Former Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, shared his Olympics experience with The Interview. It’s as deep as it is revealing:
You were appointed sports minister two months to the London Olympics. Did you set any late goals for medals when you took office?
Yes, I did make a couple of statements promising that we would perform better in London than we did in Beijing four years earlier, where we finished with one silver and four bronze. In retrospect, that was a foolish promise to make. But I could be pardoned, given that I was engaging in sports management for the first time and didn’t really know what it took to win an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, my more experienced colleagues in the Commission and the Federation, for whatever reasons, actually assured me that we could do much better than Beijing. I believed them then because it was probably the natural thing to do, given that I didn’t know what exactly I needed to ask them. What gave me some confidence however was that we had a fairly decent preparation both locally and abroad building up to the Olympics. London however taught me that putting a great plan together few weeks to the Olympics was never going to be enough. The rest, as they say, is history.
What was the state of Team Nigeria when you took over?
You would recall that in the first instance, I was only drafted to the National Sports Commission, specifically to manage Nigeria’s participation in the 2012 Olympics following the unexpected resignation of the substantive minister of sports who left to contest the governorship election in his home state. Apparently, not much had been done by way of preparation for the competition. Please note that I am not talking of actual development, nurturing and exposure of the athletes, which should have started many years earlier and would have been too late by the time I took over to do anything. I am talking about managing our participation in the competition. I need to mention that the decision to draft me to the sports commission was initiated by the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who pointed out during a session of the Federal Executive Council that there was no minister for the commission even as the Olympics approached. Therefore, it was easy for me to persuade her to release the money we needed for the event, usually captured under what is known as ‘sporting activities’ in the budget. Before then, some local camping had started managed by the various sports Federations. But they were all happening under abysmal conditions. The fund we got enabled us to emplace proper camps and embarked immediately overseas camping. Our boxing team was camped in the United Kingdom, Taekwondo team was camped in South Korea, weight lifting, wrestling, table tennis were camped in Germany and athletics was camped in Atlanta Georgia, in the United States. I am proud to say that from the time I took over till the end of the Olympics, even though we were not happy with the outcome, not a single athlete had cause to complain about their allowances or the condition of their camping. Even our ever critical sports journalist acknowledged that 2012 was probably the best in terms of management of the participation. This happened because we decided to put the athletes first. We were not so concerned about which government officials or politicians wanted to attend the event. Even after we arrived London, I was constantly checking on the athletes and helping them to solve small problems here and there and even giving them money from my pockets just to encourage them. I recall one athlete who was in the final year in the university and she was not able to get a concession for her to write her final examination after the Olympics. She was so distraught and wanted to return to Nigeria. We had to wade in and help her to solve this problem. Another one had a mother in the hospital. And listen to this, another one discovered that she was pregnant after we had arrived London. We had to call a meeting of the medical team and the relevant Federation to take a decision. In the end we decided to allow her to co compete since she insisted that she would be able to. It was a difficult decision for me because I knew if anything happened to her, I would take responsibility. It was my call. Fortunately or unfortunately, the girl, a wrestler save me the anxiety. She just entered the ring and rolled over! Can you believe that! But this is to tell you that managing athletes is a serious business. Things would always happen.
Have we learnt any lessons?
Of course we learnt some very important lessons from London. Unfortunately, we have not been able to bring any of those lessons to bear on our preparation for the Rio Olympics. I said recently in a paper that I delivered somewhere that nothing has changed. But it was not meant to be like this. It did not have to be like this. This is why I will continue to argue that we need sports administration system that would allow the leadership to be in place for at least eight years. Of course we have to define clear performance goals to be reviewed periodically. The minister of sports in south Africa, Fikile Mbalula has been there since 2010. In sports, you do not get results overnight. It takes years of consistent planning, monitoring and execution. Unfortunately, in our country the institutions are not robust enough to withstand change in leadership. So, once you remove the minister, all his ideas and work go down with him. That is what happened to us. There are reasons why we won the AFCON after 19 years and have not even been able to qualify since then. After London, we learnt some key lessons. We learnt that Olympic medals cost a lot of money to win. The entire funding for our participation for London 2012, including the Paralympics, was 2.4billion Naira. That is not even up to what a single sport in team GB got. But more importantly, was even how the money was spent and what it was spent on. We learnt that it takes years of preparation to achieve podium success at the Olympics, and you have to start spending money the moment you discover an athlete, medicine, science, nutrition, physiotherapy, lifestyle management, everything. We learnt that you need an elite athlete management institution that is focused on producing champions. We promised to do all these. That was why after the sports summit convened by the President himself in 2012, President Jonathan promised Nigerians 5 gold medals in Rio. I did not think that was realistic. I don’t think he also believed that was realistic, but he needed to say that to put us on our toes. I was confident however that if we were able to implement the plans that we laid out, we would have made significant progress. I wouldn’t still have promised medals, but I would have promised a good performance. But I would had no doubt in my mind that by Japan 2020, Nigeria would not only be serious medal contenders, but we would also be able to explain how those medals were won and we would have set the template for the next generation to build on. Olympics is the highest sporting competition in the world. There is no next level. You should not expect to get world class results when you have not developed world class systems and institutions.
From all the medals prediction tables we have seen so far, none features Nigeria. Are there any particular athletes you think might spring surprises?
One thing the world has learnt is never to underestimate a Nigerian. Our preparation to the Atlanta Olympics was one of the most chaotic in recent history. But recall what happened? Two gold medals! I believe such fluke achievements are still possible, I can assure you that this is extremely unlikely. 1996 was 20 years ago. So much has changed since then. Our girls 4X100 metres relay team won the Bronze medal in Beijing with a time of 43.04 seconds. In London, just four years later, they ran a better time of 42.64 seconds and won nothing. Micro seconds now make the difference between gold medal and no medal. So much has changed. Hey, but who know? However, even if any of our athletes win anything in Rio, it would still be down to the individual grit of the athlete and perhaps, sheer luck. No, we cannot continue this way.
If you were in the shoes of Minister Solomon Dalung today, what would you do differently?
This is a question I would not like to answer. I am not in his shoes, so I don’t know where it pinches him. The only thing I would say, which I have said earlier was that he should not make promises. I learnt this simple lesson the very hard way.