Hon. Tunde Popoola, Secretary General of the Nigeria Olympic Committee opens up on Team Nigeria’s chances at the forthcoming Rio 2016 Olympics. In this exclusive interview with our correspondent, he speaks on the problems bedeviling sports development in the country and the way forward. Excerpts:
Can you give us an insight into Team Nigeria’s preparations for the Rio Olympic Games coming up in August?
The latest happening is that most of the athletes we are going to feature at the Rio Olympic Games are in camp, as I speak. Some are in training camps abroad. For instance, our track and field athletes are training in the United States of America. Our basketballers are also in the US, training seriously for the Rio event because it is the biggest sporting event on earth.
Back home, we have our boxers camping and training in Lagos alongside our table tennis players or ping-pongers who will represent Nigeria at the Rio Olympics. In Bayelsa, our wrestlers are in camp there and training under the watchful eyes of Daniel Igali, who happens to also be the President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation.
For the preparations generally, we are trying to utilise effectively the little funds at our disposal in bringing the best out of our athletes who will fly the flag of Nigeria in Rio.
We in the Nigeria Olympic Committee are grateful to the Minister of Sports, Barr. Solomon Dalung, for the little funds he made available for Team Nigeria’s preparation.
Remember the probe of how N2.9 billion funds meant for the prosecution of the All Africa Games and Youth Games were expended is still ongoing and I want to appeal to the Federal Government to kindly come to our aid by releasing funds meant for our preparations for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Training of athletes for the Olympics cannot wait and I want to also appeal to corporate bodies and well-meaning individuals to come to our rescue with funds.
Our athletes are good to go in this regard!
How many sporting events is Team Nigeria going to feature in at the Olympics in Rio and what’s our chances of winning medals?
Team Nigeria is going to feature in nine sports; they a r e Football , Track and Field, Boxing , Basketball, Rowing and Yachting, Wrestling, Weightlifting, Table Tennis and Para-athletics and Para-Powerlifting. In all these events, I’m sure Team Nigeria cannot return empty handed as we saw at the London 2012 Olympics. Frankly, we lost time in our preparations because of maladministration but I’m happy that our athletes are committed to exceling at the Rio Olympics. I’m sure we can win one or two medals but I cannot stick out my neck on the likely colour of the medal or medals.
Could you, please, throw more light on NOC plans for a successful outing of Team Nigeria in Rio?
The NOC are trying in terms of doing a campaign to reach out to the listening audience to come forward and support Team Nigeria with funds. Also, in terms of preparation and registration of our qualified athletes for their various sporting events in Rio, we are on top of it! I want to assure sportsloving Nigerians that Team Nigeria will never have issues with our athletes camping and registration for the tournament.
What are the major challenges facing the NOC as regards the Rio Olympics?
The major challenge we have is that of funding. If we can overcome this, our athletes are good to go! We can see the enthusiasm written on the faces of our athletes in camp to make this country proud in Rio. A little support through funding will see many of them excelling at the Olympics proper.
We frankly need support from corporate bodies and well-meaning individuals in this regard because funding for sports cannot be left to the government alone.
London 2012 Olympics was a disaster for Team Nigeria because we could not win a single medal at the end of the competitions. How are you sure that we are not going to see a repeat of the same scenario in Rio?
London 2012 was truly a disaster for Nigerian sports because we saw it coming before it eventually happened. As an administrator, I knew that such a thing would happen in London. I was just new in office then as the NOC Secretary General but I want to blame our previous administrators for their poor foresight. We never had a succession programme for our athletes in all sports. For example, you can see how long it took before Mary Onyeali-Omagbemi was succeeded by Blessing Okagbare in the track and field and you begin to ask about what happened to school sports through which future athletes are discovered and produced at the grassroots. Other tournaments like Principals Cup in various states have been abandoned and this is bad!
We need to lay emphasis on grassroots sports development in order to have a smooth succession between our ageing athletes and the upcoming ones.
In answering your question about NOC’s plans in seeing Team Nigeria excelling at Rio 2016, I want to state that we learnt a lot of lessons following our athletes’ poor outing at London 2012. After London 2012, we made internal amendments by galvanising our athletes to do well in Rio 2016. The aftermath of our plans has seen athletes in camp now and even in the face of adversity our athletes are doing well in camp. That’s why I’m optimistic that we cannot return empty-handed like we did at London 2012.
Finally, it beats the imagination of sports enthusiasts in the country that we are not exploiting the medal prospects in multi-medal winning sports like Gymnastics or Swimming at the Olympics and we tend to concentrate more on a sport like football, which attracts just a medal. Why is this so and what is the problem?
We lack professionals at the helm of our various sporting federations. We have so many individuals who are only concerned about becoming the Presidents of sporting federations but are not ready to go the extra mile in making sure our athletes are trained to be world beaters in their various sports. That is the problem!
We do not need political heads as sports administrators, we need committed people as sports administrators. For example, Daniel Igali is the President of Nigeria Wrestling Federation; do you know that he trains with the athletes in camp in Bayelsa because he is passionate about developing the sport of wrestling and he is bringing the best from the athletes in camp ahead of the Rio Olympics?
In addition to the aforementioned, poor leadership and lack of facilities are also among the problems affecting sports development in Nigeria. I remember, Mr. President once challenged us on why Nigeria is not ruling Africa at the All Africa Games. He even mentioned swimming, because we have talented swimmers in the Niger Delta region, and we went to work after his advice. Today, we have renovated the swimming pools at the National Stadium in Lagos and our swimmers are training seriously to actualise the President’s dream of seeing Nigeria come tops at major international sporting events. The same could also be applied to other sports and before you know it, we can rule Africa!