The president of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation, Daniel Igali, in this interview with CHARLES OGUNDIYA, has opened up on his passion for football despite achieving greatness in wrestling, winning an Olympic Games gold medal for his adopted country, Canada. Excerpts…
As an Olympic Games gold medallist, why did you have to return to Nigeria?
The major driving force for me to essentially relocate from Canada to Nigeria was because I felt with my wealth of experience, with my connections, I could help. I also knew that we needed to change the training methodology, because I saw the kind of training they had even though we had a foreign coach at the time, I felt a lot of things were a bit antiquated, I thought we needed to be a bit more modern. I also felt that above and beyond that, I couid give the athletes motivation. You know when athletes see you and feel ‘he is from here and also like us and he was able to do it’ when you are there with them. The truth is God has been kind to me, and aside from that, there are some of us who want the progress of this generation and this at least more than our personal benefits. If it was for my personal gain, it would have been easier to just chill back in Canada. I don’t need to stress myself as an Olympic gold medalist, if I go out there and give a speech the least I will get will be $5000. So many people like me don’t even need to look for any job; all you do is you have your agent who arranges all these things for you. You go there and by the time you speak for five to 10 times in a year, you are okay. Especially somebody like me, I don’t need big things in my life, but it is because of the desire to see Nigeria excelling in wrestling, that’s why I’m here.
You have a big edifice in Bayelsa for the wrestlers, how did you come about it?
This was put together as a befitting hostel for the wrestlers where we can achieve all we need without having to spend money for hotels, renting of gyms and the like. This is put up to accommodate the athletes all year round with proper training equipment put in place. A standard gym, Olympic standard wrestling mat and other equipment needed to raise a wrestler are there. We have to be grateful to the Bayelsa State government and also the United World Wrestling for supporting us immensely to be able to get to the standard we are today. Some of the equipment here was bought directly by the UWW, we only made the request and they paid the supplier directly. At times, I have had cause to add my own money, especially when we wanted to purchase our generator, but I am doing all these because of the love for the game.
Are you saying with the hostel and the arena, no problems for wrestling anymore in Nigeria?
Far from it because we still need to engage them in competitions. For example, if we have a tournament in Japan and we feel we need to get the experience of wrestling against those Asians then if it’s three or four that we think need to go there, we will have to send a dedicated coach, a physiotherapist and the athletes to such competition and will surely cost money. The point is, this is time to be very strategic, and what do you do when you don’t have the funds, nothing. We try our best to put up the structure with little or no support even with personal funds, the only thing needed is the funding to really prepare these athletes and we will see the strength of wrestling in the next three to f o u r years in Nigeria with the facilities we have here in Bayelsa. This facility will be able to cater for the athletes we have but even at that, it is not just the facility, we are going to have coaches, trainers and other people working here, how will they feed? The athletes also need to feed, how about the allowances, what about medical personnel here and physiotherapists, what are we doing about all that? So we’re going to be a bit delusional if we think that the moment you have a training facility everything is fine; you are going to have to address the training aspect but every other thing that is so critical to performance is still not yet taken care of. It’s not like we don’t know what to do, but we are so constrained by the finances that you just make do with what you have and try to make the best you can with the little resources you have. It has been a recurring cycle of frustration that just goes on but you know you have signed onto it and whatever you need to do, you do. Imagine at times my wife will call ‘listen your son needs $3000 for his soccer camp’ because he is a good soccer player, but at the same time I have a wrestler who needs to go to Italy and maybe all I have is $3000, unfortunately I will deny my son. At the end of the day, it’s still same frustration.
How does Nigeria now develop wrestling to the global level?
Wrestling is just a sport like a lot of other amateur sports that require development at different stages. You have development from the age of 10, 11, 12, you have development from the 15 to 18 category, the 18 to 20 which is the Junior and then the senior. Right now, our preoccupation as a federation has been on the senior and not all the senior, just a select group of the senior because if you have $1m, you cannot share it with 50 athletes, because it will go nowhere, so you will probably end up spending $500,000 on five athletes and the remaining $500,000 on the others, that’s what we have been doing.
Can you please break the developmental process down?
I will say we don’t have the base. The base is where you are developing at a pace that is equal in all the different categories. For the school age, you are developing them, which means in the next three years they will develop into the cadet stage. In the cadet level, you are developing them so you know that in the next three years they are also getting into the junior level, while you know that with same development, they are going to get into the junior level in three years while those will get to the senior level in another three years. If you are doing that, you won’t have any problems and you cannot do that if you’re getting 30-40 million a year, you can’t even go to any competition to begin with such amount. For instance, US as a country had a 16 million dollar budget this year, w h i c h means you can accommodate every category. Again, I should be able to h a v e about eight national team coaches that I am paying, I should have different regions where I have managers scouting for talents we are recruiting. We are doing developmental projects, we have regular intake every month coming from different places. Places like Sokoto and those born in the northern states that don’t have wrestling at the same pace as the South, we have dedicated programmes for them, we have athletes that we identify, place them on scholarship. So everyone is growing at the same pace, then you can see the outcome in the next three to four years. But at this stage, if I have 1 million and I’m putting it on Adekuoroye or Blessing, because that is what I need to do, because if I’m going to the Olympics these are the people who can win a medal for me today. If I get that money now I can’t put it on a 15- year old because then we are now going to be talking about another five six years, that is the problem.
On what you have done so far is Nigeria getting there or still far behind?
We are gett i n g there I will say, there’s progress for sure, but the progress is stunted; that is my only concern now. Look at someone like Adekuoroye, that is a special talent I knew from 2001, I got when she was in JS 3 or maybe SS1. When we first discovered her, I knew she was a special talent, I thought by 2016 she would be an Olympic champion if we had the right programme for her. Thirteen to 14-year-old athletes in Japan are competing about 30-40 times a year, they’re going to virtually every competition, most weekends they are competing, and that is what these athletes need. Yes we are progressing, but the progress is stunted, the knowledge we have brought to bear, the training methodology we brought to bear, the inspiration would have been three times faster if we had the funds to back it up. So instead of a gold, we are winning a bronze, instead of a bronze, the athletes are placing fifth or sixth, it’s not because the athletes were not up to it, but it’s because we as a system have not been able to support them to the level they should be.
What do you do at your leisure time if you have any?
I am a footballer, I love soccer, I play soccer, not only the video game but on the pitch with the All Stars, so I’m one of their top strikers. I play about two to three times a week. But my main hobby is coaching; I love to coach, I love to watch young kids develop, so I still find time to coach atleast three times a week. I do that with my little kids and also with the national team especially when the national team is in camp. Before I go to work, I quickly come in to coach them and repeat same when I return in the evening, because I need to know what we are doing, so I can support from the outside. I also read a lot, I read a lot of international politics, but I also play video games. That’s how I unwind, I have a league at times somewhere with high demand like Italian league, another time the Premiership.