South Africa’s Caster Semenya (C) runs to qualify for Women’s 800m final at the African Senior Athletics Championship at Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba, Delta State in Midwestern Nigeria, on August 4, 2018. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP
This past week, Nigeria was in the news all over Africa. In the capital city of Delta State, a continental sports event was held – the 21st Senior Athletics African Championship tagged Asaba 2018.The event was organized by the Nigeria Athletics Federation, AFN, in conjunction with a Local Organising Committee, LOC, headed by Solomon Ogba. His signature was all over it. Solomon has always dreamt big.
He was a politician that became Commissioner of Sports in Delta State many years ago. Then he became president of the Nigerian Athletics Federation. Then he wanted to become President of the Nigeria Olympic Committee, but failed. Then he became President of a federation with a sport that did not even exist in Nigeria, yet he groomed and presented four Nigerian athletes at the 2017 Winter Olympics, and created history.
The girls became the toast of winter sports, the first African girls to compete in the winter games. They went on to become global celebrities even without even coming close to winning a single medal! That’s the nature of the Solomon Ogba – always seeking new grounds in sports to conquer.It did not come as a surprise, therefore, when Delta State, where he wields tremendous political influence, took on the responsibility to host and organize the first such international track and field event in Nigeria’s history. Solomon Ogba might still get the reward and honour he has obviously worked for and probably deserves, even though, some stakeholders may vehemently hold a contrary view. A lot has been written and said about the event.
This is my humble take. For seven days, last week, the track and field fraternity from across the African continent descended on Asaba for a sports festival which, under normal conditions, would have been a perfect opportunity to ‘market’ a pre-conceived social, cultural, political, or even economic agenda for the State. Meanwhile, Asaba, a beautiful small city, the pride of Delta State has a small brand new magnificent stadium, the Stephen Keshi Stadium complex, that was not completely ready before visitors started to arrive in the country.
Final-minute construction works and furnishing were still going on and created a few glitches here and there.The most obvious intention of the Delta State government in hosting the event may have been to showcase the capital city and its environs as a possible future tourist destination in West Africa, because the opportunity the event presented was perfect.
All that was needed was a seamless and smooth organization, a friendly welcome for all the visitors, a good sports event and daily social tours and programmes to entertain the visitors during the period of their stay.I do not know if the objectives were achieved, but the games came and went well enough.
As the teams departed Nigeria a few of the athletes from Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya and one or two other countries vowed not to return to Nigeria following their poor experiences. Fortunately, such sentiments are minimal. Many other athletes had a ball, dazed by the energy and vibrancy of the Asaba people and their environment. They won’t forget their experiences in a hurry and cannot even wait to come back and experience, once again, the exuberance of the Nigerian people.
The pictures and reports out of Asaba 2018 are unique for those that can look beneath the poor start and minor hitches.I spent some time as an athlete representative following my wards, Chioma Ajunwa and Charity Opara, around the athletics circuit in Europe, and experienced the usual atmosphere around some of the biggest events in Europe.I can categorically state that only very few compare with the atmosphere in the terraces of the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba throughout the 5-day period of the actual races.
The media officer of the championship, Kayode Thomas, revealed on The Sports Parliament, the Thursday night sports matinee on television (NTA), that the IAAF President, who had initial misgivings due to some poor arrangements at the start of the games, whispered into the ears of those that mattered on the last day of the games that, following what he saw and experienced, the AFN should start to consider the possibility of hosting the World Athletics Championship very soon.
What did Sir Seb Coe see that made him dramatically change his mind and support Nigeria even without the country asking for the World championship?
It is the atmosphere!
The races were fine.
All the top African athletes were present.
The tracks, contrary to negative stories before the championship, were fine. Races were very competitive and several African records were broken. Nigeria lost out in her traditional areas of strength – the sprints!The Kenyans retained their supremacy in the middle and long distances. The South Africans demonstrated strength in diverse events.
What was completely different from other championships were the audiences at the stadium. Every day of the 5 days of competition, the stadium, with a capacity of 22,000 spectators, was packed to the brim.
On the final day, the spectators outside the stadium grounds outnumbered those inside. The roaring chants and cheers of the crowd of mostly football followers gave unprecedented electricity to the championship. Even on the tracks and field the events were an unusual carnival of sports celebrations.
A football audience cheering athletes is a true spectacle. The energy of a football audience was transferred to athletics. Sir Coe must have been blown, totally taken in by the vociferous crowd, the atmosphere in the terraces, and the unprecedented chants and cheers after every shot or jump or sprint. The Asaba people the defining factor of the championship and made it a roaring success at the end.
Nigerians can now start to imagine what is possible if Nigerian administrators and organisers were to pay a little bit more attention to the finer details of organizing such an international event. A State, or even the country itself, could creatively use it to drive agenda beyond the games that can impact the State or country in unimaginable ways.
That’s another pointer to the power of sports to achieve major national objectives.I congratulate Delta State and all those that had a hand in the making of Asaba 2018 a reality and success.