(Not) An Olympics Epilogue/ Chika Ukogu

Today commences that week, now observed with religious punctuality every four years in Nigeria, of scheduled grief and acrimony.

It is the week following the Olympics. In comparable countries the world over, it is one of national pride. The nation’s top sportsmen return home triumphant, and are celebrated with pomp and circumstance.

Not in Nigeria, where the week, and those celebrations serves only to remind us of futility not just in sports, but in virtually every field. It is the week it is clear we are our only enemy.

The Olympics collapse which we mark this week, like the last one and the one before that, is at the immediate level traceable to the simple fact that as a people, we have no place for orphans, and sportsmen are orphans.

Yes, we have deep regard for sports, which is why every leader who comes along quickly appoints a sports Minister or commissioner.

But we have a psychological resentment of a sportsman, especially when he requires support, sometimes for years, before he can bring us glory.

Why this conundrum? Well, for us sport is different from the sportsman.

We enjoy it when “our” sports star brings us glories and conquests, but we hate it he or she is an actual person, requiring time and attention.

Our refusal as a people to set in place those institutional elements that enable the athlete to grow to the best of his ability received full testimony in Rio. It was no surprise that the mention of our athletes in the Nigerian press was nearly always in connection with falling short, sometimes far short. They are an appropriate barometer of our futility.

The biggest mistake this week would be the dangerous notion that we simply failed to do well at another sporting event.

No, we didn’t. What we actually did was go out and remind ourselves, and the world, of whom we are: proud underachievers. Again at another important international contest, we were found out when openly tested against nations who take themselves, their name, and their people, seriously.

This is whom we have become. Our sportsmen and women are unprepared largely because for 60 years, it has remained the character of the Nigerian elite to prioritize its interest over the national good.

From hypocritical heads of government to their conniving wives; from thieving Ministers to rapacious civil servants, 60 years of so-called independence has left us not better, but worse; not richer, but poorer. These 60 years have left us with wealthy former and current public officials alongside public institutions incapable of serving 160 million people, let alone produce one gold medal winner.

Where other nationals in the public sphere seek and are proud of the emergence of a special talent, athletic or intellectual, our elite ignore or even try to crush them. On several occasions in the past 30 years, I have reported on my personal experiences of supposedly respected Nigerians who think talent is special if it is their child.

Why are we so blest? Jealously, for one thing. We like such potential to belong only to us, or ours. Shortsightedness, for another. Why groom a poor child who would go out and excel?

That is why Nigeria is strewn with tens of thousands of unfinished projects, along with thousands of former officials who returned with looting expeditions in governments vastly richer than their own local government area.

But there is also a different kind of shortsightedness: those who really want to do the right thing, for some reason. But they dilly. And dally. Time passes, or maybe they then do.

And so, poverty—and poverty of spirit—gained a 60-year headstart in Nigeria. The “wealthy” have grown wealthier, while the powerful have continued to make speeches.

Could that historic embarrassment for Nigeria’s Olympic soccer team in Atlanta been prevented? Absolutely. But it is too late now, and it will exist in infamy in the rear-view mirror because those who could have prevented it put their nation second.

That thoroughly-Nigerian story naturally made global news. But the football players were hardly the only Nigerian athletes who went through torture simply to compete for Nigeria.

The real story is that in four years in Tokyo, we will do it all over again, as has become our character.

But all of this can be changed, with a new mind-set. If I were President Muhammadu Buhari, here is how I would handle that reset.

I would invite all of the athletes who went to Rio to a meeting in Aso Rock this week, and celebrate their efforts.

I would then announce that at the 2024 Olympics, eight years from now, Nigeria would be going for 50-100 medals. And I would say that preparations begin now.

Is such a turnaround possible? Yes.

The reason that we are underperforming in sport, as in science; infrastructure, as in human development; abroad, as at home; has everything to do with our limited ambition.

We are doing little things in dark little rooms in fear of dark little demons. Instead, we should be standing on the rooftop declaring our ambition, and imposing menace and mayhem on naysayers along the way.

At their most ambitious, President Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan dreamt only of a handful of gold medals, something Kenya or Jamaica do with just a few people at the Olympics.

Hindsight affirms that when you think small, you accomplish even less. Foresight confirms that when you acknowledge and empower your best, you achieve your best.

This is why so much Nigerian talent flourishes everywhere outside Nigeria where people seek true quality. At home, our best and brightest are served the same diet of disinterest or discouragement, leading to many who refuse to grovel or offer bribes either to abandon Nigeria, or abandon their talents.

The same Nigerian officials who perpetrate this betrayal then go out on the eve of important international competition to beg anyone with a Nigerian name to come and take a shirt. It is no surprise that the more accomplished of those Nigerians choose to compete for others.

If Buhari wants to leave a legacy different from the shame and defeat of his predecessors and of our recent history, he will attend the first half of that meeting with our athletes with only the Vice-President, and take his cues from them. He will commence re-organization of the second half by firing the Minister of Sports.

We do not really need to invent anything, for there is nothing to invent in preparing and training athletes, or in the building and maintenance of facilities.

With reference to funding, I would advise a review of sectoral budgeting in favour of the kind of five and four-year cycles Mr. Jonathan proposed for development and road construction in 2011, with suitable adjustment for the annual budget, and with a re-designed private sector involvement.

We simply need to implement the same playbook by which others have thrived, and the first item in that playbook is desire, not funds.

The irony is that many of those many others lack the many gifts we have across Nigeria but have failed to take advantage of. We have access to bilateral relationships throughout Africa and the world we have failed to take advantage of.

A lion which thinks it is a rat cannot complain when it is trampled on.

Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense