•Recalls Liyel Imoke’s programme in Cross River State
Sports in Nigeria is in a messy state. It is a shame that in two consecutive Olympic Games, the country did not win a medal in track and field, hitherto, their strong point. In this chat with Dr. Bruce Ijirigho, a former Nigerian sprinter and now a grassroots sports development consultant, he speaks on how Nigeria can revive its sports and become a world force in the next couple of years. Excerpts:
“You have made some marks many do not know. What drives you?
Sports is my main endeavour. Professionally, I am a geologist. I taught petroleum engineering at the University of Ibadan, and also I am an environmental consultant in the USA. But in all these, my heart has always been in Nigerian sports, because we have talents everywhere.
“Where are we getting it wrong?
Based on my experience and what I went through as an athlete, I can say that our problem has always been management of our sports men and women. Finding them, and nurturing them to the world level. But because as a country we have not been able to do this that is why we have always had problems getting the right results at international sports contests, and this is disgraceful.
You’ve been to Jamaica to observe how they have been able to rise to the top of world athletics. What did you observe?
Our contemporaries in Jamaica, guys like Don Quarry and Bert Cameron are the people behind the success that country has been enjoying in athletics. Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt are some of their products. I went there to interview them on three different occasions on how they were able to make gains in sports. I spoke to their sports minister, chairman of the Jamaica athletics association and their coaches. I took notes. What they told me was that the sports development structure, which the British colonialists left behind in Nigeria, we did not maintain them; we allowed them to crumble and decay. But they (the Jamaicans) continued on their own and even built upon the structure. Some of their top stars from that programme who went abroad even came back home and contributed their experiences into the development of sports there.
Was that a motivation for you to start a similar programme in Cross River State?
Yes. It was with that in mind that I came back to Nigeria to see how we could implement such programmes. I wrote a proposal in 2002 and handed it to then Sports Minister, Stephen Akiga. He invited me before the Council of Sports meeting and I did a presentation, and Akiga liked it because it was a grassroots-oriented developmental programme. But before we could put the first step forward, he was removed from office and his predecessors were not keen to follow up.
It was this same proposal that I took to places like Kaduna and Delta states. But it was Cross River State that embraced the programme in 2010. The then governor, Liyel Imoke did everything and removed all the impediments. I gave Imoke a one page proposal and we had a five-minute discussion on the proposals. Thereafter he called his deputy and commissioner for sports to give me all the support that they could, and to see to it that the programme took off without hitches. The rest is history.
So how will you measure the success of the programme?
We implemented the programme and the whole nation saw the success that we recorded in the short time that we ran it. For me, it was vindication that with a concise programme and the sports talents everywhere in this country, we can produce a pool of quality athletes who will meet world standards. For four years in a row, Cross River dominated the school sports festival and the national under-17 championships. At the 2012 national sports festival, we had athletes in every final that was contested, and some of them achieved podium performances. This is where we had the likes of Edidiong Offonime Odiong who ran for Bahrain in the final of the 2016 Olympics.
We have seen several of the Cross River State athletes running for Bahrain. Does it mean that we discovered those athletes for other countries to tap?
I counted four athletes from the programme who were in the world junior championships in Bydgozcz, Poland. Offonime won a gold medal in the women’s 200m. If we, as a country, were taking care of those athletes, they would not have gone to Bahrain. There were many kids we discovered and are doing well. For instance there was one Endurance who was selling food at the museum in Calabar and also Mercy Ntia Obong, whom we picked up from selling food in the market and brushed up to the world level.
Even as we have produced these athletes, how can we stop other countries from snatching them? We have to find a way to keep them. But if we tell Nigeria to give these kids a N100,000 a month token, will they do it? And how much is that compared to what these athletes are being lavished within the countries they have gone to?
So where are the other athletes on the programme?
At end of our programme, we had 21 kids in the University of Calabar who we were paying their fees. We have four others who are studying in American universities. We got admission for them as part of the programme. There were others we brought from the villages and put in schools in Calabar. We were paying these athletes allowances. Every athlete that met the standards we required was automatically admitted into our programme, right from primary to secondary.
But we haven’t seen much of the programme since Imoke left office?
This is a very good programme, and we want it to continue. But so far we haven’t heard anything from the present governor. This is a country where there is hardly continuity. At the onset, we convinced Governor Imoke to buy us all the equipment we needed to make Cross River a centre of sports in Nigeria, and he released the funds. We bought equipment from all over the world. If you go to Calabar today, this equipment for athletics, boxing, swimming are in the storeroom . This should not be so. The Cross River sports development programme should be the comer stone of the sports revolution in this country and we want to start it all over again.
I believe that we can salvage sports in this country. Samuel Ogbemudia did it; majority of the athletes discovered by the Ogbemudia programme represented this country. Ogbemudia was able to achieve it because he fell on the structures that the colonialist left behind. Sports was thriving in the schools.
For us to get back to world reckoning, we need at least four women running constant 11.1 or even below, to be assured of a medal. The same with the men in the sprints. If we can’t have men and women doing good times in the sprints, we can’t even get into finals talk less of winning a medal in the relays.
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