The setting was appealing. The students—boys and girls, and their minders—were neatly robed in their sports wears. The lawn was well manicured, the tracks, well marked, and the spectators’ stands, well demarcated. The parents were not to be outdone. In their designer tops, shorts/trousers and designer foot wears, they strutted out for the occasion. That was last month at the inter house sports competition of a leading secondary school where I was a guest.It was good to be there as it brought back memories of similar meets four decades ago when I was a student like them.
As I settled down to enjoy the mid day adventure, I found myself comparing what I was witnessing with what I experienced in my school days.The National Anthem and School Song were quickly rendered, and then the games oath was administered, exhorting the students to compete fairly. The chair of the occasion mumbled a speech, which was more of an explanation than apology for his one hour lateness. I thought he was a peculiar choice, noting that his rotund appearance was anything but sportsmanlike. When he accepted the school’s offer of a 50 metres head start ahead of other parents during the parents’ race, and went on to claim the winning prize my impression was concretised. The cheerleaders were as important as the competitors. Clad in their house colours, they danced and pranced, to the joyful noise of rattlers, hoots, and catcalls, urging the courageous and gifted to bring them laurels. Many of the athletes enjoyed the opportunity to participate even as they did not win, underscoring the pervasive good sportsmanship at the competition. One notable exception occurred during the 4 x 100 metres race for the senior boys. No thanks to Mike, the star of the day, who having won the 100 metres race, was also the anchor for his house during the relay. Half a head shorter than Usain Bolt, he is clearly patterning his performance after the Jamaican. In winning the 100 metres race, he slowed down his giant pace, looked over his shoulders, as if wondering who dared to match him. Not satisfied with the quality of opposition, he upped this act in the relay. Striding home at least seven steps ahead of the competition, he actually turned back; cheekily beckoning to the first runner up that he could do better than that. The butt of the joke was so incensed; having previously lost the 100 metres race that he threw away his baton and headed for the stands immediately the race was over. While the spectators found the act comical, I wondered if their minders taught the athletes the significance of recording good times at such races and if the star knew the damage overconfidence could do to one’s act.
More schools turned up for the invitational relays than the six tracks could accommodate. While eight girls’ schools turned up, nine boys’ teams participated. The solution was to have them compete in two sets, picking the winner through the best times recorded. I had expected that the best three from each heat would run the finals. But it seemed to me the school opted for a political solution rather than have true champions emerge from the fiercest struggle of the fittest. I also noticed that unlike my school days most of the athletes ran barefooted; that no athlete used starter blocks as aids, and hurdles was not listed as a race.I was, however, happy to be introduced to the world of Swedish relay, which saw the relay quartet cover in turns 100 metres, 200m, 300m and 400 metres. Although it was created in 1936, it was my first time of seeing it live, and it was as much fun for the athletes as it was for spectators watching them cover one kilometre.I could not help feeling that the occasion epitomised the best and worst of the country. The athletes’ showmanship and doggedness, the spectators’ commitment, the ambient setting, all spoke well for our sense of occasion. But if the Nigerian sports scene could boast of good kits in the 70s, then having most athletes run without spike shoes, and starter blocks in 2010 was no progress. I saw raw talent begging to be honed in the areas of techniques, pacing, and baton exchange. I saw a Red Cross team that had no student-member. I saw students going down with muscle pulls, or hamstring problems and wondered whether their minders’ resort to pulling or stretching their legs was the best response. I wondered how we could compete in the 21st century by employing pre civil war tools. I wondered how many of those budding athletes would end up donning the colours of other countries when their needs could no longer be satisfied at home. I wondered when we would pay the deserved attention to youth development.