By Jackson Ekwugum
Except for crass opportunism, blatant mischief, and sheer dishonesty, it is unthinkable that any well-meaning Nigerian would dismiss the just- concluded 21st African Senior Athletics Championship, a.k.a Asaba 2018, as a failure the way Reuben Abati did in an article circulating online. Aside from the fact that it is unfair and illogical to assess the success or otherwise of a major championship like Asaba 2018 based on a few glitches here and there, Abati became a victim of social media rumours in his haste to execute a sinister agenda.
To start with, it is nothing new to have minor glitches at major competitions like Asaba 2018. What is important is how the organisers rise up to the challenge. In the case of Asaba 2018, following the delay in flight connections for some athletes at the Lagos airport, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa moved swiftly and decisively to resolve the problem. Even though it was not the State Government’s responsibility, the Governor engaged chartered aircraft at great expense to ensure the athletes were all on the ground before the commencement of the games. The structures and processes put in place by the Governor also ensured that all the athletes were safely and swiftly evacuated from Asaba without any incident or complaint. It is a testament to Okowa’s vision, quick thinking, and exemplary leadership.
In his diatribe, Mr. Abati alleged that the team from Tanzania left Nigeria in disappointment. But Tanzania did not participate in the tournament. So how could this have happened? It goes to show that you cannot believe everything you read on the social media. Secondly, by the time the games commenced, the initial disappointment caused by the airport delay had become a distant memory. And some of the athletes and visiting journalists changed their tune. For instance, Wesley Botton, one of the journalists twitted: “After a horribly wobbly start, the Local Organising Committee really pulled through today at the African Championship.” So it is highly disingenuous for Abati to harp on comments that had been overtaken by events. In fact, it reeks of outright mischief and deep-seated prejudice.
Thirdly, Abati claimed that “there were reports of the tracks being terrible: with bumps and potholes in a newly completed stadium. …Some of the athletes even pointed out that they were afraid of being injured so they had to run carefully. #Asaba2018 does not represent the true potential of African athletes.”
Typical of an armchair critic, Abati failed to cite the source of these reports. The athletes were unable to perform to optimum level yet South African Caster Semenya broke the 25-year-old Maria Mutola’s 800m championship record, in addition to erasing the South African national record in the 400m. How silly can you get? Of course, it is not true that there were bumps and potholes (Haba Abati!) on the tracks. They were certified fit for use by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and the Confederation of African Athletics weeks before the games commenced. There are rules guiding international athletic competitions and Asaba 2018 was not an exception.
As I mentioned earlier, glitches, while regrettable and avoidable, are nothing new in major sports competitions. I will cite a few examples. For the same African Senior Athletics Championship in Kenya in 2010, the warm-up tracks were not ready by the time athletes arrived for the competition. Eventually, they were not available throughout the games despite promises to that effect by the organisers.
The Atlanta 1996 Olympics was beset with transportation problems. There were reports of buses not showing up or arriving late to convey athletes and journalists. Some athletes were stranded and many of them subsequently left the Games Village. Games officials blamed the problem on communication lapses, explaining that many of the drivers did not know their way around the city because they were recruited from other states/cities. There was even a security breach as a man with a fully loaded gun was found inside the stadium despite assurances that the Atlanta Olympics would be the safest ever.
Similarly, the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver did not go as planned. At the tail end of the three-hour show, one of the four pillars designed to rise from the stadium floor and form the Olympic cauldron malfunctioned. As a result, speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan could not join the others star sports celebrities, which included NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash to light the Olympic torch.
It is fair to say that Asaba 2018, which held from August 1-5, 2018 surpassed the expectations of the Local Organising Committee and even the Confederation of African Athletics. For the first time in the 39-year history of the competition, there were 52 countries that took part, five more than the previous record of 47. The tournament also featured a record number of 800 athletes while the number of events competed for rose from 44 to 46.
In the course of the competition, the sleepy town of Asaba burst into life as expectant spectators daily thronged the magnificent Stephen Keshi Stadium. There was a palpable feeling of joy and excitement as people trooped into the stadium to watch world-class athletes in action. It was obvious their enthusiasm was not dampened by media reports of the mix-up at the airport and the negative comments of so-called public commentators. It was five unforgettable days of exciting and entertaining athletic action, which saw Nigeria women claim gold in the 4 x100 metres and 4 x 400m relays. Kenya topped the medals table, followed by South Africa and Nigeria.
Daily attendance at the games was one for the records. On the last day of the competition, even though the 25,000 capacity stadium was packed to the brim, the stadium gates had to be locked by law enforcement personnel to keep away the surging crowd outside. This is rare for an athletic competition. It is pertinent to point out that the security was spot on and the crowd management excellent. In addition, there were no issues or complaints about the accommodation feeding and transportation arrangements provided by the Delta State Government.
The competition ended on a very high note. Reggae gospel Singer Buchi, Efe of Big Brother fame and Oritse Femi delighted the enthusiastic crowd with scintillating musical performances. Almost half an hour after the competition had ended, the stadium was still filled to capacity as the spectators and many of the VIPs joined in the singing and dancing. It was simply a moment of joy and triumph for the Delta State Government and the Local Organising Committee.
The completion of the Asaba Township Stadium in less than 18 months was nothing short of miraculous, given the history behind the stadium. This was a stadium that had defied attempts by previous administrations to reconstruct it. In fact, the foundation stone was laid by former president Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001.
Driven by his commitment to deliver a successful championship for Nigeria, Governor Okowa gallantly rose to the occasion and tackled the issue of the stadium with bulldog tenacity. Today, the stadium is a beauty to behold and one of the few stadia in the country with fully covered stands. The warm-up tracks, equipment, and facilities in the stadium are of the highest quality and standard. It is, therefore, fitting that it was renamed after the late football legend, Stephen Keshi. Residents of Asaba and environs who have yearned for sporting activities in the capital city can now look forward to football matches and major competitions in this magnificent stadium.
I conclude this article by noting that in engaging in wholesale condemnation of the games, Abati was toeing the path of his co-conspirator and APC Delta State governorship hopeful, Prof Pat Utomi who, a day earlier on national television, had lashed out at the Delta State Government for hosting the championship when, according to him, Deltans were languishing in poverty. It is strange that a professor of economics could not see the economic benefits of hosting a major championship such as Asaba 2018.
It is an incontrovertible fact that hoteliers, transporters, contractors, retailers and so many others experienced a boom while the stadium was being constructed as well as during the championship, which Nigeria last hosted in 1989. Add to that the fact that Governor Okowa has bequeathed a world-class sports facility for the use of current and future generations of Deltans and you can fully appreciate the enduring gains of Asaba 2018. And who knows, some young Nigerians may have been inspired to dream of a future in athletics after witnessing the spectacle that was the 21st African Senior Athletic Championship.
•Ekwugum is Manager, Communications, Government House, Asaba.