For five days, the attention of the sporting fraternity in Nigeria, especially lovers of grassroots sports, was on Kwara State, precisely the University of Ilorin where the 6th edition of the National Youth Games (NYG) was staged.
Incidentally, the event which ended on Tuesday, October 19 will be the last to be hosted by the University after a six-year stretch which incidentally commenced during the tenure of former Minister of Sports, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi who is also from Kwara State.
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The last NYG provided the opportunity for the youthful athletes in secondary schools across the country to showcase their talents while announcing their arrival and ambition to rise to stardom as far as sports is concerned.
Over 4,000 youths and officials from 34 states of the country and Federal Capital Territory stormed the showpiece that celebrated the youths and provided the platform for them to exhibit their abundant talents to the world.
At the games, some outstanding athletes were discovered who have been tipped to represent the country in Dakar in a few months from now. Already, they have been marked as future stars for the country.
Among all the games competed for, it was glaring that the country and its citizens can use sports, especially in their formative years to find solutions to the security and economic issues presently plaguing the country.
It was also extremely fulfilling to see the athletes irrespective of their tribe, religion and ethnicity mingle as one in love, peace and harmony as originally envisaged by the country’s founding fathers.
From all the approved sports which include athletics, aquatics, badminton, basketball, boxing, chess, cricket, cycling, dart, football, golf, gymnastics and handball among others, it was a delight to see the “real youths” take the stage by storm.
It was the same in others like hockey, judo, karate, para-athletics, para-table tennis, scrabble, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, squash, trado sports, ayo, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling and wush-Kungfu.
While the Games heralded future champions, it was, however, blighted by allegations of cheating, use of mercenaries and lack of proper planning which compelled organisers to shift the games for about two days from the original day it was scheduled to start.
The widespread cheating that was noticed during the games ran a sad commentary of the win at all cost syndrome that has stunted the growth of grassroots sports in the county.
According to some of the officials, due to the late commencement of the Games which was chiefly because of lack of proper preparation, over 2,000 athletes were accommodated at Kwara State Polytechnic instead of the University of Ilorin.
Because of the late commencement and accommodation problems, some of the participants said they were forced to sleep in their cars inside car parks in order to participate.
“About 80 per cent of athletes were over-aged and most of the administrators and coaches complained. They had to retake the screening exercise on Friday after it was earlier done on Thursday. This was to allow for some athletes who were earlier disqualified to participate. This was one of the major problems that blighted the games,” said an official.
And according to one of the female athletes in taekwondo, Maryam from Kwara State, some of those she competed against were far above her category and age. “That was not what most of us prepared for and it was widespread in most of the games,” she added.
Although the Acting Director, Grassroots Sports Development at the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, Alhaji Bode Durotoye, insisted that athletes must be U-15 years old, it was one of the very sad aspects of the games.
“Athletes need to be U-15 years of age, and not 15 years plus. The screening committee has done a thorough job, but nevertheless, the process continues till the final day, as any athlete detected to be above age 15 will be withdrawn, and the coach and state sanctioned,” he said. Unfortunately, that was not to be as there were allegations of age falsifications which held up competitions at some of the event centres.
In spite of the flagrant abuses of the rules and regulations guiding the Games, no adequate punitive measures were taken against offenders. Even the fine of N2.5m each for Enugu and Gombe State was for their failure to attend the Games.
The Executive Chairman, Lagos State Sports Commission, Mr Shola Aiyepeku, said the organisers must make available, definite screening criteria, before any Youth Games, adding that the screening process for the Games was one of its lowest points.
The Minister for Youths and Sports Development, Chief Sunday Dare, who described the performance of the athletes as the sign of better things to come in the Nigeria sports sector, warned against age cheats. The Ministry, he noted, will henceforth institute scientific methods to check such occurrences in the forthcoming Games.
He said the Ministry will commence the use of MRI technology to ensure that age cheating was curbed while stressing that any athlete caught as an age cheat in subsequent editions will be handed bans while states involved will be sanctioned.
However, for the 2021 edition, the Minister’s warning was like medicine after death because the Games had come and gone despite cases of age cheating and the use of mercenaries.
Chief Dare, while thanking the states for their sustained investment in sports called on the states not to relent as their investments have continued to pay off with most of the athletes discovered at the Games in the past becoming the mainstay of Nigeria representatives in international events.
The Vice-Chancellor, University of Ilorin, Professor Age Abdulkareem represented by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Mikhail Buhari thanked the Federal Government for the opportunity to host the rest of Nigeria saying they are willing to continue hosting the Games as it has helped in improving the sporting facilities in the institution.
Professor Abdulkareem, however, appealed to the Minister of Youth and Sports Development to fulfil its promise of building an Olympic size swimming pool in the institution among other facilities saying the institution had become the home of sports among its peers.
At the end of the games, Delta State emerged champions with 114 medals, Lagos State came second with 72 medals (19 gold, 25 silver, 28 bronze), Edo placed third with 40 medals (18 gold, 10 silver, 12 bronze), while Bayelsa ended in fourth place with 46 medals (16 gold, 14 silver, 16 bronze).
To finish in the top 10, Rivers State won 33 medals (11 gold, 8 silver, 14 bronze) to finish fifth, host Kwara State came sixth with 32 medals (10 gold, 10 silver, 12 bronze), FCT seventh with 36 medals (10 gold, 9 silver, 7 bronze), Ogun eighth with 45 medals (8 gold, 13 silver, 24 bronze), Ondo placed ninth with 30 medals (7 gold, 7 silver, 16 bronze) while Oyo finished tenth with 31 medals (6 gold, 6 silver, 19 bronze).
Despite the shortcomings which nearly overshadowed the brighter side of things, some immensely talented athletes were unearthed. Some of the outstanding athletes discovered were 9-year-old Gift Torhile from FCT and 10-year-old Wilson Bright from Delta.
Also discovered were outstanding gymnasts like Obiefuna Munachi, the 13-year-old from FCT and Mustapha Oriyomi, another 13-year-old from Delta. Then the amazing talents in weightlifting like Florence Olarinoye from Lagos, Victory Okundia from Edo and Marvelous Chidirim from FCT and the special athlete with hearing impairment, Akinwowon Oladeji, who won the 100m, 200m and 400m in athletics for Team Lagos.
These twinkle twinkle little stars all offered a silver lining for the Games that were characterized by age falsifications and the use of mercenaries.