Nigerian Converts

The Glasgow Commonwealth Games have occupied many of my waking hours in the past 3 months (yes I recorded it all and have savoured the many hours slowly over 3 months instead of 2 weeks). The competition has been great viewing and I find myself from time to time wishing I had tickets for Glasgow. To be honest, I am puzzled about that still because I am sure if I had known when they were on sale, I would have tried to get tickets for some of it but that opportunity completely passed me by. Sadly.

Although I am a bit competition-mad and will watch most TV programmes with even a hint of competition and a chance to be awed by talent, as an amateur athlete myself back in the day I have a special love for the athletics. And these Games were very special for me for a puzzling reason. We Nigerians are pretty good at the sprints so we tend to feature throughout the rounds. The first heats were men’s 400m I think and when the Nigerian fellow was announced, I sat up in surprise. First his name was very ‘black American’ sounding (most Nigerians have at least one traditional name somewhere in their full name). Then, the commentators went on to say he was ‘one of the many Nigerian converts’. I was puzzled. I had never heard of a person converting to a country before. I mean I know people change nationalities for example but I have never heard it phrased as ‘converting to British’ for example. Odd choice of phrase but I was even more puzzled as to who these people were and why they were converting to Nigeria.

Turns out that these athletes are former American (plus 1 former GB) athletes who have swapped alliances to Nigeria. Now as a Nigerian, I have never been surprised to see a Nigerian name in a British, American, Dutch or even Qatar vest. Truth of the matter is, with the corruption in the Nigerian Government, there is practically no investment in Sport these days and our long-suffering patriotic athletes are forced to abandon ship for greener pastures. And I don’t blame them. If as an athlete for Nigeria I would have to work a horrible job to keep the roof over my head and food in my belly and juggle all that with training, I too would choose to go another team who would not only sponsor me so I can focus on my sport but also give me support in terms of coaching, psychology and physiotherapy. Rather, I was very surprised to see the movement was in the other direction. People actually joining Team Nigeria from other countries. So I investigated.

Apparently our Government has actually made real effort in ‘recruiting’ these former US/UK athletes in the hope of boosting our medal chances. I also discovered that the reason why these athletes’ names are suspiciously not-Nigerian is because many of them are many Generations American/British but according to the news on the internet, they are all bona fide Nigerian – by which I deduce that maybe some of them are 25% Nigerian but they were born and bred abroad and probably did not even have a Nigerian passport/citizenship until they were ‘recruited’. Rumours are that some of these athletes should not be representing Nigerian because their claim to citizenship is tenuous to say the least (I read about a girl who is Nigerian because her American uncle married a Nigerian, thus becoming Nigerian himself and somehow that qualified his niece as a Nigerian?). Dodgy if you ask me.

It is all well and good that our Government has finally sat up and taken note that we have been haemorrhaging all our talent to the West in the last 2 decades (at least) and is making an effort to correct things. However, I concur with their detractors on the internet who point out that allowing these ‘Nigerian’ converts to come in and out-compete our less experienced home grown talents and then for them not to win the expected medals is probably more of a con than a pro. What our Government should be doing is recruiting our budding athletes in schools and universities and creating a training programme with good support to allow our talented young people to hone their skills and become the elite athletes they have the potential to be. We should be investing in our athletes like the great sporting nations do so that we have professional athletes whose focus is all on their sport whilst they are in their prime. We should be there for our athletes so that they don’t have to go on strike before major sporting meets to get their just dues. We should go back to the 90s when we were all so proud of our sports men and women and we treated them like the superstars they were.

Nigeria with our huge population has plenty of potential. We really don’t need to leave our shores to recruit people in. All we need to do is invest time and money in those already there and I am sure in the years to come, we will be up there with the US, Jamaica and GB teams. Long live athletics. Long live our talented children. Long live Nigeria.

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