sports. Charlton Ehizuelen would probably have won Olympic gold in Long Jump if Nigeria did not withdraw from Montreal ’76. He was the best in the world in 1975 and again in 1976. The Nigerian broke Jesse Owens 39 years record in 1974.
In tennis, Nduka Odizor got to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1983 and was ranked number 52 in the world in June 1984. Sadiq Abdullahi after debuting at the Seoul Olympics played at the US Open in 1989.
Innocent Egbunike was the best quarter-miler in the world in 1987. He made sub- 45 minutes 12 times with Harry Butch Reynolds. He was the IAAF Individual Grand Prix winner. On August 19, 1987, the star set an African and Commonwealth record of 44.17 seconds in Zurich.
Unfortunately, at the IAAF World Championships, Roma ’87, he lost to German dark horse, Thomas Schonlebe. And that has remained Nigeria’s best. No World Championships gold since 1981. Ajayi Agbebaku picked bronze when the tourney debuted in Helsinki.
Nigerian athletes were world-class in the 1980s and 1990s. Chidi Imo remains the first to successfully defend the 100 meters at the World Universities Games [Universiade]. He won at Edmonton ’83 and did it again at Kobe ’85.
Jamaicans have taken over world athletics. Nigeria should think about this. Usain Bolt was great. Before him, they had Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey competing for Great Britain and Canada, respectively. World and Olympic champions.
These are indeed Nigerians. Their ancestors were shipped to the West Indies from our shores. In Kingston, there is Calabar High School. They have Calabar Village around Rio Bueno. In Westmoreland, you will find Abeokuta. Igbo descendants populate Montego Bay and Maroon Village.
More should bother us. Nigerians are doing well for other countries overseas while the country cannot win gold medals in big competitions.
Akeem Olajuwon and Nnemkadi Ogwumike became basketball world champions playing for the United States. Daniel Amokachi scored the UEFA Cup Champions League first goal in 1992 playing for Club Brugge, Belgium. Richard Owubokori was the highest scorer in Brazil and again in Portugal.
The best boxer in the world today could be Anthony Joshua. He won Olympic gold in 2012. Nigeria’s best remains a silver won by Peter Konyegwachie at Los Angeles ’84. Herbie Hyde and Henry Akinwande became world champions wearing British colors. Francis Obikwelu did not win an Olympic medal until he became a Portuguese.
This is a country of world Junior champions. From Davidson Ezinwa at Plovdiv, Bulgaria to Obikwelu, Deji Aliu, and before them the girls, Tina Iheagwam and Falilat Ogunkoya. In boxing, Davidson Andeh was the first African world champion, after Belgrade ’78.
Something must be done to bring back our sports by sports minister Dare. It gladdens me that he is thinking outside the box. He began by recognizing Maiyegun, who lives in Austria. I am sure, the only surviving member of the 1949 UK Tourists team, Dr. Titus Okere, resident in Holland, will soon get a shout out from Abuja.
We must go back to the basics. Sports must come back to the schools. It should bother the government that many schools do not have playgrounds. With a teeming and explosive youth population, the Sports ministry should get more allocation in the budget.
Insecurity is choking Nigeria. The government must not wait for insurgency before planning. The government must be proactive. After 60 years of independence, it is a shame that the Eagles have not gone beyond the second round in the World Cup.
It is a huge shame that the Federal Government does not see sports as a huge sector that will not only secure the country but also yield so much revenue. Sports should get more financial attention from the government. Education should also receive as much. This is the way forward.