In the 1930s, two boxing bouts took place between fighters of the United States and German origins; both fights were proxies for the political conflicts between their countries. In 1936, when Joe Louis, an African-American, and Max Schelling, a German, met in New York to exchange punches, their fight became emblematic of the contestation between democracy the US purportedly represented and the fascism of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
When Schelling defeated Louis, Hitler made a huge capital out of it and Americans, understanding the broader implication of their loss, wept loudly. That match was no ordinary entertainment; citizens of both countries had fervently invested themselves and their nationalistic ideals into the blows both men exchanged. The boxing arena became a symbolic space where the political legitimacy of either country was staged.
Two years later, the fighters met again. This time Louis trumped Schelling in a knockout by the third round but the sweet victory came with a bitter after taste for Americans. The match was not simply two disparate nations trying to prove their superiority over one another; it also reflected racial fissures within America. The victory of a black man over a white, regardless of his nationality, was a message to racist America about the power a black man embodies and what it could do to a white body. There were white Americans who supported Schelling against Louis because a black man knocking a white man out carried a realist import that, considering the history of their tenuous racial relationships, rightly made them uneasy.
In history, sporting activities have been a continuation of politics by other means. People have used sports to push their country’s diplomatic efforts, to launder their national image, or to force a government to a certain level of responsibility. We can recall the role sports played in challenging apartheid; sportsmen have raised their black power fists before the eyes of the world to create awareness for their cause at home; countries have boycotted games to assert their stand; Muhammed Ali called attention to social injustice in the US by refusing to be drafted into Vietnam War. When the black American sprinter, Jesse Owens, won medals at the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics, he once again (like Louis did) upset Hitler’s calculations about the superiority of the Aryan race. Countries have used the imagery of sports – healthy and disciplined bodies adhering to the principles of fair competition – to promote themselves as a healthy nation.
Sports have never been solely about the exercise, and Nigerians, with their fanatic support for European leagues should know this best. When Nigerians exultantly applaud foreign teams, what they enjoy is not solely the sight of the men running around the pitch. They equally express an underlying vicarious desire of the sophistication these countries represent. A country that is unaware of the symbolic implications of sport competitions has no business participating.
In a matter of days, the 2016 Olympics Games will start and Nigeria will be represented at Rio, Brazil, by a team of barely motivated athletes whose sprits have already been defeated before the games start. Despite the Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung’s self-delusion about Nigeria winning at least five medals, we will likely come back home all washed in disgrace just like the 2012 Olympics; a global proof of the tardiness of black and African peoples.
Nigeria is not prepared for this event and the first blatant confirmation was a July 19 report that President Muhammadu Buhari had “ordered” that funds for the Olympics be released! What country does that for a major event less than a month to the opening of the Games?
Nigeria, meanwhile, will be competing with countries that take themselves seriously and started preparation for the Games as soon as the last Olympics ended. Nigeria did not wake up to a surprise that they would be going to the Olympics. They knew all the while that Rio 2016 would come; we were just too characteristically undisciplined to devote ourselves to the challenge of long-term preparation. We are the proverbial lazy person who constantly fantasises about the good things of this world.
Just a matter of days to the Games, athletes are complaining about how poorly they are being treated by Nigerian officials. They have complained about their mismatched sports kit; they have rather low morale, a consequence of being ignored by the officials and politicians who grant media interviews dictating the number of medals they should bring home. Some were interviewed and ruing poor preparation during their travel to camp, stated they were not fed for three days; that they were not sure they could properly compete under such stress. Two of the athletes turned to a crowdsourcing fund website to raise money to go represent Nigeria. Perhaps, the worst part of things was the email purportedly sent by the Secretary-General of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, Olumide Bamiduro, asking athletes to buy their own tickets to Rio and they would be refunded. Whoever goes to war at his or her own expense?
If Nigeria cannot do right by herself, we can stop making the efforts to go to these tournaments. We do not need to continue to embarrass ourselves internationally. Has Nigeria considered the damage being done to the psyche of not only these young athletes who desire to wear her colours but also other young people who will lose taste for ever serving Nigeria?
Dalung has since refuted the claim about athletes buying their own tickets. The same Bamiduro too sent a follow-up email clarifying the initial correspondence but unless his other claim was that he was drunk when he typed the initial message, the message was clear enough. What is also clear was that he could not have acted alone; asking athletes to buy their own ticket to Rio is not an isolated incident but one of the many instances of the dysfunctionality of the nation’s sporting agencies.
During the 2014 World Cup, Nigerian footballers bitterly complained about deficient preparations towards the tournament. The logistics were poor, players’ morale so low it had to be propped with cash. Nobody could insist that these players take the high road of patriotism because we all can see that Nigeria does not induce such ideals that make one want to sacrifice everything, or anything at all, for her. Our relationship with our country is transactional, cash and carry; we do not serve Nigeria with all our strength, we do so because we are forced.
While we are still on the subject of the perennial dysfunctionality that haunts Nigerian sports, can we also talk about the fellow that currently heads the sports ministry? Dalung is a joke. He does not seem to have a clue about the huge potential of sports. Rather, he spends time on social media writing syrupy religious articles and some sycophantic claptrap that shows he is not conscious of the gravitas of his official appointment. On July 3, he posted a picture of himself at a stadium in Paris claiming that Multichoice had sponsored him and some others to witness a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal match. Dalung, apparently oblivious that the joke was on him, asked his social media company to predict the result of the match. It was bad enough that he was unaware it was unethical for him to have received gifts from a private organisation; it is funnier that Dalung continues to be an echo chamber of the Buhari anti-corruption platitude.