It is 10pm on a Thursday night but nothing inside the magnificent Godswill Akpabio Stadium in Uyo will suggest the night is fast spent. 22 kids are chasing after a round leather and a uniformed official punctuating their speedy movements with the blast of his whistle. The ambience of the 30, 000 capacity stadium is heavenly, the illumination very bright. The arena glitters with the flood lights, casting rays of geometric patterns in the air and giving it a sense of grandeur. Angular shadows can be seen falling like veins across the football pitch even as the evening air smelt clean and sterile. Loud shouts of jubilation can be heard from one side of stadium. It is group of school pupils cheering their team to victory, some dressed in sports jerseys, others still clad in school uniforms. The ovations grew louder as the referee signalled the end of the match. A much younger Nsit Atai Local Government football team just thrashed Udung Uko to make it to the next round of the football event at the Akwa Ibom Sports Festival. The kids danced round the stadium chanting several songs and mocking their opponents. It took the intervention of the officials of the state Ministry of sports to drive them back to their buses.
The victorious young lads sang and clapped as their buses breezed out of the Akwa Ibom Stadium into the splendour of the night. One of them shouted out of the window, “we are coming back tomorrow, we will win again”.
Such are the lovely memories refusing to fade away from the just concluded Maiden edition of the Akwa Ibom State Youth Sports Festival. When the pantheon of men who developed sports is unveiled, the name, Udom Emmanuel will take its pride of place. The Akwa Ibom Governor achieved a feat that is short of magic when he recently assembled over 7000 athletes from 31 Local Government Areas to compete in over 30 sporting events. Even with the unavoidable teething problems, the festival was hugely successful with lot of positives to take home and no sad tale to mar the impressive outing.
Inspired by Nigeria’s woeful outing at the last Olympics, Governor Udom Emmanuel had declared that Akwa Ibom state will supply athletes to the nation in the next seven years. Matching his words with action, the fine administrator swiftly put in place a mechanism to discover and nurture these talents to blossom. Enter the school sports festival carefully planned to see the best athletes emerge from schools to the local government to the state level. From athletes, to judo, boxing, karate, table tennis, basketball, volley ball and several other sports, the students thoroughly enjoyed three unbroken days of sporting excitement. New talents emerged to form the nucleus of the sports academy in the state.
School sports did not begin today. Available records on the development of sports in Nigeria showed that following the landmark independence of Nigeria in 1960, government started taking initiatives such as the introduction of the Nigeria School Sports Federation in 1976 to emphasize the relevance of sports to nation building. The importance of sports and games in school encompasses more than just the benefit of physical activity. Increases in self-esteem and mental alertness make school sports and games necessary for every school age child.
However, school sports had since collapsed into limbo without any deliberate effort to resuscitate it. Many schools had cut out sports and physical education programs to the detriment of students. Aside the hurriedly organized inter house sports competitions done once in a year, nothing is left of school sports in the country.
School children ought to play, explore their environment and build a wild imagination they will need later in life. Otherwise, by the time they get to secondary schools and beyond, they will find sports culture alien. The primary and secondary school level is the best point to harvest fresh talents and begin to nurture them, not when their feet are getting tired and their counterparts elsewhere are already planning to retire. Countries like the US send coaches to high schools to scout for children who will play college sports.
If Nigeria will ever compete in tournaments like the U-17 football competition, it will have to learn to stop cheating by fielding players who are over 17 years. To stop cheating, they have to actively recruit young people right from primary and secondary schools and develop them. As a country, we are used to lying our way to football glory and when modern technology like the MRI outs our dishonesty, we become confused. We need to re-orient ourselves towards doing things the right way. Getting there requires hard work and planning, something which Nigerian officials almost always seem to abhor.
The Akwa Ibom Governor is leading the way to get school sports back on the table with its many advantages. It is heartwarming that Governor Udom Emmanuel loves to win and also sees sports as a window of opportunities to unlock hidden treasures for our younger generation. In 2015, he sat at breakfast with the management and players of our state owned team. He charged them to write the name of Akwa Ibom State on the national sporting map. He followed them all the way until we broke a 20 year old jinx. We won our first national football trophy at club level when Akwa United won the 2016 Federations Cup and qualified to play at the continental level.
Governor Udom Emmanuel is building ten sports centres in the ten federal constituencies in the state. He commissioned the first one few weeks ago at West Itam Secondary School, Itu LGA. The second sports centre at Ikot Mbong, Onna is at advanced stage.
Udom has smashed a hat trick with his sports festival and other investments in sports. Other Governors owe the country a duty to take a clue from these incredible feat.
Finbarr is a public affairs analyst