The reactions of Nigerians to our country’s dismal performance at the just concluded Olympics have been instructive. Nigeria has no medal to its name. Blessing Okagbare valiantly reached the women’s 100 meters final but placed eighth. The U.S. Dream Team beat Nigeria 156 – 73, the highest ever margin of defeat in Olympic basketball history. Many Nigerians have been caustic about our athletes’ performances perhaps because they had hoped for a sporting triumph abroad to punctuate the seemingly interminable cycle of dreary news back home. Yet, both the Nigerian showing and the domestic reaction reveal widely varying attitudes and beliefs about success.
For successful countries, success is a science – an outcome empirically determined by rational systems and structures based on the consistent application of effort and resources and the cultivation of habits of excellence. For unsuccessful countries, success is a miracle – a stroke of outrageous fortune; a whimsical gift from capricious deities; in short, an act of God. To this mindset, success can be no more predetermined than an earthquake can be choreographed. Excellence is a magical occurrence originating not from human exertion but from the realm of the unknown. This outlook explains why our sports teams customarily show up at international tournaments ill-prepared, banking on talent and prayer to clinch victory, only to be duly mauled by better organized teams.
Spain’s dominance of international football since 2008, to Nigerian eyes, is down to exceptional luck and a fortuitous surfeit of talent. We forget that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Spain was a perennial underachiever. We forget that Nigeria beat Spain in the France 1998 World Cup. A comparative study of Spain’s recovery from that low point and the decline of Nigerian football from that moment will yield empirical data that explains Spanish supremacy and Nigerian decline. Success is the product of systems established to operate a culture of excellence. The Olympic medals table is an index of long term strategic preparation, discipline, research, constantly refined techniques and tactics, enacted on a systemic and institutional scale.
We have built no structures to entrench excellence but we demand results that are completely at variance with our investments. The more our athletes flounder, the more obdurate we are in our belief that we are entitled to success and the more biting our critiques of their failures to meet our utterly unrealistic expectations. In truth, our athletes deserve commendation for even reaching the Olympics – a feat achieved largely on the strength of their own individual efforts with minimal or negligible institutional support. Indeed, a Nigerian medal would only have been a deserved crown for the individual athlete’s hard work not an achievement to be claimed as a national triumph because it would not have been the product of any intentional systemic effort.
As our society has grown more individualistic, we have come to see success as the product of individual talent and effort alone. But the sheer precociousness of gifted individuals is not enough. Many prodigies are roaming the streets, denied the space for self-actualization. It takes institutions to create spaces for their prodigious gifts to bloom. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are supremely talented athletes and their personal exertions have surely been justly rewarded. But they are also symbols of systems that work. They are examples of success by design just as Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Yusuf Alli and Falilat Ogunkoya represent an earlier epoch when structures existed that, at least, made Nigeria competitive. That epoch also produced the Super Eagles that won the African Cup of Nations in 1994, stormed sensationally into the second round of its World Cup debut that year and won Olympic soccer gold in Atlanta ‘96.
Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta may be superbly gifted individuals but they represent the cultural excellence of La Masia, Barcelona’s highly-rated youth academy. England is launching an U-21 youth league because it has realized that good old English grit and “getting stuck in” are not enough. If she is to truly compete with powerhouses like Spain, Germany and Brazil, then young British footballers have to become technically savvy and tactically aware. This action shows both the humility to recognize the footballing weaknesses of the “home of football” as well as the intelligence to mount an institutional response. A decade from now, when a generation of technically astute English players emerges, it will not be a product of fortunate happenstance but of strategic preparedness.
In Nigeria, a culture of planning and strategy is often seen as tantamount to playing God. But surely, the real folly is arrogantly presuming the certainty of a miracle to compensate for our habitual negligence, when God is certainly not a Nigerian. Our conception of success carries inevitable implications for public life and politics. We persist in looking for messianic figures to perform miracles in spite of the dysfunctional environment while resisting the need to actually challenge the dysfunction itself. We erroneously focus on stumbling upon exceptional individuals rather than building sustainable institutions. To be sure, exceptional individuals exist but they are rare. This is why they are exceptions by definition. The specific historical factors that throw up a Nelson Mandela or a Lee Kwan Yew cannot be simulated. Institutions are the golden mean between the undistinguished normality of the masses and the extraordinary gifts of exceptional geniuses. They enable societies to function admirably even when they are not led by political prodigies.
Miracles are permissible metaphors in personal narratives but they are unknown in nation-building and development. There was nothing at all miraculous about the so-called Asian Miracle. Asian nations simply married Confucian rigour with western modernity. China’s ascent is the most compelling example of this dynamic. Just as the rise of nations is traceable to institutional and cultural engineering, so too is our decline rooted in the decay of our systems and values. The youth sports federations that oversaw the sporting successes of yore have withered away from lack of funding, corruption and inertia. The inter-school sports contests which nurtured athletes have disappeared replaced by the heroic but sporadic efforts of a few corporations and individuals to sustain sports.
But how much can we really extrapolate from a poor Olympic showing which, let’s face it, has become customary anyway? Nigeria’s youth bulge carries both the potential for powering a developmental leap forward as well as the peril of delinquency, crime and conflict in the face of severely constricted economic opportunities. Sports harnesses youthful exuberance and energies and can provide youths with gainful employment, while enabling them to bring honour to themselves and their country.
Secondly, in the 21st century, nationalistic belligerence has been replaced by sporting nationalisms. Countries send their gladiators to duel in the sports arena rather than the battlefield. Victory boosts national pride and provides a feel-good factor, the sense of creative optimism societies need to grapple with the future. A vestige of the prehistoric tribal instinct requires the reality or fiction of an external adversary against which nations measure themselves and strive for excellence. The great sporting rivalries between nations derive from this. Just as Olympics medals tables of the Cold War era reflected the great power rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, and between Western Europe and the Eastern bloc, recent tables reflect the emergent Sino-American polarity. Nigeria’s decline in sports and other areas is perhaps also down to the fact that despite our size and natural wealth, we have no conception of strategic rivals or adversaries. It is also conceivable that investing in sports and creating theatres of athletic competition will help defuse the aggressive micronationalisms and militant religiousities captivating youths across Nigeria. Sports show us that the natural competitive instinct that undergirds civilization need not be lethal.
(All Images sourced from Google Images)