Delta State has for 15 years sustained a leadership position in sports in Nigerian owing to government support and determination to develop talents
It was one victory that came at a time Nigeria as a country and its leadership was under attack by both the local and international media. Everywhere one turned to, news about Nigeria centred on the abduction of over 200 Chibok schoolgirls by the Islamic terror group, Boko Haram. It was a bad spell of publicity that cast the country and its leaders in bad light owing to the failure to rescue the girls. But then suddenly, from nowhere, came positive news. It came on May 18 via the Diamond League event in Shangai China and the person who brought about this change in narrative was no other than Blessing Okagbare, the Sapele, Delta State born athlete. She won the long jump and 200 metres event, in what is yet her best performance of the year.
In a country that has struggled to shine at major international competitions, Okagbare, in recent years, has emerged the major medal hopeful for Nigeria, someone whom millions of Nigerians look up to each time there is a major athletic event. But the truth is that the 25 year-old beauty would not possibly have become the star athlete she is today had the Emmanuel Uduaghan administration not been supportive of her career. The state government offers Okagbare annual grants, to aid her development. Last year, at a reception in honour of the athlete, Uduaghan announced a three-year grant of $360,000 to her as a way of encouraging her to prepare and participate in major competitions leading to the Olympic Games in 2016 which is vital for every athlete worth his or her name, and the Shangai championship is one of such competitions meant to keep her in shape en route Rio 2016.
As brilliant as Okagbare’s career has been in recent years, she is not the only star athlete Delta State has produced in recent years. Delta, since 1999, has been the state to beat in major sports competitions in Nigeria, and this is not unconnected to the state government’s investment in sports and encouragement of athletes generally. At the last National Sports Festival hosted by Lagos State, Delta State, in as many times, clinched the top spot. Its medal haul at the games tagged Eko 2012 was intimidating, as the state topped the medal table with 114 golds, 99 silver and 75 bronze medals. It was trailed by Rivers and Lagos states which pooled 76 gold, 71 silver and 70 bronze medals and 64 gold, 47 silver and 44 bronze medals in that order. Many fans, who trooped to the various sports centres in Lagos during the competition, were amazed by the prowess of Delta athletes. For their efforts, Uduaghan fulfilled the promise he
made to the team prior to the commencement of the championship. In all, a total of N292 million was doled out to the victorious athletes by the Delta State Government. While each gold medalist got N1 million, silver and bronze medallists were rewarded with N600,000 and N400,000 respectively. The winners of team event, on their part, received N400,000 for gold, N300,000 for silver and N200,000 for bronze. The coaches were also not left out. Like in the case of Okagbare where the man who discovered her, Daniel Etsebiminor as well as Gabriel Okon, her athletic federation of Nigeria coach and John Smith, her international coach, were rewarded with cash gifts by Uduaghan’s administration, coaches and secretaries whose teams and athletes excelled at the Lagos festival were also presented with cash gifts by their state government. While coaches whose charges won gold medals earned 1 million, silver and bronze winning coaches got N600,000 and N300,000 each.
The system in Delta State is designed to reward all stakeholders, leaving no one behind and this partly accounts for the numerous successes the state has recorded in sports in the last fifteen years.
Although Delta State has clinched the first position thrice since Uduaghan assumed the mantle of leadership in the state in 2007, the success run predated him. Gowon Akpodonor, a veteran sports journalist, who began covering the national sports festival in 1991, recalls that Delta State, since 1999 has emerged winner of the national sports festival on five occasions. “These were in Bauchi 2000, in Abuja 2004, Gateway 2006, Kaduna 2004 and Lagos 2012. They also placed second in Edo 2002 and Rivers 2010,” he said. It’s a phenomenal record that places the state, undeniably, as Nigeria’s leading sport state and many of the athletes that represented Delta State in some of these national sports festivals have, like, Okagbare, represented and still dorn the country’s colours in international competitions.
Amaju Pinnick, Chairman, Delta State Sports Commission, told the magazine that about 40 per cent of the athletes, who represented Nigeria” in recent years were from Delta State. Of the 13 gold medals won by this country, seven came from Delta State athletes.
These successes were achieved through hard work and preparation, and the creation of an enabling environment across the state by the state government. Delta State organises talent hunt that enables it to pick the best athlete, year in year out. For a state that’s as culturally and linguistically varied as Nigeria itself, the state administrators have since found a way to exploit its diversity to its own advantage. Sports administrators in the state go to different places for talent hunt. For swimmers, they go to Orugbene and Obiarukwu and lately Escravos. For wrestlers, they go to Bomadi, Patani, Burutu and Ndokwa. For cyclists they go to Agbor. Then if they are looking for athletes, they go to Warri, Sapele. Many of these athletes take advantage of the facilities in well equipped sport centres and stadiums across the state such as the Warri stadium, which has not only undergone massive renovation since 1999 but has hosted major sports events like the African Youth Athletic Championship in 2013 and the African Women football championship in 2006. The Warri Stadium also currently serves as home ground to Warri Wolves, one of Nigeria’s best football clubs.
Chike Ogeah, the state’s commissioner for information says that sports has become big business globally and that the state government cannot but take it seriously “Then when you talk of sports, people take that for granted. But sport is one of the biggest businesses you can find all over the world. Until this government was able to unearth people like Blessing Okagbare of this world, Nigeria had not won a single medal in an international meet in the last ten years,” he said.
Indeed, as the record books show and in terms of long term planning and investment in sports, Delta is by far Nigeria’s leading state, given the successes attained by the state’s athletes who have been groomed and supported in their careers by Ibori and Uduaghan’s administrations since 1999.