Since Nojeem Maiyegun won Nigeria’s first medal at the 1964 Olympics, it has been mixed fortunes for the country in sports after she gained independence on October 1, 1960. Although some Nigerian sportsmen had done remarkably well prior to Independence, sports became a serious business shortly after.
Emmanuel Ifeanjuna won Nigeria’s first-ever gold medal in Commonwealth Games in the 1954 edition of the tournament in Vancouver, Canada while the likes of Hogan Kid Bassey and Dick Tiger became household names before the Union Jack was lowered and the green-white flag of Nigeria was hoisted in Lagos in 1960, and it was not until 1962 when the proper structure was laid for the prosperity of sport in the country.
The then government realised sports could be a veritable tool to project the image of the country and it established the National Sports Commission and two years later Maiyegun boxed the country into a bronze medal feat at the Tokyo Games. Although the country came back from the 1968 Olympics games empty-handed, the qualification of the Green Eagles (Now Super Eagles) to the tournament was an achievement on its own.
Football is the ‘king of sports in Nigeria, and it is no surprising the country has succeeded most in the game. The bronze medals won at the 1976 and 1978 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations prepared the Eagles for their triumph at home in 1980. That was the first time the country would win the biggest football event on the continent.
The team could not defend its title in Libya in 1982 but got to the finals in 1984, 1988, and 1990 editions, and 14 years after claiming its first title, the Eagles won the 1994 tournament in Tunisia, with coach Clemence Westerhof in charge.
The team also qualified and attended the World Cup for the first time in the United States; the success of that Golden Generation was profound as it reached the number five spot in the FIFA rankings, the highest ever by any African country. Nigeria has won the Nations Cup just once after that, the 2013 success in South Africa was masterminded by late Stephen Keshi, who coached Vincent Enyeama- skippered side to victory, 19 years after he lifted the title as the captain of the team.
Nigeria has attended World Cup five times after it first appeared in the competition in 1994 and has not progressed beyond the second round. But before then, in 1985, Nduka Ugbade- captained Golden Eaglets won the maiden FIFA U-17 World Cup in China, another first in Africa. In fact, the team has gone ahead to win four more titles in 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015 to become the most successful team in the world at that level.
The Dream Team, dominated by the 1994 squad highlighted Nigeria’s best ever appearance in the Olympics when they shocked the world to claim a gold medal. The team led by Nwankwo Kanu defeated top footballing nations including Argentina, Brazil, and star-studded Mexico to win yet first – ever football gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 Games. The national U-23 team has won one silver and bronze medal at the Games since that 1996 gold medal feat. The women footballers have also done incredibly well, although have not achieved as much as their male counterparts on the world stage, they have heavily dominated the continent.
They have won each of the editions of the African Women Championship since 1991 except the 2011 edition which was claimed by Equatorial Guinea. The 1996 Olympic Games was special for the country because that was the first time Nigeria would win two gold medals in a competition of that magnitude after Chioma Ajunwa and Dream Team victories. Nigeria won further four medals; one silver and three bronze medals at that edition of the Games. Duncan Dokiwari won bronze in boxing while Falilat Ogunkoya and Mary Onyali claimed the same shade of medals in athletics before Ogunkoya partnered Olabisi Afolabi, Fatima Yusuf, and Charity Opara to win silver in the 4x400m race.
Remarkably, Nigeria has been blessed with world class athletes and tremendous achievements have been recorded in athletics since Independence with the success in Atlanta as the highlight of such good runs. Athletes such as Onyali, Sunday Uti (400m), Yusuf Ali (long jump), Ajayi Agbebaku (triple jump), Innocent Egbunike (200m) and Chidi Imoh (100m), the Ezinwa brothers (100m) Afolabi, Yusuf, Sunday Bada, Deji Aliu, Uche Emedolu, Gloria Alozie, and Francis Obikwelu, and recently Blessing Okagbare, have all done well on the world stage.
In fact, out of a total of 27 medals, Nigeria has won in the Olympics, athletics is responsible for 14; two gold, five silver and seven bronze medals. Boxing is another sport that has fetched the country a considerable degree of goodwill both at the amateur and professional levels. Great boxers like Tiger, Bassey, Maiyegun, Dokiwari, Richard Igbineghu, David Izonritei, Peter Konyegwachie, Isaac Ikhouria, Henry Akinwande and Samuel Peters, have all etched their names in the sand of time with impressive records. Peters and Akinwande were world champions in the heavyweight of the professional cadre while Izonritei, Maiyegun, Ikhouria, Konyegwachie and Dokiwari had Olympics medals round their necks.
Blessing Oborududu won a silver medal in the wrestling event at the just concluded Games in Tokyo There are also some successes recorded in other sports, such as basketball as the men’s senior team won the 2015 Afrobasketball Championship while their women counterparts have secured more successes with five African titles to their credit. Similarly, Aruna Quadri reached the quarterfinal of the table tennis of the 2018 Summer Games and became the first African to be ranked 18th in the world. However, the country looks to have derailed from the earlier progress as sports witnessed a steady decline since the turn of the new millennium.
The retrogression is underlined by poor performances at the Olympics and other international sporting events. Until the last Olympics Games in Tokyo, where Team Nigeria won a silver and bronze medal, the country had returned empty handed since the 2004 edition of the Games. Games like athletics, table tennis, swimming, boxing, and tennis have witnessed a remarkable decline in their popularity among Nigerians while fans prefer to follow European football as the local league turned to a mere joke. The poor standard of the league is reflected in the way Nigerian clubs crash out of continental competitions in the preliminary stages.
“We got it right at the beginning but derailed along the line and we lost it entirely,” a former Director General of the National Sports Commission, Gbenga Elegbeleye, told our correspondent. He added: “However, encouraging grassroots sports is an area I think should be corrected to achieve better results in Nigerian sports.” A former Green Eagles star, Felix Owolabi, said the results achieved so far in sports are not commensurate with the country’s potential. He insisted that poor planning, poor technical ability of coaches, and poor welfare of athletes affected performance all round.
“We really need to go back to what was working for us in the past so as to take our sports to the next level and regain our lost glories. Football, athletics, basketball, boxing, and the rest, we need to do what was giving us results in the past and see how we can regain our lost glories,” he said. He canvassed for the formulation and effective implementation of policies that can help revamp the sector with competent and sincere personnel to drive the process. “Instability in governance is another problem. I don’t know why we have decided to scrap the sports commission, which is supposed to drive development.
A sports ministry is supposed to be filled with technocrats but in our case, it’s a different ball game. We need good structure to get things right. It will be very difficult because of our fire brigade approach to doing things as a nation.
We need to start getting things right, now is a time for reflection,” he said. Former fastest man in Africa Deji Aliu, said Nigeria was struggling in the midst of unlimited potentials. He said the sports sector needs to be overhauled. ”Nigeria sports needs a total overhaul. We need to bring in our professionals; people that know more about sports. We need to bring back life into the sector for us to move forward,” he said. But for former Secretary General of Nigeria Football Federation, Fanny Amun, it was not all gloomy for Nigerian sports.
The man who coached the Golden Eaglets’ side that won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Japan in 1993 said that although there were problems with sports in the country, it is important to celebrate successes recorded. “It has been a huge success so far.
We have done marvelously well having won the Nations Cup twice, the U- 17 World Cup so many times, and have achieved a whole lot of feat, it is worth being celebrated. However, a lot still has to be done to get more results, Rome was not built in a day, and there is always a starting point,” he said.