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THEWILL EDITORIAL: 2021 Olympics: Trouble Within AFN

On June 13, when the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) received a consignment of kits from the German multinational corporation, Puma International, it seemed that was the end of the search for kits for the country’s Olympic-bound officials and athletes participating in the sporting event scheduled for July.

The consignment comprised tracksuits, vests, shoes, backpacks, wheel bags, face masks and other items worth millions of Naira, which the factional AFN President, Ibrahim Gusau, said was part of a 2019 partnership deal signed in Doha between the AFN and the company.

However, the reality tells a different story that is steeped in intrigue, politics, selfish-aggrandisement, subterfuge and dire implications for the prosecution of Nigeria’s participation in the biggest sporting event of the moment.

That intrigue and politics which may hunt the AFN and impact on the performance of the athletes at the Olympics dates back to 2017 when the former Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, in 2017 facilitated the emergence of Gusau, who in turn engineered an investigation of the Vice President of the federation, Olamide George, based on an old accusation by athlete Folasade Abugan that George provided athletes with performance enhancing substances.

The fallout drove an unyielding wedge between the AFN and the sports ministry until allegations and counter allegations of corruption led to the impeachment of Gusau and the appointment of George as President of AFN in acting capacity.

The Federation has since then been factionlised despite interventions by the courts, the current Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare and the World Athletics (WA) and the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) to broker a peaceful resolution of the impasse.

Even as late as June 14, less than a month to the sports fiesta, two different elections were held leading to the emergence of two presidents, each claiming to have been legitimately given a fresh mandate to lead the Federation.

Gusau organised and won an election in Birnin Kebbi, backed by his erstwhile factional opponent. This other election, which bore all the markings of legitimacy because it applied the 2017 Constitution as recommended by WA and CCA, had Minister Dare and the head of the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC), Habu Gumel, in attendance and took place at the AFN Complex in Abuja, where Chief Tonobok Okowa was elected as new president.

Just when you thought the ghost of bitterness had been rested, Gusau showed up, signed for and received the kits from Puma, showing he still wielded some leverage.

Apparently, the Okowa-led faction will be backed by the NOC, who will accept only the athletes he sends to them through the Presidency at an event scheduled for Monday, July 12 and make a clear demonstration of preference for Okowa’s base throughout the Olympic cycle to show where power lies between these two. The problems will not simply die off after the Olympic Games.

We are alarmed that the leadership crisis rocking the AFN could not be resolved before the Olympic games. If the body responsible for preparing a country’s contingent for the biggest sports event in the world is in crisis what is the assurance that the problem will not colour the management and performance of Nigerian athletes need at the Summer Games.?

How far these squabbles can go to scuttle the chances of some sportsmen and women at the Games is not easy to compute, but the disqualification of the country’s 4x400m relay team for irregularities, the absence of race cones after their superb qualification race is an example of how a divided house can miss the small details that can be deleterious to Team Nigeria’s chances.

The claim by a senior official of the AFN that Nigerian athletes will not use the Puma kits as they are subjects of a police investigation levelled against Gusau’s administration is another case in point. At so close a time to the Games, available kits and equipment cannot be used because there is no love lost between factions fighting selfish battles to the detriment of athletics, in general, and the athletes, in particular.

Of the 25 medals that Team Nigeria have won at the Olympic Games, 13 have come from track and field. The first-ever individual gold medal, which the amazon Chioma Ajunwa won for the country, was in the women’s long jump event at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Since then, it has been silver medals, with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where Blessing Okagbare won silver in the women’s long jump, and the quartet of Gloria Kemasuode, Halimat Ismaila, Franca Idoko and Damola Osayomi gave the country another in the women’s 4x100m event.

It is indeed a shame that the AFN could not put aside selfish interests and power play for the sake of Nigeria’s image and glory and seek sensible means of charting a way forward.

The preparation for the Tokyo Games has not been ideal and expecting the best of our athletes under these conditions is to say the least to hope against hope. Who knows, more embarrassment may be in the offing for the country offshore because a house divided against itself cannot stand.

We can only hope they rise above the prevailing circumstances. Nigeria has got more pressing challenges to contain at home. Exporting more troubles outside at a global fiesta would be the least expected of AFN officials. Too bad.