Sunday, 7 August 2016

Age Problems In Nigerian Sports

A recent story on the BBC revealed that half of Nigeria’s Under-17 male soccer were disqualified from an upcoming international competition.  An excerpt reads A staggering 26 members of Nigeria's Under-17 side failed an age test carried out ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifier.
A mandatory Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) screening of the squad revealed almost half were ineligible to play.
Only last year the Golden Eaglets, as they are known, won the FIFA U17 World Cup in Chile for a record fifth time.
The players who failed the tests have now left the training camp in Abuja.
They were staying there ahead of tomorrow's Cup of Nations U17 qualifying match against neighbouring Niger, which will still go ahead.
Many of the expected starting eleven passed the test.
Accusations of age cheating have blighted Nigeria's success at international age group tournaments in recent years.”

I would not start by bashing the players. Why? Over the last 14 months I have been working in the NGO industry and I am aware, with first-hand experience, how many young people, in both rural and urban communities, may not know their real ages from poor education of their parents to register births and by an overarching system failure to tackle issues surrounding birthing of children, data collection, control and management.
There is a national agency (the National Population Commission of Nigeria) charged with the registration of birth certificate issuance etc., however, due to a lack of sensitisation of its importance and duty and a lack of enlightenment of citizens, as well as high usage of TBAs (traditional birthing assistants) who should link up with the relevant agencies to register birth but may not, many children are born without any documentation of their birth in any national database.

Second blame will be on deep rooted system failure to provide basic amenities for its citizens.  What I mean is this... For many young people, worldwide but most especially in developing nations, sports can often be the ONLY ticket out of a cycle of economic disadvantage and it is indeed a means through which a lot of people have gotten out of slums, ghettos, a life of danger and crime.  So permit me to generalise and say that, often, we find children who haven't had basic services (birth registration, quality education etc.) come out as athletes because it is their last ticket out of poverty. If the system were better prepared to provide for its citizens, issues around age within our society will be history.  We would also have better nurtured young people who opt to become athletes.  Furthermore we must strive for a society and system where it's unthinkable to change age like underwear (a topic for another day).  There is a lot of work to do in terms of national image with strong focus on integrity and honesty.

Finally, I blame the entire structure of sports development through the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development. With the advancement of technology and its uses in all facets of life, it shouldn't take a competition’s MRI scan to disqualify athletes who are supposed to be of a particular age range.  Granted, there may be players who have knowingly falsified papers to have a shot on the team but as a norm in Nigeria and our sporting culture we ought to have routine MRI scans to comb through our pool of athletes so it isn't an international embarrassment, it'll be a routine weeding of wrongly categorised athletes, categorising them correctly to continue their careers and provision of more accurate birth and age records as a matter of national importance for the National Population Commission.
We really have a Ministry headed by a clueless man in Solomon Dalung.  I have never met him so I cannot speak of his person as an individual, but as an appointed officer, he ought to be sacked.
I've looked up his biography and I haven't seen anything to make me believe that he is the ideal Nigerian for the job.  I see a career civil servant, (no slight of any sort) who hasn't had any obvious interaction with sports and/or sports development.  
I admit, that whilst it isn't entirely necessary, it is very helpful if the minister had had some dealings with sports as an athlete, a trainer, a coach or an administrator.  I am yet to read about any ground breaking plan of his to revolutionise, restructure and rejuvenate our sports sector.  To work across other sectors so as to harness the abundance of youth in the country and the opportunities of entrepreneurship, diversification of economy and economic empowerment to the citizens.

We have a long way to go as a country and I am optimistic, often to a fault.  Sports has always been a tool for development if taken seriously and if technology is used to drive it as well.  Wearing a red beret and looking like a Thomas Sankara wannabe doesn't make anyone the ideal candidate to lead the and make a mark in the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, having innovative sports development blueprints and robust implementation plans fit for the 21st century and beyond does.

My two cents.

PS: Hope we get a few medals in Rio!

The BBC link


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