Former Nigeria Track and Field athlete, Patience Itanyi, has called for a return to school sports if the country must excel at major championships. Speaking in an explosive interview on a radio station monitored by CHARLES OGUNDIYA, the former coach asked for more female inputs in the national team setup. Excerpts…
Where did we get it wrong in track and field in Nigeria and is there light at the end of the tunnel?
When I was competing, we were saying things were bad, but considering the situation now, then I will say it was very good then. It’s very bad at the moment; I will say we have forgotten what had helped us in the past and that’s school sports, including the youths, primary schools, secondary schools. We need to go back there. I remember those days when sports councils used to employ coaches, and even at the national level where we used to have top coaches as head, what has happened to that? Imagine someone like Tony Osheku is in Nigeria; with everything he has done, why haven’t we employed him and let him help us unearth these athletes? Because as a coach, you can spot talents, but none of these is working now, it’s like we always want quick results. We keep saying we want to win gold medals, but we must invest first before we win. I can tell you athletes that will represent the United States in years to come starting from the 2021 Olympic Games and they all come from schools. Most of the US athletes that won at the World Championships last year were all products of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), so why is that we don’t have that in Nigeria? We know what to do but we are not doing it. We have our people who have gone to school in these countries, who know what to do, why are we not engaging them? Is it because that’s how they make quick money? It’s really sad and heartbreaking.
At a time, Nigeria was going abroad to get athletes to change their passport and compete for the country, was that one of the quick steps you are talking about?
Let me tell you something, some of those athletes that I brought to Nigeria, they were born by Nigerian parents, their parents are from Nigeria and they truly showed interest in representing Nigeria. The truth is, I wasn’t bringing people who couldn’t make the American team, those are people who really showed interest, they really wanted to represent Nigeria and that was what the administrators started doing. But this time around, bringing people without any connection to Nigeria, I will say that was fraud, a criminal offence, but nobody talked about that. My intention then was not for us to ignore our own, especially school sports, also the classic competitions. We keep depending on government, but the facts remain that government doesn’t fund track and field in the United States. We used to have Mobil sponsoring track and field in Nigeria, what happened to that sponsorship? Did anybody ask questions? Everybody continues to fold their arms and wait on government; government cannot do everything, we have to do our part too to get the needed results.
How does Nigeria get things right? Is there still have hope?
We can get things right. Like now, we have to watch out for people with nothing to contribute coming to the federation, they are just there doing nothing. We want people that will work and get us sponsors; but seriously, that’s not what I have seen in the last eight years. I believe we have hope with this minister, Sunday Dare. We really do have hope.
Are you saying the way out is getting it right in the next federation election?
We have seen that over the years politicians don’t get us what we want, we just have to get people who really have interest of the sport at heart, those are the people we need. We don’t want people that will use the federation to play politics and further their own personal agenda.
Do you think Nigeria still has the reservoir of talents to do well for the country?
We do, I think we have Nigerian youths who are really hard working. When you have a coach that understands what it takes, a coach that will tell them the history of Nigeria’s track and field, a coach Nigerian athletes will believe in, they will surely succeed. We have the talent pool in Nigeria, all they are asking for is the opportunity and they will thrive. We don’t need people that don’t care about what happens to these athletes. Imagine some of these athletes go home to drink garri after training; there is need for those who will find a way to really understand the athletes very well. We have gone through that in the past and we survived, I was a project of Nigeria. Let me tell you, every coach in the US wants Nigerian athletes because they know that they are hard working, full of proper home training and that’s what the coaches over there are looking for.
So you are saying there is hope?
No doubt, we have hope, but we should not be in a rush to say two or three years, we are going to get an Olympic Games champion. It’s not go-ing to work that way, sometimes it takes eight years with proper preparations.
Nigeria has so many female athletes trained by male coaches, as a female coach, will you say this is the right thing?
What you’re saying is right, I have been fighting this case for 10 to 15 years, the fight about gender equality. Most of these female athletes, they find it difficult to talk to the male athletes. But in Nigeria they don’t care, they do what they believe they want to do at each time. I have been talking on this issue for a long time and people from the sports commission won’t say they don’t know about this. They do; this is the time everyone is preaching gender equality, why are we not doing the same thing h e r e in Nigeria?
Is it that they have not found a competent female coach? And how far have you gone as per engaging female track and field coaches?
That’s not true. Like I said before, I have done that and still have documents to back up my claims. I remember one all African Games that they had about 10 male coaches on the team and just one female, and that’s not enough. If you have 10 coaches on a team, it should be like ratio five to five, you have to base this on how many female athletes and male athletes. We should have gender equalities.
Are you saying if there are more female athletes, then there should be more female coaches?
Exactly. They are making up excuses that the female coaches are not many, but I don’t believe that. What have they done to build those coaches, to educate them? Nothing.
Is there a way to have a coordinated scouting system to unearth these raw materials from the grassroots?
That’s why we need a head coach to coordinate all this, there should be a national athletics coach. Aunty Amelia Edet used to be the national coach but since she retired, we’ve not have a national coach. That we were winning medals during those days showed that the decision to have a national coach worked. The truth is sports administrators in the country have failed us, let’s just come out and say the truth. We are not investing, that’s where the problem is and I just pray that we get it right soon. At times I just want to throw in the towel, but I couldn’t because this is a sport that has given me so much in life.
You mentioned some athletes are ready for the US team, hopefully there are some Nigerians that could come home and represent the country?
A lot of them are out there, but the parents are not comforta b l e for their children to represent Nigeria anymore because of lot of things that go on here in the country. There is no accountability, their children are not protected. When you have a situation where coaches are making sexual advances on these girls, who do you report to when a situation like that arises. The issue of drug is currently rampant in Nigeria, what have they done about that? There are so many things in the system that are not right at the moment. I remember a female athlete (Blessing Ogundiran) was locked up in Nigeria by SARS, did anybody look into it? Everybody just turned a blind eye, a coach actually locked her up for nine to 10 days and what did the federation do up till now? So you as a parent outside hearing things like this, you don’t want your child in that position. There are so many kids in the US ready to take up the country’s citizenship, for example, Fatima Yusuf-Olukoju’s daughter, when she was 14, ran 24.2secs in 200m, that’s fast for a 14 year old. I was already looking at it that in the next two or three years, she will represent Nigeria, what does that tell you? If we do the right thing, we can have these athletes over here and we will have a very strong team at major championships. I remember when we usually came for national trials, the national stadium was all packed full with fans coming to watch the trials, but this days, our trials are just like high school inter-house sports competitions.