When I was a teenager in the U.S, there were summer leagues, AAU teams, travel teams, and national Youth Olympics -- it seemed like there was limitless opportunity to participate in sports. You could find ways to play for fun, to stay in shape or to play competitively.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for African athletes. So when the moment presents itself to encourage competition -- and give our kids an opportunity to play their beloved sport and get exposure -- I expect Nigeria to show up.
Both the under-16 boys and girls basketball national teams were in line to compete in Egypt this past month, and the under-19 girls had qualified to compete in the world championships in Chile. Two weeks before Chile, however, there was a report in the media that the basketball federation would be pulling out of the under-16 and under-19 tournaments because of a lack of money. It was a shock to everyone involved in Nigerian basketball that funds for such important tournaments had not been allocated.
Basketball is one of the top three sports in Nigeria, after soccer and track and field, but the attention given to soccer by the government, corporations and the media has been a detriment to millions of other athletes in other fields looking for support. I don't mean to put sport against sport, I just hope to give attention to these under-19 young women, who defied all odds to qualify for one of the two spots given to Africa for the world championships.
For a year, these girls looked forward to finally representing their country on the big stage, a dream that is not guaranteed to everyone. I watched as they made countless sacrifices to make it work, only to be let down by the Nigerian Basketball Federation. At the very last minute, the National Sports Commission released money for the girls to attend the world championships, but the players were rejected at the airport in Chile because they didn't have visas. There is a saying that "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." This was the case when visas were not secured. A last-minute attempt to get a letter from the Chilean government to allow the team visas at the entry point didn't work out.
At minimum, our federation should work diligently to secure these precious opportunities to showcase Nigeria's immense talent, and to encourage basketball among youngsters despite the handicap of it not being the country's favorite sport. All over the world, Nigeria's athletes have succeeded at the highest level representing other countries -- and these athletes compete for other countries simply because the financial support is there.
It boils down to leadership. If those in our sports administration are not passionate about their role, or lack the vision and ideas to drive their particular sport forward, the athletes will always be the biggest losers.
It is almost hard to point fingers in any direction because the entire sporting structure has been less than spectacular. As it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the support of corporations, federations and the National Sports Commission to build a championship team. All stakeholders failed our girls, who have done everything they could to represent themselves well and create an avenue to represent Nigeria well.
There should have been administrative checks and balances to make sure the event was properly budgeted for and travel arrangements made. The entire country was kept in the dark as to what was going on, and by the time the story got out, it was too late to help.
Alas, this chance has been squandered and it will be another two years before a team could qualify again. This has undoubtedly left the girls feeling frustrated, saddened and neglected; with a dream left unfulfilled. We will never know how Nigeria would have fared in Chile -- an opportunity to shine bright at the world's biggest stage was cut short before the curtains could open.