Wednesday, 5:00 p.m, John Paul Alumona of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) knocked at my door. He wanted my view on sports in Nigeria in the last 60 years!
Hmmm, "Tough question" I replied. I then told him that sports cannot be separated from the system called Nigeria. That if today, we complain about Kwashiorkor in politics, economy and other facets of our existence, then sports cannot be isolated.
Millions of Nigerians believe that Nigeria would have been better than what it is today, if we were blessed with the right leaders commensurate with available resources, talent and manpower.
Records have it that between 1999 and 2019, Nigeria has had over 14 ministers of sports! Such a high turnover does not do justice to the evolution and sustainability of effective programmes and services.
However, let us give it to the current minister, Sunday Dare, who has not left any stone unturned in the quest to take our sports to "another level." His pet project of recognizing and rewarding 60 outstanding icons of Nigerian sports is as commendable as it is daunting.
The "Parameters for qualification include: the sportsmen and women must be Olympics medalist, Commonwealth Games Medalist, Nations Cup medalist, World Champions, African Champion, including pace setters in administration who also stand a chance to be nominated.
Back in Akwa Ibom, take a bow Utitofon Nkanta (nee Uko) track and field, Lawrence Iquaibom, Cosmas Idio, Patrick Bassey (weightlifting), Charles Bassey (MON), Moses Effiong (MON) football, Enefiok Udobong (track and field...)
How have we fared in sports so far? Let me take a dart down memory lane. As far back as 1949, bare foot footballers nicknamed UK Tourists and led by Richard Etim Henshaw took our football to the United Kingdom and shone a light on the country called Nigeria.
However, it was in 1954 at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada that Nigeria recorded her first official continental title when Emmanuel Ifeajuna jumped to gold in high jump with a height of six feet, eight inches. Three years later, Hogan Kid Bassey put Nigeria on the world map of boxing when he floored Frenchman Cherif Hermia in Paris to become the World Featherweight Boxing champion.
Sports historians have it that Nigerian President, late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was at the ringside and when the final bell sounded, scaled the ropes and jumped into the ring. I quote him "...whether it was proper or not, I don't care. A Nigerian has become a world champion and that is what mattered at that moment."
It did not take five years, 1962 to be precise when another Nigerian boxer, Dick Ihetu Tiger, demolished Gene Fulmer to win the world middleweight title.
The city of Ibadan, Western Nigeria, Liberty Stadium to be precise created history when it hosted the rematch in 1963 and again, Dick Tiger triumphed with a seventh round knockout to retain his WBA title. Since then, boxing has gone on to give Nigeria remarkable successes on world stage. In 1964 in Tokyo, Nojeem Maijegun, became the first Nigerian to win an Olympic medal, despite its bronze colouration in the middleweight category.
Isaac Ikhuoria followed suit in Montreal Olympics in 1972 with another bronze in light heavyweight. Peter Konyegwachie was to elevate the medal quality, winning silver at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Yours truly was at the ringside in Barcelona in 1992 when despite posting David Izonritie (heavyweight) and Richard Igbineghu (super heavyweight) made it to the final of the boxing event, they both lost and came out with silver. I will never forget sitting next to the late Ernest Okonkwo who, in a live commentary to Nigerians back home after eulogizing David as the "pumeller," ended his commentary with "...the pumeller has been pummelled..."
It did not stop there. At the level of the professional ranks, an Akwa Ibomite, Samuel Peter, became world heavyweight boxing champion when he defeated Oleg Maskaev in 2008.
Perhaps our greatest achievements in sports have been in football, youth football, as we ruled the world in U-17 level in 1985, 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015. Yet we were not able to translate such feats to success at the senior level with the Super Eagles yet to get to even the quarter finals round of the World Cup, despite repeated qualifications.
The U-20 squad got to the world cup final in Saudi Arabia (Damam Miracle) in 1989 and Holland in 2005. The Kanu Nwankwo-led U-23 won gold in the Olympics in 1996, the first by any African Country. Rashidi Yekini was voted African Footballer of the Year in 1993, Emmanuel Amuneke in 1994, Kanu Nwankwo in 1996 and 1999, while the Prince of Monaco, Victor Ikpeba, was crowned in 1997.
In 1980, our own Charles Bassey and Moses Effiong were in the All-Conquering Christian Chukwu-led Green Eagles team that won the African Nations Cup and were rewarded with brand new 504 saloon cars, houses in Festac and the national honour of MON. We ha d gone on to win more Nations Cup in 1994 and 2013 in South Africa.
Track and field has had its own fair share of successes starting with Chioma Ajuriwa, who jumped 7.12 metres to claim gold in long jump in 1996.
Sydney Olympics 2000, Enefiok Udobong, Nduka Awazie, Sunday Bada and Jude Monye ran a time of 02:58:68 to win silver in the 4 x 400 metres relay but were later given the gold medal when the US team that "won" was stripped for doping.
Let me end this piece by coming closer home. Of the six weightlifters that represented Nigeria at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, five were from then Cross River, with only Emeka Ajei from then Bendel State. Oliver Orok won gold, Bassey Iron Bar, Patrick Bassey, Cosmon Samson Idio and Lawrence Iquaibom won Bronze.
Iquaibom, present Akwa Ibom State director of Sports, progressed to silver in Auckland, New Zealand in 1990 and gold in the Commonwealth Championships in Malta in 1983 and Western Samoa in 1985.
In summary, we have never been short of talent in any sport. As we move into the next 40 years, wanted: "right environment for talents to maximize potentials, right leaders to lead the discovery and tracking of such potentials. Happy Independence Nigeria!
Till next week, by His grace.