The recent 4th National Schools’ Sports Festival (NSSF) in Calabar may have come and gone but its memory will linger on, especially as it saw the emergence of new talents with enormous potential.
Participants were drawn from the nation’s primary and secondary schools and equally significant was the fact that it came on the heels of other epochal events, which also aimed at promoting national development.
Some of these events are the National Festival of Arts and Culture, the meeting of the National Council on Information and the Nigeria Air Force Games — all of which held in Calabar.
Observers say that the smooth conduct of the sports fiesta was largely attributable to the peace and tranquility that prevailed in the state, coupled with the eloquent display of the cultural ambience of the people.
By official account, no fewer than 10,000 athletes and officials from over 22 states competed in 22 events in the male and female categories.
The events included badminton, boxing, chess, football, gymnastics, handball, judo, scrabble, table tennis, taekwando, tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, karate and swimming.
At the end of the games, Cross River emerged the overall winners with 114 gold, 104 silver and 100 bronze medals, while Lagos State came second with 89 gold, 72 silver and 80 bronze medals.
Ondo State came third with 62 gold, 65 silver and 75 bronze medals.
Ibrahim Muhammad, the NSSF President, said that the multi-sports fiesta was most useful in diverse and varied ways, stressing that it had addressed, for instance, the issue of age cheating in sports.
“It afforded an opportunity to address the issue of age cheats, which has characterized sports in the country in the last decade. We did everything to ensure that only the right people participated in all the events.
“We expected the national associations to come here and see the young ones on ground and stop using over-aged people to represent Nigeria in sporting meets. We always have the right age in NSSF.
“For us, we believe that this kind of competition will enable us to monitor our athletes, so that their performance could be nurtured to enable them to hit limelight,’’ Mahammad said.
For Gov Liyel Imoke, it was great kudos for the NSSF for embarking on “worthwhile activities that encouraged sports development in Nigeria.
“I believe that this is one activity that will certainly change the face of sports development in Nigeria,” he said.
The governor commended the NSSF for responding to “the great challenge of developing athletes for the future’’, while calling on individuals, corporate organisations and governments at all levels, to commit more resources to sports development.
On his part, Prof. Offiong Offiong, Cross River’s Commissioner for Education, described schools’ sports as a permanent feature of the state’s school curriculum.
According to him, the ministry will continue to take responsibility for providing a conducive environment for learning and recreation in its schools.
Underscoring the relevance of the fiesta, Muhammad reiterated that it served as a functional nursery for new talents in the nation’s sports.
“Indeed, the golden era of Nigeria’s sports was made possible by organised schools’ sports, which has always been the nursery for the discovery and nurturing of budding talents,’’ he said.
However, not all states of the federation participated in the last games and this did not go well with Muhammad, who insisted that such non-participation was detrimental to children’s right to physical and intellectual development.
The NSSF President said that sanctions for the abstaining states were being examined by the federation, so as to dissuade states from not participating in the games in the future.
“Are they saying that unifying Nigerian children through sports is not important? Is it not good to give the child education and sports?
“Is it not important to bring children to interact with their peer groups; what would you achieve in poor social, physical and mental development of the child?’’ he asked.
Besides, Muhammad said that the federation would also pool resources with other stakeholders to fight against violence in sports.
“Violence is not what we need in sports and we at the NSSF do not condone it at all. We promised, prior to the commencement of this festival, to expel any state contingent that got involved in violence. We have zero-tolerance for violence in sports.
“We have always pledged that we will work with any organisation that seeks to promote the development of school sports and we are looking forward to working with ‘1 GAME’,” Muhammad said.
Philip Obaji, founder of “I Game”, an initiative to stem violence in sports, especially football, described the support from NSSF as reassuring, while emphasising that violence of any sort in sports was a source of great concern.
“I’m happy that we are having the support of the NSSF in our fight against violence in schools’ sports. It’s a good thing the sports federation understands the need to stamp out violence, particularly in sporting events like this,” he said.
Obaji expatiated that “1 GAME” had recently shifted the focus of its campaign to school sports, with the launch of the sub-project — “Goal against Violence”.
He said that the basic thrust of the new phase of the campaign was to reach over a million school pupils who played football, for them to understand the essence of unity, fair play and non-violence.
Nestle Nigeria Plc., which manufactures Milo cocoa drink, was among private firms that made significant presence throughout the fiesta.
One of its managers, Mr. Femi Akintola, said at the games that his firm planned to float a football academy to groom youths for the 2012 African U-13 Championship in Ghana.
He said that the firm’s sponsorship of the U-12 football event at the sports fiesta was part of its modest efforts to develop the game.
According to him, the champions in the fiesta will be camped for several months at the academy, to enable them to blend before the Ghana championship.
“The winners of this competition will be put together in an academy where they will play together for a while and become exposed.
“We do not look at the money we have spent so far but the value we give in the sponsorship by helping children to achieve their dreams. We are creating champions.
“We want to create a platform for Nigerian students to realise their ambitions,” he stressed.
On her part, the Minister of Education, Prof. Ruqayatu Rufai, applauded the role of the NSSF in strengthening the bond of unity and peaceful coexistence among Nigerian youths through the fiesta.
She also thanked the Cross River Government for being a good host, stressing that sports remained a veritable tool for the mental, social and physical development of Nigerian children.
The minister, who was represented at the closing ceremony by Mr Jaato Baba, therefore, urged states, local governments and other stakeholders, to partner with the Federal Government in sports development efforts.
No doubt, the memories of the schools’ sports fiesta will linger on in the minds of all the participants and the general expectation is that the games, as it continues to flourish, will indeed foster unity among Nigerian youths.