Athletes groan amidst fuel subsidy crisis

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Kazeem Busari

It is tedious preparing for major competitions and even more challenging for athletes to be at their best when preparing for the Olympics. But training for the fast-approaching London 2012 with substandard facilities and greatly hindered by the resultant effects of the removal of petrol subsidy by the Federal Government could mean unimaginable suffering for the athletes planning to represent Nigeria when the games begin in July.

As if it was not enough to be poorly rewarded after winning laurels for Nigeria at various international competitions, the athletes still have to experience extreme hardship and humiliation from the National Sports Commission even as they hope to self-finance themselves for minor competitions that will qualify them to feature at the Olympics.

It is commonplace to see athletes spending most of their time at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos preparing for competitions.

It was a different story for them all on Monday however when the organised labour began the strike to protest the removal of fuel subsidy. They met the stadium locked and had to train at the gates and on the Western Avenue.

Loveth Ekufu, the national women’s boxing champion in the 48-51kg category, just like many other athletes, is living her share of the hell created by the fuel subsidy crisis.

Ekufu, who is also a kickboxing champion, lives in Isolo, a suburb in Lagos, and will need approximately N450 to get to the National Stadium in Surulere for her training.

“It wasn’t like this before the increase in price of petrol. The removal of the subsidy has changed many things but that will not mean I have to quit training,” Ekufu said on Monday, the first day of the labour strike organised to protest the decision of the government.

Unfortunately for Loveth, like many other athletes, she was unaware the stadium would be under lock during the strike; at least, she expected the facilities to be available to athletes as they prepare for big events this year. The expression on her face when she demounted the commercial motorcycle that brought her to the stadium on Monday morning was a mixture of disbelief, anger and surprise. She had spent a sizeable amount on transport just to keep an appointment with her coach but the sight of the locked gates instantly damped her spirits, while the realisation that the strike would be on indefinitely scared her into believing she might not be ready for the national championship slated to hold later in January.

She said, “I wouldn’t have taken the okada if I had known the stadium would not be available. I’m only managing the little money I have on my training because nothing much comes out of the sport except the glory.

“I have the national championship to prepare for and also want to be part of the trials coming up in a couple of months. I need to win all these if I hope to win medals at the Olympics.”

Again, like many of the athletes stranded at the stadium gate, Ekufu had to return home mostly on foot. She added, “Besides the fact that I don’t have much money, there’s no bus to convey me back home. I’ll have to trek from Ojuelegba through Idi-Araba to Mushin. I’ll see if I can get transport from there on.”

Unlike Ekufu, some of the boxers at the stadium gates were lucky enough to have their coach with them. One of them, Abdulwasiu Opeloyeru, a middleweight boxer is aiming at winning his bouts at the championship. Like the rest of his teammates at the venue, he had to occupy himself with shadow boxing while some others shared the single skipping rope available at the time.

“I’ve never experienced this before: training outside the stadium with just a few days to a very important competition,” Opeloyeru said.

“How do we hope to be at our best when we don’t have the facilities to train? It’s not that the stadium has the best of equipment to train us but we feel safer training in the stadium because the environment is controlled and our coaches can easily assess our performances.

“As it is, we are very uncomfortable training outside the stadium premises during a civil unrest. The police patrol has passed twice and we’re not comfortable the way they kept pointing at us. They may come back and arrest us, thinking we are Area Boys. We’ve already agreed to leave here early.”

Those are not the only things bothering Opeloyeru. Transport fare and feeding are top of his problems as he admitted he and his colleagues now find it a bit more difficult to get to the stadium from their homes.

He added, “Sometimes we jog from Mushin while some others take buses from Oshodi to Mushin before finding other means to get to the stadium. We all can’t afford the new transport fares everyday. It’s even difficult to buy sachet water because it now sells for N10.”

His coach, a lanky 60-year old simply known as Baba Ibeji, understood the reasons for the strike but lamented its effect on the boxers.

“We can’t achieve much without our equipment. There should have been a notice that the stadium will not be opened today. It is the only safe place for our sport,” the coach said.

If the boxers are looking forward to going back to their gyms when the stadium opens after the strike, the track and field athletes will still have to wait a little longer.

The only conducive place for the athletes to train is inside the Main Bowl and they have to get the permission of the NSC before they can have access to it.

Last December, the athletes sent a written request to the NSC to use the stadium and they were granted access for three hours of two days in a week for just three weeks. That is 18 hours for them to use the stadium to prepare for the athletic season which begins in February. That expired last week so they have to make another request.

“As if that hardship is not enough, we have to experience this strike and face the high cost of living the subsidy removal has brought us,” Joy Davies, a national women’s race walk champion said.

“Unlike some of the athletes who need the Main Bowl for their events, I only need the elevated walkways to work on my muscles. I can do that on the stadium bridge or the Ojuelegba bridge but I may likely not get the desired result because the gradients are not the same as what I will get in the stadium.

“I happen to be one of the lucky few that live in Surulere, so I don’t need to take a bus to get to the stadium. I hope the strike will not extend to a period that will adversely affect our programmes for the Olympics.”

Her training partner and reigning national race walk champion, Kazeem Adeyemi, shared a similar view when he said training on the streets would not help him be at his best for the competitions ahead.

He said, “The stadium is part of our success and the lack of it will definitely affect our performances. I was surprised it was locked when they know we need it to prepare for major events. In the meantime, we will continue to use the streets to train for the international competitions we’re preparing for.”

One of the stadium gatemen who preferred anonymity said they got the directive to lock everyone out on Saturday. He said most of the athletes training at the stadium were aware the facilities would not be available for use during the strike but came all the same, hoping to get special recognition or “VIP treatment” at the gates.

The national championships that will lead to trials and selections are expected to hold in January and February. The London 2012 Olympics begins in July.


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