The National Sports Festival is around the corner but you would hardly notice if you had no direct business with it.
The event is supposed to be the ‘Nigerian Olympics’ and should be generating far more conversations and excitement than it is doing just one month to its opening ceremony.
The festival will be held from 20 February to 4 March in Benin, the lively Edo State capital and home to some of Nigeria’s most passionately followed football clubs past and present.
However, there is hardly any buzz in the lead-up to the big event. If there is any, it is far less than the biggest sporting event in Nigeria deserves.
It is not very surprising though. Over the years, the value of the sports festival has plummeted and it no longer follows the vision for which it was established.
When the National Sports Festival was first conceived, it was primarily to gather the country’s best emerging talent and give them a platform to reach a nationwide audience.
The festival was to be the big stage that Nigeria’s hidden gems from the regions and states took their talent and showcased it to national spectators and selectors.
It was the talent factory that produced and projected the country’s star athletes and propelled them onto the international scene.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, you looked forward to the National Sports Festival and wondered which states would present the next future superstars.
It didn’t matter if it was Kano, Kogi, Kwara or Anambra, athletes with potential populated all the states and the fight for recognition and medals was intense.
Of course medals were very important, but unearthing new talent also brought a great sense of accomplishment to the states and their coaches.
If you won just 10 medals and finished second bottom in the final medals table but produced the star athlete, then you would feel you had had a very good festival.
Success was not just measured by medals. But that was before states started treating the winning of medals as the ultimate purpose of the festival.
Somehow, some people convinced governors that the more medals their states won, the more cheap political points they could score.
That was how states became desperate and ditched the core values of the sports festival. It became more about medals, bragging rights and political point-scoring than about the development of athletes.
Rich states began to poach athletes from the not-so-rich states, sometimes weeks before the festival. Money became the big motivating factor for athletes as the big states began to neglect their own young athletes who needed proper support to blossom.
For the last few editions, the sports festival has become just like a footnote in the Nigerian sporting calendar, something that only the direct participants give a toss about.
By becoming greedy and abandoning what it was all about in the first place, those who wanted quick, unmerited rewards have done great harm to the event that should be a priority in the sporting schedule.
The event that produced the likes of superstar athletes and Olympians Falilat Ogunkoya and Mary Onyali should not be treated with the disdain it is currently experiencing.
The festival should go back to the basics and be promoted as the event where Nigeria’s hidden sporting talents get their places in the sun and get to shine bright before the world.
States have been holding their own sports festivals in preparation for the big one, but how many of their potential standout athletes have been talked about? What are the strategies for these young sportsmen and women to get media exposure and therefore budding star status?
The build-up to such a big event is important to generate massive interest for the real deal. For instance, who should we be looking out for in the primetime event, the 100m track and field final?
Who are the boxers who are being tipped for medals? Who is the Jigawa State footballer that reminds us of a young Stephen Keshi? Where is the weightlifter that looks like he could be a potential world beater?
Who are the athletes we should be eager to see perform in Benin?
Instead of all of this, what we read about the sports festival is mostly talk from politicians and administrators. This governor is assuring that the festival will be perfectly hosted, that minister is encouraging athletes, that chairman is promising that his state will top the table.
Nobody is going to watch the governor, minister or chairman in Benin. It is the athletes that matter and the buzz should be around them.
It is time to get the festival back into our conversations and also time to start looking out for the new Falilat and co. It has been way too long.