By Eyitemi Aguda
As attested to by a former boss of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), Chief Solomon Ogba, Delta State is already a brand name in sports development in Nigeria. But this feat was not achieved overnight. It took close to a decade before the state began to assert itself as a force to be reckoned with in sports nationally and internationally. Among other reasons, there was paucity of sports facilities in the new state, as such facilities were concentrated in the northern divide of the old Bendel State.
However, with the return of democracy in 1999, the Chief James Ibori administration launched itself squarely to tackle the challenge and within a short time, the state found its way to the top bracket. This is informed by the realisation that the quantum of goodwill that comes with doing well in sports is near unquantifiable. Besides, it attracts many economic opportunities, improved infrastructures, expansion of frontiers of friendship as well as branding and bragging rights which have propelled nations to invest billions of dollars to host major sports meets.
“It was in the era of the prevailing democratic tenure that Chief James Ibori made the little children in the creeks to know that they should not be swimming without a price, as their effort being wasted in ignorance can be converted to millions of naira and dollars. But they were without understanding until Blessing Forcados, swimming at Abuja 2004 National Sports Festival, converted eight first positions amounting to eight gold medals that were eventually converted to eight million naira and every child in the creek became gold miner in their swimming patterns and this has been very productive,” stated Christian Eze, Sports Editor of The Pointer Newspapers.
Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan’s youth policy on empowerment and development saw Delta winning the National Sports Festival for the fourth time, with the state also emerging as the single biggest supplier of athletes to the different national teams. At the 2012 Olympics for instance, Delta provided 12 out of the 78 athletes that represented Nigeria in the competition, making the state the largest single supplier of athletic talent for the games.
Thus, the winning of National Sports Competition was no longer a major contest as it has become a secured slot that must be returned to the most prepared state, and this made Delta the favoured state as they walk the talk when it comes to preparation – facilities and otherwise.
Although Delta State has been a leading state in sports in Nigeria since the 2000 National Sports Festival held in Bauchi State, and has maintained the top position in virtually all the sports events, retaining that stance in the past six years has not been an easy achievement. It took a deliberate policy and programmes from the Okowa administration to motivate the sports administrators, coaches and athletes, which translated into higher performance and success story for the state.
For instance, some athletes that excelled were rewarded with employment into the civil service while others got cash gifts for medals won. Still others were recognized in different ways and some officials promoted. Thus, sports became a tool for poverty alleviation, as talented athletes had a complete turnaround from paucity to a higher economic level. A case in point is Deborah Okpochini who appropriated N9million for winning nine gold medals following Governor Okowa’s reward of N1m for every gold medal.
At inauguration, Okowa hinted that his administration’s policy direction is to create an enabling environment for sports to thrive and give opportunity to the young ones to discover, nurture and develop their talents Beyond the sports infrastructure being put in place by the government, infrastructure development encompassed in the catch-them-young policy is compelling schools in Delta to have space to develop sports facilities as a prerequisite for licence to operate.
Okowa’s administration practically teed off its presence in the sports arena with the completion of the Stephen Keshi stadium, Asaba and consequently announced its arrival to the international sports community.
The completion of the stadium, which was hurried up to meet the deadline of the hosting rights of Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) African Senior Athletics Championship tagged Asaba 2018, immediately changed the landscape of Asaba, the state capital. In particular, the aerial view became a beauty and a delight to behold not just for residents but also for visitors, especially those flying in.
After the CAA, Okowa introduced the Delta State School Sports Festival which pitched budding sports talents from all the 25 local government areas in competitive events. Speaking during the closing ceremony on May 10, 2019 at the impressive Stephen Keshi Stadium Asaba, Okowa said the Delta State School Sports Festival would become an annual affair and an avenue to discover budding talents for local, national and international sports competition.
Students and pupils of different secondary and primary schools across the state competed for medals in different athletics events during the festival including track and field, including 100m and 200m races, high/long jump, short put, discuss and javelin. Among the indoor sport that featured are scrabble, chess, badminton, table tennis, volleyball, handball and basketball.
“It is well known that Delta State is a sports-loving state and its athletes did very well in feeding the teams of Mid-West and later Bendel State, before Edo and Delta states were created. What we are doing today is to replicate what we were doing in the past, in the days of old Bendel; and, we are excited to witness and participate in this sports festival, Okowa said.
Thus, it is not surprising that Delta State has in these five years attained such a lofty height in sports development. Under the National Youth Games, Delta State has consistently emerged tops in the medals table from the 2nd edition in 2016 to the 5th edition in 2019 when it held last.
In the last National Sports Festival (NSF) tagged Abuja 2018, Delta took first with 163 gold, 88 silver and 101 bronze with Rivers State coming a distance second with 69 gold, 58 silver and 67 bronze.
And Delta re-enacted the feat this year at the Edo 2021 festival with 158 gold, 116 silver and 110 bronze. Edo State came a distant second with 129 gold, 104 silver and 108 bronze. This exploit makes it Team Delta’s sixth consecutive NSF triumph. Even at the several championships, tournaments, trials, and competitions entered into by the state for different games, Delta has remained relevant and in the front bracket in the past six years. Ibori was the pacesetter in sports, Uduaghan built on it and Okowa took it a notch higher. Ogba who was a former boss of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) argued that presently, no state would be able to measure up to Delta in sports development.
“It is obvious the interest and commitment that the past governors have shown in sports, and this present governor has taken it to another level,” he stated.
After resoundingly winning Edo 2021 in Benin City, capital of Edo State earlier this year, Okowa offered to host the National Sports Festival in 2022 with a promise to host the ‘best ever’ sports festival that will remain memorable for Nigerians in many years to come.