Foreign athletes with Nigerian heritage

October 6 2021

By Niyi Akinnaso

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Azuka Onwuka’s article, How Nigerians are being tactically de-Nigerianized (The Punch, August 10, 2021) drew wide readership for various reasons. First, it was timely, coming right after the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics. By analyzing the role of participants with Nigerian heritage, who competed for other countries, it allowed readers to elongate memories of the Olympics games they just watched.

Second, the article drew attention to the spread of the Nigerian Diaspora across the globe. Many athletes with Nigerian heritage competed for countries in North America, Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even Oceania.

Third, by arguing that these Nigerians were being de-Nigerianized for competing for other countries, because Nigeria could not nurture their athletic aspirations, Onwuka provided social media game for perpetual critics of President Muhammadu Buhari as if the declining performance of Nigerian athletes in global competitions started with his administration.

Fourth, Onwuka linked the plight of these athletes with that of other Nigerians who have escaped, or are trying to escape, from Nigeria’s harsh social, political, and economic conditions. This linkage resonated with readers familiar with the repatriations of stranded Nigerians from Libya, Lebanon, and other places in the last few years.

These athletes and desperate escapees are not in the same category, however, and they should not be painted with the same brush. Besides, the athletes with Nigerian heritage, who competed for other countries, are not Nigerians for the purpose of the competition. They competed as nationals of the countries they represented at the Olympics. It is a naïve view of nationality that sees them as Nigerians. To insist that such athletes are Nigerians is to insist that former President Barrack Obama of the United States is Kenyan because of his Kenyan heritage.

There are two broad groups of athletes with Nigerian heritage overseas. The first group consists of those who were born overseas and automatically assumed the citizenship of their country of birth. In some cases, such athletes have one Nigerian parent, while the other is a citizen of the athlete’s country of birth. Some of them have never been to Nigeria and don’t even have immediate plans to do so. It is their prerogative to compete for the country that allowed them to hone their skills.

The second group consists of young Nigerians, who went overseas to study, took to athletics in the course of their studies, and eventually nationalized. Some of them, especially footballers and basketball players, even went to the university on athletic scholarship.

The truth is that, outside of Nigeria, athletes are nurtured as professionals, and they are treated specially for their talent and for their business value. Some of these athletes are identified early and nurtured, sometimes by their parents but often by coaches in their schools or community playing grounds.

Such is the case with the Onitsha-born Ebelechukwu Agbapuounwu, whose mother migrated to Bahrain and married a Bahraini. In no time, Ebele converted to Islam and took on a new name, Salwa Eid Naser. She got a couch, a scholarship, and other incentives to nurture her sprinting career to gold standard. She went on to win the 2019 World Championship in the 400 metres, with the third fastest time in history of 48.14 seconds. Unfortunately, she could not compete in the Tokyo Olympics, because she was suspended owing to three whereabouts failures as well as failure to show up for competition one time or the other.

Naser’s case illustrates three interesting factors in the making of great athletes. One is the combination of talent, interest, and appropriate skills, which could then be improved upon by a good coach and trainer.

A second major factor in the making of a great athlete is the combination of self-discipline, determination, and consistency in following through on necessary practice routines and competitions.

The third factor is the assistance of family, friends, coaches and the government in preparing athletes for competition. Countries also offer rewards to victorious athletes. For example, the United States, which has an abundance of talents, awards $37,500 for Olympic gold, whereas Singapore, which is hungry for good athletes, awards a whopping 1 million dollars for Olympic gold. Nigeria’s reward for medals is still too small to get her on the international rewards table.

An even more lucrative reward for athletes is an endorsement or sponsorship, which can pay them huge sums for promoting a product, a service, a programme, or a project. Sports heroes, such as Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, continue to benefit from such endorsements even after retirement.

There’s no denying the fact that the Nigerian government continues to fail our athletes. Perhaps no one makes this point better than Sunday Oliseh, former Eagles captain and coach, who was Nigeria’s defensive midfielder on the team that won soccer Olympic Gold in the 1996 games. In his autobiography, Audacity to Refuse, Oliseh recalled the failures of the then National Football Association and the Nigerian government in their preparations for the 1996 games: “Believe me, in my whole career as a soccer player, I think we’ve never had it so difficult to prepare for a tournament … We lacked in equipment, infrastructure, we lacked even in things as little as medical facilities … we lacked in food, we lacked in everything, so we were just like abandoned children”. That was 25 years ago!

Against this backdrop, Onwuka really was not saying anything new. What is really needed now is not the perpetuation of the complaint tradition but concrete proposals on how to improve on the present regime of government failure in sports. The starting point is for the government to recognize sports as some capital-intensive business and not simply as recreation.

This implies that the government must invest in sports as business, by including it in its annual budget and funding it as it funds education and health. It must provide the necessary infrastructure for sports. Finally, the government must offer appropriate incentives to the athletes, whose talents and skills are needed to sustain the business.

Fortunately, the current Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare, has been in the forefront of needed changes. In addition to setting up a 14-member Committee to reposition sports and attract investment to the industry, he led the revival of abandoned Surulere and Abuja national stadia. Realising the financial limitations of the government, Dare’s ultimate goal is to attract both public and private investment to the sports industry.


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