Nigeria’s team celebrate winnning the women’s 4x400m relay of the African Athletics Championships at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba, Delta State in midwestern Nigeria, on August 5, 2018. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP
Before now, many Nigerians were of the opinion that the city of Kano has the highest number of sports followers in the country. But that perception may have changed, following the record-breaking attendance recorded on daily bases throughout the duration of the 21st African Senior Athletics Championship, Asaba 2018, which ended on Sunday.
For years, the people of Asaba, Delta State capital, had been looking forward to having a befitting stadium. From the state’s creation on August 27, 1991, through the military era, and to the administration of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, the people were starved of sporting activities due to the absence of a functional stadium.
The Governor Ifeanyi Okowa-led administration has changed the situation for good by completing the Stephen Keshi Stadium for the athletics championship, and the people now have cause to celebrate.
The CAA Asaba 2018, which ran from August 1 to 5, was filled with thrills and glamour. School children, market women, civil servants and visitors from neighbouring Onitsha in Anambra State seized the opportunity of the athletics championships to show to the entire world their rich sports culture.
Like the Brazilians displaying their football culture during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the people of Asaba in their thousands were able to display their unique cultural heritage, cheering both Nigerian and visiting athletes from morning till evening for the five-day championship.
Perhaps, what baffled the visitors was the zeal and enthusiasm displayed by the people.
In some other cities in Nigeria and some African countries, athletics does not really attract high number of spectators. To most Nigerians, it is football and football alone. But in Asaba, the people paid gate fees ranging from N500 to N2000 daily to be part of the championship. The Mmanwu dancers (masquerades) were on hand to entertain the visitors, while elderly men and women from the various quarters in Asaba, dressed in their traditional attires, were on ground to add colour.
The closure of Nnebisi Road, which is the major link way for the people notwithstanding, the 22,000-capacity Stephen Keshi Stadium was always filled throughout the duration of the competition. There seems to be more tricycle operators in the city than cars.
However, the Asaba 2018 championship was not all a smooth sail in the area of facilities, as many athletes said the CAA-approved tracks was bumpy and could cause serious injuries to them.
Some of them preferred to run slower times to avoid injury, including the women’s 100m, which was won in 11.15 seconds by Cote d’Ivoire’s Ta Lou, who had ran faster times this year. Ta Lou said after winning the race that the track needs to be worked on for a smoother finish. “The surface appears good but when you run on it, you notice that it is bumpy and not smooth. There can be no fast times in this competition.”
Also, South Africa’s speed star, Akani Simbine, who won the men’s 100m in 10.25 seconds, said: “I came with the aim to run a sub-9 seconds in Asaba, but that is really not achievable on this tracks. I have to be careful to avoid serious injuries.”
On his part, Nigeria national men’s 100m champion, Adeseye Ogunlewe, who finished fifth in the final of the event, lamented that he stumbled in each of his races.
“This tartan track is bad. You are running fast and all of a sudden you bump into a bad portion and stumble. I almost fell in each of the races. I ran in lane 5 and 6 and each of them was not good.”
Enekwechi Chukwuebuka of Nigeria, who won gold in men’s shot putt (centre) flanked by Egypt’s Mohamed Khalifa (silver) and Kyle Blignaut of South Africa (bronze).
Apart from the tracks, the toilets, which served both the athletes and journalists who covered the championship was an eye sore. The sanitary facilities at the stadium could not be effectively used, as there was no water supply to the toilets. To save the situation, the organisers had to detail over 10 sanitary workers to fetch water from a tank outside the mainbowl to cater for the athletes’ needs.
The television set provided inside the media center did not function throughout the duration of the championship. Until the end of the championship on Sunday, the facility imported to provide floodlight for the event were still lying on the ground, thereby forcing CAA officials to re-adjust the programme of event. The scoreboard is also yet to be fixed.
Another setback recorded at the championship was accreditation of athletes and officials. Even journalists also found it difficult to get accredited and many were denied access to be part of the opening ceremony at the stadium.
At the Patrick Okpomo Football House in Asaba, venue of the accreditation exercise, many athletes, who arrived on Wednesday, were told to return to their hotels to await their accreditation. Many frowned at the facilities used in capturing their photographs because of poor outcome of the accreditation.
Though, the chairman of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the competition, Chief Solomon Ogba, later apologised for the shortcomings that were experienced at this championships.
While athletics events were ongoing on inside the mainbowl of the stadium on Day 2 of the championship, a newly installed water tank at the swimming pool side of the complex crashed, destroying parts of the stadium fence. The tank tore the bonnet of a Sports Utility Vehicle while parts of the tank fell on another car. It was as a result of poor job by the contractor, as substandard equipment was allegedly used to erect the iron stands. It did not happen inside the mainbowl of the stadium, so the competitions were not disrupted.
The LOC tried in the area of security, protocol, medical, transportation and accommodation.
After the initial hiccup in moving athletes and their officials to Asaba, the state government moved in by providing a chartered flight. As at yesterday morning, the virtually all the visiting athletes and their officials had been evacuated from the city.
As reported by The Guardian on the opening day of the championship, Team Nigeria failed to outshine Kenya and South Africa on the medals’ table when events were concluded on Sunday. Nigeria with nine gold medals finished third behind Kenya and South Africa.
But for the resilient effort by Nigerian female athletes, the country could have suffered more embarrassment at the end of the championship. While eight female athletes, including Oluwatobiloba Amusan, Ese Brume, Chukwuebuka Enekwechi, Temilola Ogunrinde and the 4x100m team won gold for Team Nigeria, only one gold medal came from their male counterparts.
To avoid a repeat of such organisational setbacks witnessed in Asaba, the IAAF President, Sebastian Coe, has promised to assist the sport in Africa. “I am not just here for the ceremony, I brought a big team with me from our headquarters to understand the challenges countries face in delivering athletics events like this even at the regional level.
“My team is also here to observe to see how they can be more helpful in the delivering more opportunities. Africa has a great potential and we have to work together with the officials on the continent to understand how the IAAF can help to develop the sport. This is a great event and although there are some challenges, the athletes have been doing well and that is good for the sport.”
The IAAF boss is said to have awarded the hosting right for 2015 World Athletics Championship to Africa. Nigeria is one of the six countries in the continent now biding to host the event.