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Nigeria: Zhangs of Our Sports


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Vanguard (Lagos)

Ikeddy Isiguzo

29 July 2011

INJURY can devastate an athlete. The lucky one who recovers and returns to competition fails to realise what the others suffer.

In Nigeria, treatment of athletes who run into such storm is one of numerous sore points in our sports management. However, it is a global problem that some countries have successfully management through the integration of athletes’ rewards and rights.

My shock is that China could do the same thing for which Nigeria is notorious, neglect of its injured athletes, though for comparison, the Chinese at least make an effort at caring. Gymnastics fans will remember Zhang Shangwu, a specialist on the still rings, who delighted at the 2001 World University Games, winning two gold medals.

He was just 18 and looked promising for the 2004 Olympics. It would have been the apogee of his involvement with gymnastics since state officials discovered him at five and sent him to a local gymnastics academy.

When he broke his left Achilles tendon in training in 2002, he did not recover fully, missed the Olympics, and in 2005 he retired with a 38,000 Yuan (about N900, 000) benefit from the government in his home province. “The money meant the local team no longer had to take any liability for my future,” he told a newspaper.

“After I left the sports system, I got a job as a food delivery boy, but after a while my injury got worse so eventually I couldn’t run or even walk for long periods.” His savings went into treating his grandfather for brain haemorrhage. “That used up all my remaining money, and then I was forced to sell my medals because I did not have any money for food.” He made about N2,500 from selling his medals.

In 2007, he was jailed for theft in Beijing. He served out his term last April. “Since I got out, I have been begging and I was sleeping overnight in an internet café,” said Zhang who is now 28.

China honours winners of Olympic gold medals, but those who do not make it to the top suffer, having devoted their lives to sports without adequate qualifications to carry on in cases like Zhang’s.

Other Chinese athletes in similar situations include Ai Dongmei, a former marathon champion. She sold the 10 medals she had won in international competitions to support her family after her husband lost his job. Zou Chunlan, the national female weightlifting champion, worked as a masseuse at a public bathhouse.

Zhang lives off the generosity of a Chinese newspaper while searching for a job.

The lessons are the same for everyone, everywhere. Sports people must equip themselves with enough skills for life outside the comfort their celebrity status offers them. The Zhangs of Nigerian sports are all over the place. They may not be begging, but they are close. There are no exceptions and football is firmly in the frame.

Some of our best footballers may end up destitute. They have no skills outside the game. They are not educated enough to be coaches or administrators or anything for that matter. They will be lucky to have saved something to live on after the frantic fortune their fame brings them.

We may blame them as much as we want for not taking care of their future. The point remains though that when we fail to consider their future, we create a poor image for sports that could limit the interest or participation of future generations.

Surely, nobody wants to become destitute on retirement.

Yes, Groom Them

THE Falcons made the headlines at the FIFA World Cup for the wrong reasons. The Nigerians did not win any game. However, the comments of coach Eucharia Uche, for many years team captain, are still reverberating, with calls for FIFA to sanction Nigeria.

Eucharia is the only African to have been coach and player in the FIFA competition. Her comments are highly sought and analysed. Unaware of her importance and bereft of media skills, she criticised the sexual preferences of a German player, much to the embarrassment of FIFA.

Was the problem Eucharia’s? No, it was Nigeria’s. We do not groom our athletes. We do not equip them with basic social skills that are important for interaction in today’s ever-changing world. What was Eucharia’s business with how others approached sex? Were she groomed, she would have answered the same question without getting into a jam.

No Nigerian team has a business going anywhere without grooming. It costs us the public relations benefits of sports and often portrays Nigeria in bad light.

I am not surprised that Eucharia was not a subject of much interest back home even to the authorities since football is practically running itself and its officials are busy fighting for their survival.

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