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Some athletes believe that Nigeria is not worth dying for

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    A nation that fails to recognise and honour the labour of her heroes past stands to lose the vital link to a progressive future.

    This is the unanimous view of some retired and active special athletes, including Paralympic Games medalists, who have voiced their annoyance at being neglected and treated poorly by successive governments despite winning more laurels and outclassing their able bodied counterparts at major continental and global championships.

    For years, these para-athletes have shown exceptional resilience, determination and skill on both national and international stages, yet, they find themselves battling not only their disabilities, but survival.

    Even though the Paralympic Games began in Rome, Italy in 1960, Nigeria debuted at the Games in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain with six male athletes competing in tract and field, powerlifting and table tennis.

    It was a highly successful first shot at the Games, with sprinter Adeoye Ajibola breaking the world records in both the 100m and 200m to win gold in both events.

    Ever since, Nigeria has participated in every subsequent editions (eight) of the Paralympics, winning a combined 40 gold, 19 silver and 21 bronze medals, for a total of 80 medals at the global sports showpiece.

    In comparison, their able bodied counterparts, who started competing at the Olympic Games in 1952 and have appeared at 17 editions, have an abysmal three gold, 11 silver and 13 bronze, for a total of 27 medals to their name.

    However, the way the first Paralympian who won a medal for the country, Ajibola, who died an unsung hero in 2011, summarises the plight of the Nigerian special athlete.

    Ajibola, who successfully defended his 100m and 200m titles at Atlanta 1996, adding a silver in the long jump, died after a protracted undisclosed ailment and was buried without fanfare, with no single official of the sports ministry in attendance.

    “I’m really sad that the government neglected my husband when we needed help to save his life. Ajibola, with his disability, brought honour to this country in international competitions and now he has gone and nobody is saying anything,” she lamented.

    As Nigeria celebrates her 63rd Independence anniversary on Sunday (today), some of the athletes, who spoke to SUNDAY PUNCH, said the country was not worth dying for.

    Nigeria wheelchair tennis star, Foluke Shittu, who is currently ranked No.58 in the world, believes para-athletes welfare has never been a priority in the country.

    France-based Shittu told SUNDAY PUNCH, “Nigeria is not worth dying for because they do not take care of their athletes.

    “In Europe, physically challenged athletes are well taken care of and that is why you always see them excel and most Nigerians are desperate to switch nationality.

    “Their government provides them with the necessary support to compete well and live fine. Unlike in Nigeria, a physically challenged athlete in Europe gets monthly allowances.”

    Shittu partnered Kafayat Omisore to defeat Tanzania’s duo Lucy Shirima and Rehema Selemani 2-0 (7-5, 6-4) to win bronze at the recent 2023 Africa Para Games in Accra, Ghana.

    “They are just killing our sports and they know we don’t have another occupation. When we excel and qualify for championships, they complain that there’s no money to fund our trip and that is why I’m trying my best to see how I can help myself in a way to qualify for the Paralympics in France,” Shittu added.

    Paralympian and two-time world record holder, Lauretta Onye, decried the lack of recognition of para-athletes by successive governments.

    “I don’t want to talk about this country’s Independence celebration,” Onye angrily responded, when our correspondent called her on the phone.

    “What is there to be said about a country that does not recognise athletes, who against the odds, win titles, set new records at major events and not get the desired recognition by their fatherland.

    “We see how the country’s football teams are always heralded and rewarded when they return from tournaments they didn’t make the podium nor even win it. There’s really nothing to say about this country.”

    Onye won gold in the shot put T40 event at the 2016 Rio Olympics and prior to that she won the only gold medal for the country at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee World Para-athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar.

    “Nigeria is not fair to her para-athletes,” Onye added.

    “There’s no financial input from anywhere. The governments don’t even know whether we are living or not. Meanwhile, we (para-athletes) have brought honour to this country. It’s not fair. Some of us are even dead because of the hardships. We are being treated like unwanted citizens.”

    Para-powerlifter, Latifat Tijani, echoed Onye’s point, highlighting the disparity in treatment between para-athletes and their abled bodied counterparts.

    The absence of consistent financial support and reward means they often struggle to make ends meet, she said.

    Tijani won gold in the women’s – 45kg event at the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, Congo as well as silver in the women’s – 45kg event at the 2016 Summer Paralympics, where she lifted 106kg.

    “We are not treated like other able bodied athletes. It is only after the Commonwealth Games in 2022 that former President Muhammadu Buhari rewarded those of us that participated, apart from that, there is nothing.

    “As national athletes, we are supposed to get something from the government every month for our survival. But once we are not going to major competitions, there is always no money, nothing to maintain ourselves and feed our families, there is nothing until we qualify for championships.”

    On numerous occasions, the athletes have staged protests to voice their displeasure over unfair treatment by the authorities.

    Last October, police reportedly tear-gassed protesting special sports athletes in Lagos in an attempt to disperse them after they blocked the entrance to the National Stadium, Surulere, thus causing heavy gridlock and forcing many commuters to abandon their vehicles and take to trekking to beat the traffic.

    The protesters aired their displeasure over the removal of some of their events from the 2022 National Sports Festival.

    Police spokesman in Lagos, Benjamin Hundeyin, in a tweet, said “minimal force” was used on the protesters after they “refused to leave the highway.”

    “A group of people were dispersed with minimal force, as prescribed by law, after they refused all persuasion to leave the highway for free flow of traffic.

    “Many Nigerians had complained of being illegally restrained in traffic. We rose to the occasion. No assault, injury or death,” he stated.

    But Oluwakemi Yekini, one of the protesting athletes, a wheel-chair tennis and basketball player said policemen from Area C in Lagos fired tear gas and pounced on them during the protest.

    “I am one of those who got injured because policemen fired tear gas at us,” she said. “It was the Lagos State commission that took us to the hospital but the treatment was not good enough. I will go home to treat myself.”

    Same day in Benin City, the Edo State capital, deaf sports athletes, led by coach Sunny Aimufua, staged another protest march to the Nigerian Union of Journalists complex, faulting the ministry’s decision to make deaf sports optional, as against the permanent status it enjoyed before now.

    The athletes stormed the secretariat of the NUJ in their numbers, carrying placards with different inscriptions, including “The deaf are human beings, so treat us as one”, “Deaf and hearing people are one”, “No more depriving the deaf of their rights” and “Minister of Sports should please come to our rescue.”

    Also in Benin in March 2022, Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki sacked 513 members of staff of the state’s sports commission, including athletes with disabilities.

    The action sparked a protest, with the workers affected blocking roads leading to the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium.

    One of the protesters, and former world powerlifting champion turned coach, Patience Igbiti, said, “I have been here for over 20 years as a permanent staff member and all of a sudden, you disengaged me. I have rejected jobs abroad to train people for my state. Where do you now want me to start from?

    “The governor has not done well and this is not the right way to do this. We have people who are retiring soon, and you sacked them. I am an international figure and I am a breadwinner, do you want me to go to Ring Road and beg for alms? God forbid!”

    In April 2019, over 50 physically challenged athletes in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, staged a peaceful protest over their inability to participate in the South-East Para-Athletic Games in Enugu.

    The athletes alleged that the Ebonyi State Sports Council denied them the opportunity to take part in the competition after training for 20 days at the Pa Ngele Oruta Township Stadium, Abakaliki, in preparation for the event.

    But pleas for a better welfare package seems to have fallen on deaf ears over the years.

    Tijani, a gold medallist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, urged President Bola Tinubu to make provisions for the special athletes, comparing their situation in Nigeria with that of  para-athletes abroad, who are valued by their governments.

    “I implore those in charge to remember para-athletes, special people in Nigeria, that they should make provisions for us, so that when there is no more power to continue with sports, we will have something that we can use to maintain our lives, because in today’s Nigeria, para-athletes are suffering. We are not living well at all.

    “We’ve visited other countries and we see how they treat their special athletes. If you see them, everything is perfect. Every month, they get allowances, they get provisions for their houses, they are living fine and they still go for other paid jobs, but in Nigeria, there is nothing done, there is no provision for special athletes, we are suffering here.”

    Three-time gold medallist at the World Para Powerlifting Championships in the women’s 86kg, Folashade Oluwafemiayo, says the government must improve on the welfare of its para-athletes.

    “I think they are trying but they can do more, what we just plead for is that whenever we have any championships or qualifiers, they should assist us to get there because without these qualifiers, there is no way we can achieve what they expect from us,” she told Sunday PUNCH.

    As Nigeria turns another page in its storied history, the message from these special heroes is clear – remember us.

    “Let our labour, struggles and triumphs never be in vain,” Tijani stated.


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