Much like the National Youth Service Corps and other programmes introduced after the Nigerian Civil War, the National Sports Festival was created in 1973 to advance the post-Civil War principle of “no victor, no vanquished” embedded in the 3Rs – Reintegration, Reconstruction and Reconciliation.
Also known as the Unity Games, the National Sports Festival is a biennial multi-sport event organised by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the Ministry of Sports for athletes from the 36 states of the federation. Its first edition was staged in 1973 at the National Stadium, Surulere in Lagos. Apart from being conceived as a unifying tool with the main purpose of promoting peace and cross-cultural affiliation in Nigeria after the war, the festival also serves as a development and training event to aid athletes in preparing for continental and international tournaments.
The NSF has several objectives, including building a robust talent pool of athletes; enhancing and elevating sports at the grassroots level; establishing a standard programme for athletes’ succession; curbing age cheating in sports; encouraging early participation in sports; engaging young athletes in the Olympic Movement, skill development and social responsibility; enhancing cultural and educational development; and promoting national unity.
For many years, the NSF has presented host states with an opportunity to showcase their rich sporting and cultural prowess, as well as serve as a talent pool for the country at large. However, the festival has not been without its challenges since it started in 1973. Let’s spare ourselves the post-1999 setbacks that confronted the NSF and briefly talk about the status of the festival since democracy was restored on May 29, 1999.
Since then, 10 NSFs have been staged. Bauchi hosted the 2000 edition, followed by Edo in 2002 and Abuja in 2004. Ogun State hosted the Gateway Games 17 years ago in 2006, while the next edition in Kaduna was delayed by a year and hosted in 2009. Rivers hosted the nest NSF in 2011 and in 2012, Lagos hosted the festival to return it to its original calendar. Cross River, which was supposed to host the centenary edition of the festival failed to do so. The game suffered postponement for six years before in 2018 the then Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, fought for its return by hosting it in Abuja in 2018. After COVID-related disruption saw another postponement, Edo hosted the NSF in 2021. In 2022, Delta State hosted the most recent edition.
It was at the 2022 edition that Ogun was granted the hosting rights for the 22nd edition of the games in 2024. Mr Sunday Dare, the then Minister of Youth and Sports Development, announced Ogun as the next host in Asaba during the closing ceremony of the 21st NSF on December 10, 2022. The minister said five states put in the bid to host the 2024 edition of the sporting festival.
As soon as news broke out that the Gateway State was going to host the next edition of the NSF, sports enthusiasts were engulfed in nostalgia, excitement and anticipation, following the state’s showing when it first hosted the games in 2006. The Gateway Games 17 years ago was considered the best in the history of the NSF staged during the administration of Otunba Gbenga Daniel.
Curiously, Bukola Olopade, who was Sports Commissioner when the festival was hosted, has been poached by Governor Dapo Abiodun as the Chairman of the Local Organising Committee (LOC). While inaugurating the 16-man LOC for the 22nd National Sports Festival, the governor noted that the state was more than prepared to surpass previous editions and the achievements recorded during the last festival held by the state in 2006. He also promised to continue to put in place world-class sporting infrastructure across the state.
“We are determined to put in place world-class sporting infrastructures across the length and breadth of the state, thus underscoring our determination to ensure that we host a very befitting sports festival to the admiration of all stakeholders in the sector and around the world. For us in Ogun State, this festival isn’t just about the competition and performances, even though we would love to host and win every medal. We want to host a National Sports Festival that will showcase the talent, our culture and potential of our great state as well as a very unique sense of hospitality of our people,” Prince Abiodun said.
Olopade made a cogent observation at the inauguration which should thrill all who are expecting what Ogun has to display in 2024. He commended Prince Abiodun for being the first governor in the country to ensure that all athletes at the last National Sports Festival in Delta State went home with cash rewards irrespective of winning or losing.
“You have achieved two seconds to none already when our athletes came back from Delta State and you announced the reward to the athletes. I know I speak authoritatively when I say that has not happened before in this country where every participating athlete got something to take home even though they didn’t come back home with medals. It has never happened before. The second thing you’ve achieved is to put together, your Excellency, the aficionados of sports today in Nigeria, the gentlemen and women that are assembled here before you today are the best brains and minds in sports today in Nigeria,” Olopade said.
At the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, the governor assured of the state’s readiness to host a world-class National Sports Festival. “I want to assure you that we will live up to expectations as reflected in the MoU. I can assure you that we will not disappoint you. I want to assure you that, like you have said to me the one in Edo was a very good showing, the one in Delta was better than the one in Edo, and the one in Ogun will be the best,” the governor promised.
At a recent event, Prince Abiodun reiterated that commitment, saying Ogun is poised to host the most spectacular national Sports festival in history and that massive investment in critical infrastructure is underway to ensure that the 2006 edition, which already has the reputation of being a reference point, is surpassed in 2024.
That commitment was echoed by Olopade recently, when he said, “In 2006, we hosted a festival that was celebrated as one of the best in the country. Next year, we are bringing to Nigerians an entirely different National Sports Festival. We are very grateful to our Governor for me and other members of the LOC the free hand to go about our duties. Governor Abiodun is a sports lover, and it matters a lot in staging an event of this magnitude. I assure him and the people of Ogun State that the LOC won’t disappoint.”
Come 2024, sports enthusiasts and participants at the NSF in Ogun are guaranteed to be awed by the developmental strides recorded by Prince Abiodun within the past four years. Those who experienced the Gateway Games in 2006 – believed to be the best – should be prepared to witness an upgrade to that, and the reason why Ogun is regarded as the Gateway State
*Somorin, immediate past chief press secretary, Ogun State, writes from Abeokuta.