After six years of being in the limbo, the biennial National Sports Festival (NSF) is back on track with its 19thedition kicking off in Abuja today at the National Stadium Complex. The fiesta was last staged in Lagos in 2012. Akwa Ibom state was billed to host the 2014 edition but it failed to do so after a series of postponements.
The 45-year-old tournament was avoided by other states like a plague until the federal government decided to breathe life into it, hence its rebirth today.
The significance of the festival can be appreciated when viewed against the vision of the Gowon administration to use it as an instrument to reconcile Nigerians after the bloody 30-month long Civil War ended in January 1970.
Lagos played host to the maiden edition of the festival in July 1973 and it was staged at the magnificent National Stadium, Surulere. All the 12 states of the federation were duly represented at the jamboree that accommodated three categories of athletes – the U-13, the intermediate and the senior.
One major incident that took place at the second fiesta was the bloodless coup that ousted the Gowon regime when state contingents had already converged on Lagos. However, the uncertainty and tension that followed the change of government did not stop the festival from holding. It showed the importance attached to the tournament by the new regime of Gen. Murtala Mohammed.
It was interesting to note that virtually all the major sporting events were captured at the festival. Before the national fiesta, competitions were held at the local government level aimed at selecting athletes for the states’ sports festivals, after which contingents were picked to participate at the national level.
Successive state governments kept faith with the philosophy of the founders by ensuring that the jamboree was staged as at when due. In order to realise one of the key objectives of the festival, the National Sports Commission (NSC), the main organiser, thought it wise to rotate the venues of the jamboree.
Kaduna state became the venue of the festival in 1977. Oyo state became the host of the 4th edition tagged Oluyole ’79. The festival train moved to Edo in 1981. The train has pulled up in many states of the federation. Among them were Kwara, Bauchi, Rivers, Delta and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Some sports loving states have even hosted the fiesta twice.
Aside from serving as a platform for the reintegration of Nigerian youths after the Civil War, it was also envisioned that the fiesta would serve as a veritable ground for talent-hunting following the collapse of school sports all over the country. However, dishonesty sounded the death knell of the critical component of the festival – the U-13 category. For, after the maiden festival, the vision to catch them young was killed because overage athletes were packaged for that category.
Besides the setback for our sports development which the dormancy of the festival constituted was the lack of constant activities in the nation’s sporting facilities. Consequently, the various stadia are left in a state of desuetude. It is also one of the major factors responsible for the failure of the nation’s sports bodies to unearth and groom our abundant talents for international competitions like the All-Africa Games and the Olympics. This has been largely responsible for the abject performances of our athletes at most tournaments because we keep recycling aging athletes.
The dormancy of the festival also spoke volumes about the lack of commitment to sports by government at all levels in recent years. Many state governments have not come to terms with the fact that sports are now big business across the globe. For a nation like Nigeria which is endowed with a very young and active population, government’s relegation of sports to the background could be a perilous pastime.
Most Nigerian youths now see sports as a route to escape poverty and hardships. It is public knowledge that several Nigerian migrants in pursuit of better life in Europe perish in the Mediterranean Sea. Such energy and desperation could be channeled into sports through which they could achieve their ambitions. Engaging the youths in constant sporting activities will also free them from the devil’s workshop which idleness typifies.
Perhaps, one of the biggest constraints militating against staging the biennial festival as at when due was the dearth of resources that most states have been grappling with in recent years. Seeking partnerships or sponsorships from corporate organisations will, therefore, not be a bad idea.
In our previous editorials, we had stated that the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports should not be comfortable with the dormancy which the nation’s sports flagship had slipped into. We also stressed the imperative of bringing back the National Sports Commission (NSC) which has proven to be the livewire of the festival since it was introduced.
We salute the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Federal Capital Territory Administration for their efforts to rescue the fiesta from dormancy. We will also like to reiterate our call for the revival of the NSC in the Sports Ministry. Sports should not be left at the mercy of square pegs in round holes. The scrapping of the NSC by this administration was an unpopular decision. One of the domino effects was the dormancy that became the lot of the NSF.
The rebirth of the NSF is a happy reunion for the over 11,000 participating athletes and their officials from all over the country. Blueprint wishes them a rewarding and hitch-free jamboree. We also enjoin the organisers to set their eyes on the next Olympic Games billed for Tokyo in 2020 with a view to identifying potential medal winners at the fiesta, regardless of the closeness.