National Youth Games: As stakeholders escalate call to curb age-cheat…

Unarguably, the 7th edition of the National Youth Games (NYG) hosted by Delta State, would have been the best, since the multi-sport fiesta, which was first held in 2013 in Abuja, the nation’s capital.

Sadly, the games held between September 20 and 30, was challenged by the twin and related menace of age falsification and age-cheating.

The presence of the twin anomaly that had also characterised all previous editions of the games, rared its ugly head in Asaba, despite plans made by the Sports Ministry, to arrest the scourge with the use of National Identification Number (NIN) in screening the athletes, and ensuring that only those that are ages 15 and under, are permitted to compete at the games, fashioned after the Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG) and Youth Olympics.

Regrettably, the screening of athletes presented by the 36 states and FCT contingents that were in Asaba (only Zamfara State was absent); started with the use of the NIN, but eventually got rowdy and the administrative document had to be set aside, for what the organisers called facial screening.

This in itself was also not fool-proof and steered a lot of controversy; but eventually the games held.

Speaking at the opening ceremony the current Minister of Sports, Senator John Owan Ehoh, tasked stakeholders in the nation’s sports sector, especially those in-charge of the National Youth Games (NYG) to find lasting and administrative solutions to the recurring cases of age cheating in sports.

He noted that the menace of age-cheating is often fueled by the reprehensible urge to win at all cost; and submitted that at this age, merely exposing the youngsters to sports and national competitions like the youth games, should be the goal and not the quest to win Silverware by hook or crook.

One of the Stakeholders who has spoken eloquently in support of the call by the honourable minister of Sports, is Mr. Ernest Osogbue, the spokesperson of the ClIMM Foundation – organisers of an annual Under-16 Athletics Championships, in South Eastern Nigeria.

The rallying call by Mr. Osogbue was one of the numerous spontaneous similar advocacy trailing the
charge by Senator Ehoh asking stakeholders to find administrative solutions to the scourge of age-cheating, in the nation’s sports.

Describing age-cheating, as an ill-wind that must be stopped, Senator Enoh noted that doing so successfully is a panacea to Nigeria’s sporting greatness; and the maximising of her potential as a country endowed with lots of young sporting talents, full of athleticism.

Declaring open the 7th NYG, Senator Enoh insisted that stakeholders involved with the organisation of the youth games, should take up the responsibility of enunciating foolproof solutions, that will curb or put to rest the hydra-headed monster called age-cheating.

The NYG was inaugurated in 2013, by the Director General of the now defunct National Sports Commission (NSC), Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi. The NYG was enunciated and inaugurated as a veritable programme to help in the discovery of talented young athletes, who are to be nurtured to maturity as elite athletes, that would easily replace the nation’s tiring or aging sports men and women, seemlesly.

The very first edition hosted by the Federal Government, was held in Abuja and won by Team Cross River; and the five subsequent editions that followed were hosted by the University of Ilorin, in the Kwara State capital.

But in all of these fiestas, the unsavory tale of many states fielding athletes older than the stipulated age limit, had been a recurring decimal; which often tainted the sporting integrity of each of the previous six editions – 2013 – 2021.

For the Youth Games to attain its well thought-out goals by the founders; participation was pegged at ages 15 years and under. And before Asaba 2023, screening of the athletes were randomly done, not streamlined, and often chaotic. So, many were bracing up to witness a breakaway from the old order, in Asaba. Sadly, new measures anchored on the use of the NIN, which was thought to be the cul-de-sac of the palaver, also failed to sanitize the system.

It’s worthy of note that some coaches and senior officials of the various Sports Councils in the states and the FCT, have been found to be complicit in escalating or perpetuating this anomaly, and their only goal has been to gain undue advantage (s) in their unethical quest to have their wards win silverware that could as well impress their employees and earn them one benefit or the other.

It’s therefore noteworthy that there are those who have spoken in support of the Sports Minister, by advocating that the rules of the games, as it relates to the eligibility of athletes be strictly streamlined, and enforced to the later.

Head of the Edo State contingent to the fiesta in Asaba, Yusuf Alli and the commissioner for Youth and Sports in Bayelsa State, Hon. Daniel Igali; both spoke glowingly on the issue and insisted that there is no justification for anyone to breach the rules, regarding the age limit for athletes.

The two Olympians, also insists that “at this age, participation and early exposure should be the watchward, and it’s uncharitable to put the kids under any form of pressure, [especially] to win medals”.

While Yusuf Alli, a former African record holder in men’s long jump canvassed that there is more to exposing youngsters to such competitive games, other than winning by dubious means; Hon. Igali, a former world and Olympics wrestling champion for Canada, dwelled on how sports can help mould the character and conduct of youths; when thought life skills and self-discipline.

Igali, who is at present the President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation (NWF) also advocated that to reduce the diliquence amongst youths, that’s now bedeviling Nigeria, each of the 36 state governments and the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) should budget and spend at least one million Naira yearly, on each child involved in sports.

Fielding questions on the same issue, a veteran sportscaster Mr. Osogbue frowned seriously at the unabating menace of age falsification and age cheating, but was quick to point out that the challenge has been more prevalent with independent and state owned athletes, at government sponsored events.

Mr. Osogbue, who worked with the Sport Sub-directorate of Radio Nigeria, and has in the last three years or so, functioned as the Media Coordinator of the CLIMM Foundation, also gave an insight as to how the matter has been reasonably tackled by private sector driven organizers, like his.

“Most of our competitors are in groups of either clubs or schools. So they mostly know themselves, but should there be reasons to doubt the age of an athlete, the organizers undertook vigorous verification processes to prove or disprove such claims. This is done through the presentation of birth certificates and other relevant documents before such an athlete is cleared to compete”; he posited.

Even at that, Mr. Osogbue does not believe that the measures are foolproof; but he thinks they are doing their best, and what the organizers he works with (CLIMM Foundation)
ultimately want is to revive track and field, first in the South East; then see how that could be escalated to other parts of the country.

He explained that CLIMM stands for the initials of the first names of the five former Team Nigeria athletes, that are all based abroad;
Clement Chukwu,
Lee Okoroafor,
Innocent Iheme,
Mba Uduma and
Mike Ukaha. And through the foundation, they have been giving back to the Society.

According to him Plateau State, and subsequently Ondo State had at different times sent their teams to the last two editions, and the organizers are hoping that other states would follow their lead and be a part of the fourth edition scheduled for October 12-15, 2023 in Umuahia, and subsequent editions.

He also concoured to the point of view, expressed by Yusuf Ali, that in not too distant future, athletes discovered at the NYG and private initiatives like the CLIMM sponsored meet will begin to make their mark, by representing their respective states, and the nation at large, in continental and global championships.

While the private-sector driven CLIMM Foundation Athletics organizers; the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) already had a functional template regarding the crusade against age-cheating; it is safe for one to at this juncture, say the call by the Sports Minister is being heeded.

It’s on record that many track and field athletes caught in the web of those trying to perpetuate age-cheating in Asaba; were promptly disqualified from taking further part in the 2023 NYG which ended in Asaba on Saturday.

One of such athlete, named Orisunayo (other names withheld) is from Ogun State, and his participation or attempted participation caused a furore. Orisunayo had participated in the 2021 games, and claimed to have been born in 2008, but in Asaba he put his date of birth at 2009. The AFN said after investigating the case, it was discovered that the boy was not eligible to take part.

AFN Technical Director Samuel Onikeku added that;
“Orisunayo along with many others found to be above the permissible age limit, have been disqualified from the competition”.

Mr. Osogbue noted that the timely, decisive and in-perfect intervention, by no other person than the AFN head of technical matters, is remarkable and highly commendable; and worthy of emulation by other sports organizers and federations. But he also noted that such wouldn’t have been possible, if the athletics federation did not have a functional data bank, with which it processed or carried out the investigation.

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