Transiting from Stadium to Podium
The definition of sport usually includes a broad and inclusive spectrum of activities suitable to people of all ages and abilities. By its very nature, sport is about participation, inclusion and citizenship. Sport has a unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire. Its intrinsic values – teamwork, fairness, discipline, respect for the opponent and the rules of the game – can be harnessed in the advancement of solidarity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. Sport as a universal language is a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding by bringing people together across boundaries, cultures and religions.
It is worthy to note that sport has been linked to the Millennium Development Goals. In the past, sport has been most commonly linked to eradication of poverty and extreme hunger; achieving universal primary education; responding to the psychosocial needs of victims of disasters and emergencies; promoting gender equality and empowering women; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Therefore, any investment in sporting events cannot be easily quantified in terms of its socio-economic end value in a society like Nigeria.
Currently, investors, private and public, across the globe (Nigeria inclusive) are actively yearning for opportunities to participate in and reap the rewards of the expanding sports industry. Therefore, actors in sport, academia, private sector, non-profit and non-governmental organizations, government agencies, UN agencies and international organizations, the media, the general public as well as young people are increasingly interested in the potential of sport as a tool to reach personal, community, national and international development objectives. They are also interested in how sport can be used as a tool for addressing some of the challenges that arise from humanitarian crises and in conflict and post-conflict settings.
As sport becomes increasingly part of humanitarian and development work, as well as a part of the corporate social responsibility practices of some private sector actors, interested parties are anxious to explore the potential, as well as the limitations, of sport in their work.
In March 2003 a ‘UN Inter-Agency Task Force’ published a report, “Sport for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the MDGs.” The report states that “the world of sport presents a natural partnership for the UN system” and that well-designed sport-based initiatives are practical and cost-effective tools to contribute to the achievement of the MDGs.
Back home, sport (football inclusive) is a social tool for nationhood building and a symbol of unity. No wonder Franz Beckenbauer, a former German football manager opined that “football is one of the world’s best means of communication. It is impartial, apolitical and universal. Football unites people around the world every day. Young or old, players or fans, rich or poor, the game makes everyone equal. Stirs the imagination, makes the people happy and makes them sad.”
Sport can be undertaken on an amateur, professional or semi-professional basis, depending on whether participants are incentivized for participation (usually through payment of a wage or salary).
Amateur participation in sport at lower levels is often called “grassroots sport”.
Sport can be differentiated into different categories as provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The different types of sports categories are Individual Sports, Partner Sports, Team Sports and Extreme Sports.
A major source of emotionally charged, shared experiences can be found in sports. Leaders from Adolf Hitler to Nelson Mandela have tried to use success in important sports competitions to strengthen national identities. Of all sports, football is certainly among the most associated with national feelings, as illustrated by the passionate worldwide following of international soccer competitions such as the FIFA World Cup. Indeed, the outpouring of patriotic sentiment triggered by a major football win is undeniable – as put by British historian Eric Hobsbawm (1990), “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
People get very excited about sports. They are very identifying with the team they like. They build a kinship with the others who like the same team. This is why sport can be utilized to help build a nation. If people in a country share a mutual desire for a particular sport or a certain team that shared desire can give them something similar that makes them feel that they are in the same part of the same nation.
Sport has a means of upgrading the socio-economic status of an individual or nation and can help children learn lifelong skills, empower women and communities and remove discrimination. Also, it is an educational tool that fosters cognitive development; teaches social behaviour; and helps to integrate communities. The term socioeconomic refers to the interaction between the social and economic habits of a group of people. Socioeconomic links financial and social issues together.
One of the main reasons many people choose to participate in sport is to maintain their overall fitness. Participating in sports is an excellent way to help maintain your overall health and wellbeing. One of the reasons that they have become so popular in society is overall entertainment value.
The benefits of active sports participation include Exercise which triggers chemicals in the brain that can make you feel happier and relaxed; it strengthens the heart; gives new connections; improves lung function; increased confidence, reduces stress, improves mental health and builds leaders.
Also, regular physical activity or cardiorespiratory fitness decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease in general and coronary heart disease mortality in particular. Regular physical activity prevents or delays the development of high blood pressure, and exercise reduces blood pressure in people with hypertension.
From the foregoing, harvesting the abundant sporting talents in a country has a way of boosting the national image through winning laurels in continental and global sports events. It is also a means of social transformation for individual athletes from grass to grace; from poverty to riches as well as from obscurity to fame.
On the global stage, some of the athletes had been propelled to fame and acquired stupendous wealth from participating in sports. In recent times, athletes like Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Christian Ronaldo, Conor Mcgregor, Lebron James, Lewis Hamilton, Mikel Obi, Anthony Joshua, Odeon Ighalo, etc. to mention a few are shining examples of the transformative effect of sports in their lives. They have also won laurels and several awards for self and country. It is very certain that the life and status of some of the athletes that participated and also won medals in the just concluded Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be completely transformed from obscurity to stardom with juicy rewards and various accolades.
In the case of Nigeria, the forerunners of Nigerian sports that were exalted to prominence and fame includes Emmanuel lfeajuna who won a gold medal in the High Jump event at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey who brushed aside stiff competition from others and became the World Featherweight Boxing king in 1957 and Richard Ihetu, a.k.a. Dick Tiger who won the World Middleweight crown and later the World Light Heavyweight crown in the late 50s and early 1960s.
As we celebrate here some of our great sportsmen and women who made Nigeria proud with their God-given talent it is worthy to note that the list is largely inexhaustible and if there is one thing that has brought so much joy and global relevance to Nigeria in its more than 60 years of independence, it is the exceptional performances of these athletes.
Emmanuel Okala, ‘The man mountain’, as he was called, was the tallest goalkeeper to have represented Nigeria at the big stage. Playing for Rangers’ International during his active days, it was said that the opposing strikers dreaded his physique between the sticks. He was in goal when Nigeria’s Green Eagles won gold in the football event of 1973 All Africa Games hosted by Nigeria. Okala holds the record of Nigeria’s first African Footballer of the Year.
Olusoji Fasuba proudly remains Africa’s fastest man to date and his record set more than 15 years ago has not been matched let alone broken. He was part of the Nigerian quartet that won bronze in the 4x100m relay at the 2004 Olympics. Fasuba later picked silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Stephen Keshi, there is hardly any success in Nigerian football history past or present not linked to the ‘Big Boss’. As a player, Keshi won the WAFU Cup twice with New Nigeria Bank (NNB). He then moved to Abidjan and played for Stade’ Abidjan and Africa Sports. He also won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 in Tunisia and was at the USA 94 World Cup after which he retired as one of the longest-serving captains of Super Eagles with 60 caps. Keshi recorded some landmark achievements as a coach; including qualifying Togo for her maiden FIFA World Cup finals in 2006 and led Nigeria to AFCON victory in 2013 as a coach, 19 years after doing the same as a player. He passed on in Benin City in 2016.
Austin Okocha, fondly called ‘Jay Jay’ is regarded as the most skillful African player that never won the Africa Footballer of the Year Award despite his immense contributions to African football. He, however, won the BBC African Footballer of the Year Awards in 2003 and 2004. Though he came into the limelight playing for Eintracht Frankfurt. Okocha went on to play for some of the best clubs in Europe including Fenerbahce, PSG, and then Bolton Wanderers. He was part of the victorious Super Eagles that won the Nations Cup in 1994 and qualified for the World Cup in the USA. He stood out as the most consistent Super Eagles player in France 98 World Cup – a performance that earned him a then African record deal with PSG.
Hogan Bassey, this punch-for-punch boxer shouldered the dreams and aspirations of millions of Nigeria and campaigned for honours in the featherweight category. Hogan was the first Nigeria-British born boxer to become a world boxing champion after he shed his blood to win a featherweight bout in 1957 in Liverpool. He spent most of his life in Liverpool but later returned to Nigeria where he turned boxing coach. He died in 1998.
Dick Tiger Ihetu (Richard Ihetu), occupies the second spot in the pecking order of boxing pioneers in Nigeria. Born in 1929, Tiger knew boxers could change the world and he did just that. He expressed his disdain for slavery through boxing. He then became the first Nigerian to keep both World Middleweight and Lightweight belts. Dick Tiger defeated Gene Fulmer in 1953 in a middleweight bout staged at Liberty stadium Ibadan- a fight that was to pave the way for a new dawn for boxing in Nigeria.
Anthony Joshua (OBE) is a Nigerian-born British boxer who etched his name in the history books of sports personalities whose professionalism and hunger for success helped change the face of sports in Nigeria. Always proud of his roots, Joshua has a street named after him in Sagamu, Ogun State. He also proudly presented his world titles to President Muhammadu Buhari in London to further show his affinity for the country.
Nduka Ugbade was the captain of the all-conquering Nigeria 1985 FIFA U-17 side that took the world by storm to win the Kodak World Cup in China. Ugbade was part of the football generation that put St. Finbarr’s College on the world map. This hardworking defender won silver in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia. Loved for his preference for youth football, Ugbade was one of the assistants as Nigeria U-17 side went on to win the 2013 World Cup in UAE.
Nduka Odizor remains the biggest Tennis player Nigeria has ever produced after he became the first Nigerian to play at the Olympics Tennis event of Seoul 88 summer Games. He regularly featured in the Grand Slams in the early and mid-80s. Nigeria is yet to fill the void left behind by Odizor who had one career title win and seven doubles titles to his credit.
Asisat Oshoala is the undisputed queen of women football in Nigeria and even the poster girl for the game in Africa. Apart from clinching the Africa Women Championship diadem with Super Falcons three times in 2014, 2016, and 2018, Oshoala has also been superb as far as club football is concerned. Her success stories at clubs like Arsenal, Dalian FC of China and Barcelona makes her stand tall in the roll call of players that have come out of the continent. She has won the CAF Africa Women Footballer of the Year Awards on four occasions in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Chioma Ajunwa-Opara was a footballer and sprinter all rolled into one. It was a huge surprise when her shocking but stunning 7.12 meters first jump earned Nigeria her first gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics thus becoming the first athlete in history to win a gold medal for Nigeria at the Olympics. Presently, an Assistant Commissioner of Police in the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). She has also won several National and International Awards.
Sunday Bada, a great quarter-miler will be remembered for the role he played when he anchored Nigeria’s 4x400m relay team which comprised Jude Monye, Clement Chukwu and Enefiok Udo Obong, to win a silver medal (upgraded to Gold) at Sydney 2000 Olympics. The Kogi State-born athlete’s personal best time was 44.63 seconds, and he holds the African indoor record following 45.51 seconds’ indoor winning time. It’s on a good note that the late Bada won three medals at the 1997 World Indoor Championships. After his retirement from athletics, Bada, who was with the Nigeria Police Force, rose to become the AFN technical director, a post he held until his death in December 2011.
Mary Onyali, a five-time Olympian from 1988 – 2004 is regarded as one of the best female sprinters Nigeria ever produced. Onyali dominated the stage for decades despite her healthy rivalry with Tina Iheagwan, Chioma Ajunwa, and Endurance Ojokolo among others. She won the bronze medal in the 4 × 100 m relay at the 1992 Olympic Games and in the 200m at the 1996 Olympic Games. She also won the 1994 Commonwealth Games 100 meters title.
Falilat Ogunkoya is another great female sprinter who rubbed shoulders with some of the world best in the 400 meters during her active years. She was highly tipped to win 400 meters gold at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, but she settled for the bronze behind Marie Jose Perec of France and Cathy Freeman of Australia. She is one of the most decorated female athletes in Nigeria with a record 14 career medals (6 gold, 6 silver, and 2 bronze). This African record holder has a personal best time of 49.10s.
Olumide Oyedeji is a bundle of talent who led Nigeria to her first-ever Afro Basket trophy in Tunisia in 2015. A record nine appearances in FIBA Africa Nations Cup in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2013, and 2015 makes him stand out as an icon in the slamming and dunking game. A true patriot, who featured in every All Africa Games, Oyedeji’s effort and immense contributions were rewarded with a gold medal in 2011 having won 3 Bronze medals in 1999, 2007, 2015, and a silver in 2003. Oyedeji has featured in the Olympic Games, World Cup, Commonwealth Games, All Africa Games, NBA, Euro-League, Asia Championships, and South American basketball leagues to become the first African basketball player to participate in major basketball tournaments globally.
Bose Kaffo is arguably Nigeria’s best ping ponger after five appearances at the Olympics Games from 1992 to 2008, Kaffo was the name on every lip as far as Table tennis is concerned. Kaffo was a successful sportswoman in her field winning fifteen medals (seven gold) in singles and doubles at six consecutive All-Africa Games from 1987 to 2007. She partnered with Abiola Odumosu and Olufunke Oshonaike in the doubles in three Olympics Games and the trio dominated Africa for over two decades.
Segun Toriola remains the most decorated Table Tennis player in Nigeria with a record 13 All Africa Gold medals, 8 African Championship gold medals and two Commonwealth Games gold medals to his credit. With a whopping 35 medals in his medal’s cabinet, this living legend etched his name in the sands of time and will be remembered as one of the icons that shaped the face of sports in Nigeria. This old warhorse also participated in seven Olympic Games and he is still very much active in Table Tennis.
Chika Chukwumerije, the little known intelligent, young, and astute son of a former politician, Uche Chukwumerije, until he won Taekwondo gold medal in the Male Heavyweights class at 2003 All Africa Games that he came to limelight. With little or no funding for Taekwondo, his rich dad picked up his training bills and he eventually qualified for the 2004 Olympics but could not make any appreciable impact. He, however, returned four years later to become Nigeria’s best medal prospect in the 2008 summer Beijing Olympics where he became the first Nigerian to win a bronze medal in Taekwondo. Chika was a gold medalist at the 2007 All-Africa Games in the +80 kg class. Chika will be remembered as the man that changed the face of Taekwondo in Nigeria.
Rashidi Yekini remains Nigeria’s greatest goal poacher of all time. Rising from UNTL FC of Kaduna in the ’80s, Yekini was an ideal striker to any coach. His goal sense and ability to convert half-baked chances were the additions that stood him out as Nigeria’s best striker of all time. With his blockbuster shots, he sent jitters down the spines of goalkeepers. His many goals ensured Nigeria ruled Africa again in 1994 as he played a vital role in the Super Eagles World Cup qualification in 1994. For the record, Yekini became the player to score Nigeria’s first World Cup goal in a 3-1 demolition of Bulgaria in the group opener. He scored a whopping 253 goals from 164 appearances for 14 clubs he played for. The former Victoria Setubal striker featured in USA 1984 and France ‘98 World Cup and was capped 58 times by Nigeria with 37 goals to show for it; the highest to date. Yekini died in 2012, in somewhat controversial circumstances.
Daniel Amokachi “The Bull” came to national limelight in 1988 as one of the great football players from Nigeria that has achieved a lot for himself, Clubs and country. He had a very successful professional career right from Nigeria to Belgium, England, Turkey, USA and UAE. He won the AFCON with the National Team in 1994 and the Olympics Gold medal in 1996. He won numerous individual awards including the back to back African Footballer of the Year Award 1995 and 1996. After his playing career, he coached both at the Club level and National Team. Presently, he is the Special Assistant to The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on Sports.
Tijani Babangida is a veteran professional football player that won the Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta 1996 Olympics, featured in the FIFA World Cup and played for the Nigeria National Football Team for several years. He is a very fast player and had a successful football career in Europe and Asia. He has received several awards including the Member of the Order of Niger (MON). Presently, he is the President of Professional Footballers Association of Nigeria (PFAN).
Nwankwo Kanu was a member of the all-conquering U-17 side that won the World Cup in Japan 93. He is an icon of Nigerian football that went on to win the prestigious UEFA Champions League with Ajax in the 1993/94 season alongside George Finidi. Kanu was captain when Nigeria won the football gold at Atlanta 1996. This bundle of skills was later diagnosed of having heart disorder by an Inter Milan doctor after it was discovered that the gangling striker was born with a congenital heart defect in 1996.
Papillo as was fondly called was operated on and he recovered, but in March 2014, a second corrective surgery was successfully conducted in the United States. Moved by his survival, he opted to run Kanu Heart Foundation, an NGO which carries out free treatment on children born with a heart defect.
Segun Odegbami was so good in football that iconic radio commentator Ernest Okonkwo named him ‘Mathematical Odegbami’ having attended one of the Polytechnic Ibadan where he graduated as an engineer. Odegbami, alongside Felix Owolabi and late Mudashiru Lawal, were the three musketeers that made IICC thick in the 80’s. Their talent for club and country was rewarded as Green Eagles won the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. Odegbami won 46 caps for Green Eagles and scored 23 goals. After retiring from football, Odegbami embraced sports marketing under his brand name Worldwide Sports. He presently runs the Segun Odegbami International College & Sports Academy. He also anchors the programme “Sports Parliament” on NTA 2.
Christian Chukwu ‘The Chairman’ was the captain of the victorious Green Eagles that won the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. A born leader, Chukwu remains one of the best centre-backs the national team has ever produced. Chukwu’s talent was well known. His coaching career began with a stint in Lebanon in 1990 before moving on to manage Harambee Stars of Kenya in 1998. He bagged the Super Eagles job in 2003 and steered Nigeria to win bronze in 2004 AFCON in Tunisia. Chairman remains one of the icons of Nigerian football given his contributions to the growth of football in the country in the last 60 years.
Blessing Okagbare unarguably is one of the greatest sprinters the African continent has ever produced, Okagbare has been a shining light in the last decade; winning all that counts in the track and field event. Her journey to stardom began at the 2008 Olympics where she surprised all including herself to win a silver medal in the long jump event. She also has IAAF World Championships 200m bronze, Long Jump Silver, IAAF World Cup 100m bronze. Okagbare proudly owns the Nigerian 100m record at 10.79 seconds and 200m record at 22.04 seconds.
Funke Oshonaike since bursting into the limelight as a teen almost two decades ago has been waxing strong and stronger in table tennis. With many successes on the home front and the continent, she made her first appearance at the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta. Twenty-four years later, she is still on top of her game and has qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Oshonaike is not just the first female table tennis player to achieve the feat; she is also the first woman from Africa in any discipline to reach the milestone. Funke Oshonaike was officially inducted into the ITTF Club 7.
Odunayo Adekuroye, from being a hawker in the streets of Akure, Ondo State, Adekuroye is living her dream as a fulfilled wrestler ranked alongside the very best in the world. With virtually no match on the continent, Adekuroye looks destined for greater things on the global stage. The double Commonwealth Games champion is widely seen as one of Nigeria’s brightest medal prospects at Tokyo 2020 but failed to pick a medal at the Olympics.
Mikel Obi is one of the most decorated Nigerian players of all time; little wonder he emerged as the second-best player at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands just behind Lionel Messi. Mikel, who is one of the only three Nigerians to have lifted the UEFA Champions League, has also enjoyed glowing moments with the Nigeria national teams right from U-17 to the Super Eagles where he was a member of the 2013 all-conquering Super Eagles squad that lifted the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy in faraway South Africa. Mikel’s contributions to football development on and off the pitch when Nigeria won the bronze medal in the football event at the Rio Olympics, remains invaluable.
Ese Brume is one of the outstanding athletes who specialize in the Long Jump event. She created sensation this year 2021 with her leap of 7.17 breaking the Long Jump African record of 7.12 held by Olympic Gold medalist Chioma Ajunwa since 1996 the same year of her birth. She won a bronze medal at the just concluded Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Finally, Blessing Oborududu, a freestyle wrestler, that has represented Nigeria at different continental and global events winning several medals and laurels for the country. Included in her collection of medals are 10 Gold medals won at the African Wrestling Championship every year since 2010 in the last 11 years except in 2012 when she did not participate. She also won a Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and recently, the first Nigerian Wrestler to win a Silver Medal at the just concluded Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The aforementioned Nigerian sportsmen and women have in no small measure contributed immensely to the image and socio-economic development of the country. Therefore, harvesting the abundant youthful talents in the country is a veritable means of addressing youth restiveness, jobs creation, economic empowerment, revenue generation, equitable distribution of income and social integration. The significant impact, as well as the multiplier effect to the growth and development of society, cannot be over-emphasized.