I have only seen 13-year-old Seni Adekeye swim twice: the first was when he was about five years old bawling out his distaste for water, while the second was two Saturdays ago at the newly-refurbished swimming arena of the National Stadium Surulere, where he was proudly representing Nigeria at the 2nd Africa Zone2 Junior Swimming Championship. As he blitzed his Ghanaian rival in the opening lap of the 200m mixed freestyle relay, I thought about the stark contrast in both pinches of time, and what amazing things we can get our children to do once we engage them in the right way
I t was really an absolute delight to watch these emerging talents from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Benin compete for glory. They showed that great sport goes beyond just football. It is disappointing that a country of almost 200 million people with proven sports pedigree, has been limited to just one major sport – football.
Nigeria was not always so. Back when ours was a relatively sane society, we followed, and were excellent at other sports like boxing, wrestling, table tennis, tennis, cricket, and athletics. Swimming has never really been our forte, but it is nonetheless a thrilling sport that can engage large numbers of athletes and spectators. It also makes excellent viewing on television, meaning it can reach and appeal to tens of millions of Nigerians worldwide.
My biggest takeaway from the competition was how sports impact families. I have always argued on this column that we lose a lot economically and socio-culturally by not prioritising sports in this country. Sports, for one, have the power to focus families around developing their young.
Parents, extended family and friends usually form strong support groups around budding stars, helping them grow as athletes, and invariably strengthening the family unit. I was at the stadium to support Seni as family, and there were many other families there too. Dads were not too busy with friends or work, mothers were not at some event; everyone knew who and what was most important.
There are those who argue, and I am one, that the major problem we face as a nation is the failure in our homes. We are failing our young, we are not engaging them productively, we are not teaching them the values sports bring to a nation: values of merit, collaboration, fairness, empathy, leadership, respect for others, healthy living, discipline and, above all else, the love of country.
These youngsters were learning from their early teens the importance of, and pride in, serving their countries. You hardly learn that in a biology or literature class. That is why sport is critical for all-round education, and why its backburner status in our schools is a danger to our nation. As research has proven, sports get children more involved in school activities and consequently their studies. Sports also makes them aspire to higher ideals, improves their problem-solving skills, discipline, eating habits and social competence.
While the children swam, us adults from Nigeria and Ghana joked about which country made the better Jollof rice. It was good fun. We also found time to discuss the similar problems dogging our countries and why we needed to work together more as Africans to lift the continent. How badly we need that camaraderie that sports engender that makes us feel like one humanity, one Africa, one Nigeria.
Economically there was business for our hotels. As one Ghanaian parent pointed out to me, there were 21 families from Ghana, each paying at least $50 per day for hotel accommodation for the six days of the competition. There was also business for food and beverages producers, airlines, phone companies, local transportation and the stadium. It was rather shocking though that there was not a single ATM in sight. Even more ludicrous was being told that there was some policy against erecting ATMs at government stadiums. Some people could not access money to buy things and that’s bad for business!
Still, we need more of these tournaments across different sports every weekend in this country. Government should grant the sports industry special status, like it did agriculture, especially with our population spiraling out of control and our peoples increasingly polarised. With an estimated population of 192m today, and 398m by 2050 – and with the majority 18 or under – there is a desperate need for positive engagements. An Uber driver I engaged recently claimed that in Oshodi where he lives, 90% of the young teenage girls get pregnant within three months of leaving secondary school. While this cannot be held as fact, it is loosely representative of any lower income community around the country. Without much to engage them, these kids turn to unprotected sex, falling prey to jobless and irresponsible area boys and motorpark touts.
Internationally, countries see sports as a vehicle to boost pride. Swimming is especially a favourite of leading nations because of its medal-earning power. For all the popularity of football, it can only fetch a country one Olympic gold for men and one for women. At the Rio Olympics, the USA shipped 33 medals from swimming alone, with 16 of them gold! It was also a point made at this competition by the undoubted star of the competition Ndiaye Ahmadou who won eight gold medals for Senegal!
Domestic swimming should also be easy to sell. Years back when my own son competed at the American International School in V.I., two daughters of then Cross Rivers State governor Donald Duke competed, as did the son of Zenith Bank supremo Jim Ovia, and a frightening trio of Dere Otubu sons. Duke, Ovia, Otubu were all there to support their wards, hopping and screaming like the average spectator.
What the sport needs to get big sponsorship now is more professional packaging. Brands go where there’s fun, and where there are people with good disposable income. Swimming ticks both boxes.