By Fred Edoreh
Sports has many dimensions. It is medicine. It is competition for pride. It is profession/career. It is entertainment/tourism. It is business.
In Nigeria, we apparently have focused mostly on sports as competition, raising athletes to attend local and international competitions, celebrating victories and lamenting defeats. Event at that, we have failed to build considerable platforms for athletes to attain meaningfully paying careers in the domestic scene as we have in other climes, for, really, there are not many Nigerian sports men and women achieving wholesome livelihood through sports.
But, by far the most important offering of sports is in its medicinal value. Even as leisure, sports has the efficacy to enhance the health of the individual and the collective public, as it recreates the human body for physical and mental wellness. It is therefore highly recommended for the cleaning up and strengthening of muscles and vital organs as part check for HBP, diabetes, stroke, heart conditions, obesity, depression and such other killer conditions which are on the increase these days.
Ironically, especially in the cities, citizens lack access to sports facilities, thus consigning majority to sedentary living in addition to the stress of hectic daily hustles.
It was not for nothing that sports and education were built together into schools. Just as important as the classrooms, dormitories, libraries and laboratories, so are the sports fields and equipments provided to engage children for their physical and mental development, and good health. If students grow from there to develop into great sportsmen, it is just a bonus, for, indeed, the schools are most primarily established to raise professionals for various fields of life. Sports is also adopted in the military for which sound health is very critical.
In times past, kids still had playgrounds in the neighbourhoods to run around a bit and play a few games after school. Not any more.
Sadly today, both in public and private schools, we are witnessing a separation of sports from education. The proliferation of private schools is such that many cannot even provide space for a table tennis board. Children go through schools without sports facilities, return to neighborhoods without sports facilities and get locked up in burglary-proofed homes to repeat the same inactive circle of living every day. They thus grow up completely denied of access to sports both at school and at home.
This situation partly accounts for Nigeria’s declining competitiveness and performance in sports, for how can we really catch them young and nurture them into champions if we don’t give them access from young?
Just as the kids, so also are their parents, adults and families suffering deprivation of access to sports facilities and the benefit of good health through active living.
Studies indicate that life expectancy averaged at 55 years, adult mortality rate increased from 25.54 in 1970 to 31.83 deaths per 100 population in 2015. More recent surveys suggest that life expectancy is worsening to about 53 years while mortality rate has upped to about 35 to 100.
Public fear about this trend has raised consciousness for active sports with the emergence of keep fit clubs, joggers and aerobic groups, but that seems to be for the fairly well-to-do in view of the cost of getting engaged.
With no facilities in the neighbourhoods and concerns about safety on congested streets, it takes quite a journey and cost to reach the few meaningful sports centres far flung in the city. A return journey could be between N200 to N500. For a family of six, that would be between N1,200 and N3,000 per trip – this in a nation still struggling to move monthly minimum wage from N18,000 to N30,000 which translates to N1,000 per day per family and less than N50 per meal per person. This effectively takes sports and its health benefits away from the poor and lower middle class who are in the majority.
To develop their children, some parents recourse to sports academies, but these, too, charge money which not many can afford. That also means that majority of our children cannot enjoy the opportunity of talent discovery and development towards possibly attaining careers in sports.
The argument has been that being water-locked and coupled with population explosion, congestion and the need to support businesses to provide jobs, there is not sufficient land space to establish sports centres in neighbourhoods.
It is also argued, truly, that land and housing are expensive and therefore too much burden for schools to provide playgrounds and sports facilities, and for the government to enforce a legislation on this as has been done in the UK and now also being addressed in Delta State.
But the point is, if sports is essential for the physical and mental growth of children, meaning it should be part of the process of their upbringing, then why grow them through schools without sports? For what is the point in growing them incompletely?
Similarly, if we agree that health is wealth and that sports is medicine, why are we overlooking the need to invest our asset to provide the freest, simplest and easiest form of improving primary individual and public health for our population? What is the sense in saving the lands and assets for businesses and housing for a people whose life is attended by increasing disease and declining life expectancy?
As we aspire towards a mega city, it is okay to build bridges, roads, estates and other infrastructure, but we also must accept that the multi layers of pressure in a congested city is suffocating and take toll on the health and life of the residents. We seriously need to provide platforms for the public to relieve the stress and tone down. For what is the point in hustling for a living when the people cannot live healthily?
Do we think it is for mere beauty that the advanced cities provide green parks and sports centres in neighbourhoods? They appreciate that public access to sports facilities inspires a more active lifestyle which will foster a healthy population and in turn reduce public and individual families expenditure on health.
One fright for many Nigerian families is the cost of medical service for disease-struck members. Indeed, we are currently witnessing a rise in foreign medical tourism – to London, India, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and other places – with its attendant pressure on incomes of families persistently groaning under economic difficulties. Quite apart from setting up standard hospitals, we can reduce the incidence of these through mass engagement in sports.
On another dimension, it is mere waste of time for us to be talking about sports as business when the populace lack access to facilities. Sports tourism can only thrive first from local patronage and that can only be boosted if the populace is mobilised into a robust sports culture. But how do you mobilise society into a sporting culture when the citizens really do not have access to live sportily?
Suffice to say that mass active participation in sports is the requisite substructure for the development of sports business. Put another way, the sports industry can never grow if the populace are alienated from sports.
So, we had the privilege of raising these concerns with Mr Babajide Sanwo Olu, the Lagos gubernatorial candidate of the APC, at an interactive session with the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, Lagos chapter, and, very interestingly, he demonstrated clear understanding of the issues and its connections with health and life.
Arising from the meeting, he committed to navigating Lagos out of this suicidal existence. I saw from his animation and the energy he invested in the discourse that he wasn’t just talking politics.
While he lamented the erosion of neighbourhood sports centres through conversion into estates and businesses, the lack of will to ensure that schools properly incorporate sports in their establishment for the benefit of our children and the negligence of new town planners and property developers to provide for recreation, he recognised that cities are subject to urban renewal from time to time in response to emerging critical challenges and assured that he will lead this renewal in Lagos.
Access to sports facilities is not about gigantic stadiums. It is about simple spaces in the inner cities for people to sweat out. A single- ring basketball court, a badminton court, a volleyball court, a squash court, a tennis court, a 30 meters swimming pool, all of which do not require massive expanses of land, distributed through various inner streets and neighbourhoods, can change the lifestyle of the people to improve their health and life expectancy.
In as many streets, government can buy back empty lands and up-for-sale properties for this purpose. Sports facilities in schools with space can also be improved with regulated access provided for the public. Government properties not in optimum use can also be converted. To make the most of it, Sanwo has also suggested that we can as well do with a lot of indoor halls which can host multiple sports.
An urban renewal programme for Increased access to sports will impact on public health, happy living, interactions for friendship and community bonding for social unity. It will provide for schools without sports facilities in the inner streets and enhance talent discovery among young persons, just as the construction as well as the running and maintenance of the facilities will create enduring jobs.
When these facilities spring up in various neighbourhoods, we can expect a reduction in the rate of young persons hanging out by the street corners to “shepe” and do drugs, because they would have discovered and found access to more pleasurable engagements and we would be achieving physically healthier and mentally sounder youth population.
Funding? When there is a will, there is a way. From our interaction, I strongly believe that Sanwo Olu understands the critical life-enhancing necessity and urgency of this need to proceed to declare a programme for urban renewal. That done and articulately resounded, I am positive that we can mobilise the buy in of the corporate community, with added government incentives and communication benefits, to pool the funds as a matter of responsibility towards the good living of the population and customer base that sustain their businesses.
As a sports journalist, two time secretary, two time chairman of Lagos SWAN and, if you like, an “omo Igbo” and bonafide stakeholder in Lagos sports, I cannot wait to see this renewal begin to happen.