- Nigeria must do more to protect its sporting and other heroes
A recent declaration by a powerlifting coach that he was desperately searching for a job because he did not wish to become a thief exposes the dilemma of a nation whose retired athletes rarely enjoy the post-career welfare taken for granted in other nations.
Sports professionals are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of indigence in old age. Although the financial rewards for sporting excellence are much better than they used to be, far too many athletes still do not pay enough attention to ensuring their financial well-being later in life. Nigeria’s stadiums and other sporting arenas are full of decrepit ex-athletes begging members of the public for money. The list of those who died in poverty despite their sporting prowess is a long one: Rashidi Yekini, Alloysius Atuegbu and Sam Ojebode are only some of the more prominent ones.
Many destitute former sports professionals often admit their own culpability in contributing to the situation in which they find themselves. They confess to extravagant lifestyles which they never thought would come to an end. They failed to prepare for life after sport by considering alternative careers from which to make a living. They assumed their popularity could always be turned into profit.
Such carelessness is worsened by the country’s own inability to care for its sporting heroes. Rewards promised to victorious athletes are sometimes not redeemed, as was the case with the Abuja homes promised to the victorious 1994 Super Eagles. Training grants meant to help prepare athletes for forthcoming competitions are not paid, delayed or not disbursed equitably. When athletes are injured, they are often left to their own devices.
When they retire, it becomes clear that they are entirely on their own. Athletes do not have government pension or healthcare plans. Those who wish to go into coaching usually finance their training themselves. Their accomplishments and fame, which could be useful in social mobilisation programmes, are almost never put to use. When they fall ill, their predicament is hardly publicised until they are virtually at death’s door, only for hypocritical praise to flow after they die.
The consequences of this lamentable situation are already becoming apparent. Many current athletes have developed a hard-headed attitude to national assignments, insisting on dollar payments for their participation, regardless of whether they win or lose. Their patriotic zeal on the field of play is often not as high as it should be. Those who are approached to fly the flags of other countries often accept such offers with alacrity.
Nigeria’s ex-athletes deserve better. They are the heroes of sporting narratives which have done more to bind the country together than any other aspect of national life. Their performances on the field of play are symbolic of the nation’s aspirations and sense of self; by extension, their suffering is similarly reflective of an uncaring country.
Pension schemes can be developed to cater specifically for athletes, enabling them to put away part of their earnings during their productive years so that they can be drawn upon when they are no longer active. Greater attention must be paid to training them for lives after sport, especially in the areas of coaching and physical education. All rewards promised to victorious athletes must be redeemed promptly.
Nigeria’s attitude to its ex-athletes is a reflection of its attitude to the citizenry. If it is to change for the better, it will have to reform its welfare system to ensure that it guarantees everyone a life of dignity long after their productive years have ended. In achieving this, the Federal Government should build upon the pioneering examples of states like Ekiti, and Lagos, where senior citizens are paid monthly stipends and offered free medical check-ups and treatment, respectively.