BusinessDay

Constructing a future for Nigerian sports

Just the other day, the normally lugubrious interior of the indoor sports hall of the National Stadium, Surulere was brought to life for a space of three days by the patter of hundreds of feet and the excited voices of competitors and spectators. It was the second edition of the Adegboyega Efunkoya National Cadet Table Tennis Championships. There were players, under the age of 18, from various states of the federation, accompanied by their coaches and chaperones. For the duration of the competition, they lived together, forming bonds of friendship, even as they fought to outdo one another on the table to win the trophies, medals and prizes that were at stake, in addition to educational scholarships.

The Adegboyega Efunkoya Foundation, which organised the competition, is made up of former national and international table tennis players, along with officials and administrators of the game. The common unifying theme among them, apart from a shared love for table tennis, is love and respect for the legacy of Dr Adegboyega Efunkoya.

Nigerian Sport is generally acknowledged to be in a rather parlous state. Though there are flashes of brilliance here and there, such as an occasional podium place by one of the nation’s sprinters, or the Basketball team defeating highly rated European teams and coming close to taking out the dreaded USA team in friendly competition before the last Olympics, it is clear to those who know about these matters that Nigeria should be doing much better than it is doing. In sporting terms, Nigeria is a giant performing with the heft of a dwarf.

Meanwhile, tiny clusters of expatriated Africans going under such names as Jamaica and Antigua have established a tradition of producing repeatedly the Hussein Bolts and other world beaters, so putting their stamp on the sprints and power sports that these are now tagged ‘black’ sports. Nigeria, carrying the largest pool of the same anthropomorphic characteristics and capabilities, has only a few medals here and there to show for its efforts.

Many reasons have been adduced for this image of perpetual beginner that dogs Nigeria in the world of Sports. A lot of the blame goes to the government, who over the years has not shown evidence of any clear coherent vision or forward-thinking on Sports Development.

But Sports is really about Society itself, and not just government. Where Sports thrive, the government is often an enabler and facilitator, rather the one that writes all the cheques and provides all the facilities. There is a large, and distressingly, vacant space for the private sector and private individuals needed to carry the nation on their shoulders.

In the history of Nigerian Sports, there have been a few big motivators, such as the ‘Pillar of Sports in Africa’ – Chief MKO Abiola, and others such as Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and the Late Israel Adebajo. Unfortunately, the focus of these efforts has usually been limited to football.

Where sports thrive, the government is often an enabler and facilitator, rather the one that writes all the cheques and provides all the facilities

One of the giants of Sports Development in Nigeria operated in the Sport of Table Tennis. Dr Adegboyega Efunkoya, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons was newly employed as a Consultant Surgeon at the General Hospital Lagos in 1962 when he wandered into the hall of nearby Methodist Boys High School on Broad Street one day to watch an ongoing West African Table Tennis Championship. It was a duel between Nigeria and Ghana.

To Efunkoya’s chagrin, Ghana wiped the carpet with the pride of Nigeria, making a clean sweep of all the seven titles at stake, including the prestigious Nnamdi Azikiwe cup for the Men’s Singles event.

It was a call to action for Efunkoya, a lover of table tennis, and a patriotic Nigerian.

In 1963, he was elected as Chairman of the Nigerian Table Tennis Association.

It was the beginning of the golden era of Nigerian table tennis that would be known as ‘The Efunkoya Years.’

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Efunkoya reached down to the grassroots for talents from the schools and clubs, introduced Organised Supervised Training, and joined notables such as Alhaji Musiliu Anibaba on the NTTA to personally shoulder the cost of employing the first foreign coach – a former European champion named Zoltan Berzik. The coach lived in Efunkoya’s Ikoyi home throughout his stay and was driven around in his official car.

The impact was dramatic. The same year – 1963, Nigeria defeated Ghana in Accra to reclaim the Azikiwe cup.

Efunkoya and his collaborators encouraged table tennis players from China to visit 9 out of 12 states in Nigeria to play exhibition matches and promote the game. He sent two batches of young male and female Nigerian players for 6-month training stints in China. One of these was young Olawunmi Majekodunmi, who would win the crucial last match against Egypt in 1974 All Africa Games, a win that made Nigerian Women African Champions for the first time in history. Efunkoya created a climate for growth and international acclaim for stars such as Babatunde Obisanya and Atanda Musa. He, in effect, put Nigeria on the world map of table tennis.

It is no wonder that the athletes who directly benefited from Efunkoya, and those who merely basked in his aura or heard about his exploits, have come together to form a foundation in his name. They dream of expanding their reach to include organizing training programmes for potential young talents all over the nation.

Athletes in other sports, including football, who have made good, may wish to copy the example of the table tennis champions to take sports back to the schools and neighbourhood playing grounds and clubs where the real talent abounds and is daily going to waste.

Nigeria can, and hopefully will, soon, realize its potential and become a great sporting nation, garnering and developing its talents from the cradle and nurturing them to acclaim and international recognition. When it begins to function at this level, it will be a lasting tribute to the memory of Adegboyega Efunkoya and others like him.

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