Edo State government’s bid to host the 20th National Sports Festival last year was successful and the relevant organs and agencies started work in earnest. Unfortunately, when it was about a week to “EDO2020” as it was then known, the Festival was postponed due to the first wave of the ravaging Covid-19 disease.
Covid-19 spoilt the fun for the entire sporting community including government officials and potential sponsors. This is what the global pandemic has been doing around the world, wrecking untold havoc and inflicting pains and untimely deaths. No doubt, Covid-19 is a grim reaper and the world has been on tenterhooks since the World Health Organisation declared the disease a global pandemic on March 11 last year.
Every major event including the Summer Olympics that was supposed to hold in Tokyo, Japan, last year was postponed. Football matches no longer deliver the experience we are used to because the fans are absent at the stands; this is our new normal and everyone is at the mercy of the virus. The virus keeps mutating and the new strains, we’re told, are deadlier with a higher rate of transmission but with the deployment of vaccines globally, we can see some silver lining in the dark and ominous clouds.
EDO2020 did not materialise last year because the safety of athletes and officials was more important. The Sports Festival which is held every other year was postponed after elaborate preparations by Edo State government which, as would be expected, cost a lot of money. Extensive refurbishment and renovation works were carried out at the famous Ogbe Stadium and the University of Benin Sports Complex which was meant to serve as the Games Village.
In bidding to host the Sports Festival, there are tangible and measurable benefits and Edo State – like every other host state would do – invested heavily to prepare in view of the potential harvest during and after the Festival. The return on investment will be zero if the upgraded sports facilities are not used as intended for the Festival.
According to Godwin Dudu-Orumen, Chairman of Edo State Sports Commission, the National Sports Festival was a perfect platform to generate return on the investment made by the Edo State government. Hosting such events usually attract commercial benefits in all its ramifications. Even the road side sellers and hawkers will not be left out of the opportunity offered by the Festival to earn extra income.
The patronage by athletes, government officials and tourists has the potential of boosting the local economy with a cascading effect on hotels, bars, restaurants, shops and taxi services arising from a jump in human and vehicular traffic. Hosting the Festival also has immense public relations benefits. For example, the Games will promote the state as a safe destination for business, sports and culture tourism. Media reports would naturally focus on Edo State before, during and after the Sports Festival with increased top of mind awareness for the government and people of Edo State.
Originally scheduled for March 21 to April 1, 2020 before it was postponed, the National Sports Festival has continued to suffer multiple setbacks. December 3 – 18, 2020 that was announced as the new schedule also did not materialise. Although Sunday Dare, the Minister of Youth and Sports, is keen for the Festival to hold on the re-scheduled dates (February 14 – 28, 2021), the reality on the ground is that it is unwise and unsafe to do so.
Without prejudice to the review meeting held last week by the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, the Sports Ministry and Edo State government officials, the event should be postponed again. This is not even a matter for debate – we must perish the idea of holding the Games this month.
By the way, Edo State government has indicated that it needs funding from the federal government to be able to proceed with the Festival. One of the major issues concerning funding is that the first postponement was very close to the initial schedule. Funds had been spent in view of the Games that were supposed to hold in March last year and most of that money may not be refundable. It is very unlikely.
Even if the funds are available now, the Festival should be postponed because of the current health crisis confronting us – our testing capacity for coronavirus is poor and we do not even have vaccines yet in the country. To be fair to Edo State government, they were ready for the Games and money had been spent upgrading sports facilities and generally giving the ancient city of Benin facelift before the two postponements. They are actually now hard put to spend more and it is understandable when there are other equally pressing needs to be met.
When the upgrade of facilities commenced followed by the inspections, no one reckoned that coronavirus – an invisible enemy – will be part of the plan. If anyone one had the slightest hint that the Games would be disrupted heavily by the virus, I’m sure Edo State government would not have accepted to host the event. What is the point of making the huge investment and not reaping the benefits by hosting the Festival?
Besides the public health crisis, we cannot also rule out the effect of the acrimonious political events that gripped Edo State last year on the Games. It was when Governor Godwin Obaseki fought the political battle of his life and secured his second term mandate against all odds. Thankfully, he survived the storm and won the governorship election.
The security situation in the country with widespread banditry and kidnapping is also a major concern for hosting a large gathering of people at this time. A sports journalist who was in Benin City last November to cover the Nations Cup qualifying game between the Super Eagles and Leone Stars of Sierra Leone said he was warned not to step out of his hotel after 7.00 pm. What followed the unfortunate jail break incident in the state capital was an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty; armed robbers and kidnappers are on rampage carrying out their nefarious activities unrestrained. Terrorising Benin City residents and the neighbouring communities has become their hobby.
Another threat to the Games is that most of the athletes are not in shape because their training schedules have been heavily impacted by spread of coronavirus; there’s no evidence of quality of preparations that is usually the standard for them to compete well. The 19th edition of the Festival held in Abuja two years ago.
By the Games structure, the Main Organising Committee (MOC) headed by the Permanent Secretary in the Sports Ministry, is saddled with funding the entitlements of technical officials: referees, umpires, etc. The state government on the other hand provides accommodation and feeding for the athletes in addition to getting the facilities ready for the Games.
From the look of things, the Ministry of Sports wants to go ahead with the Games – that is if the PTF on Covid-19 says yes — but the state government says funding from Abuja is required to proceed. This stalemate is the result of two postponements and the aftermath of the current Covid-19 situation. For the avoidance of doubt, I’d like to repeat myself: it does not make sense for what is called a “phased” National Sports Festival to hold at this time.
When I spoke to Godwin Enakhena, a foremost sports journalist, he said he was excited when Edo State won the bid to host the National Sports Festival. “I was looking forward to being part of the event until the monstrous coronavirus hit the world,” Godwin told me. “The several postponements were inevitable and they were beyond the circumstances that Edo State government could control.”
Godwin is worried over discussions to hold the event at a time we are experiencing a spike in the number coronavirus infections. He believes we should talking about the safety of everyone and not put people’s lives at risk. As I have also argued, I agree with Godwin that the timing is not right for the Games to hold. “The Festival has lost what makes athletes look forward to it,” Godwin continued. “The friendship, fellowship and unifying factors are all gone.”
What Godwin is essentially saying is that the glamour associated with the Games is missing. The biggest selling points are the opening and closing ceremonies that allows participating states to showcase their rich cultures. If the Festival were to hold under the current Covid-19 guidelines, only one or two athletes will be involved in the march past per state. It simply means we shall have 74 athletes instead of the colourful parade of over 1,000 athletes (made up of men and women) and officials. “It is usually a spectacle to behold,” Godwin added.
The National Sports Festival often has all the participating athletes at the Games Village at the same time with different events taking place concurrently. However, what is being considered as a way out of the challenge imposed by Covid-19 is a staggered approach where athletes will compete in batches and return home.
In normal times, the administration and management of sporting events have their “home grown” challenges but what Covid-19 has done is to amplify them. I concede that hosting a major event is not easy; it requires careful planning and adequate preparations.
But I’m surprised that Edo State government agreed to the February schedule for the Games when coronavirus was still very much a global phenomenon. There will be significant PR implications if we go ahead with the Games this month under a cloud of Covid-19 uncertainty. The expected backlash will place a huge dent on the public image of Edo State, a situation that can be avoided. We can take a cue from the Olympic Games that were postponed last year; no one is sure it will even hold this year.
With the second wave of Covid-19 that is evidently more deadly, the option that should be considered is a postponement of the Games to July when, hopefully, vaccines would have arrived and deployed. Then there’s the possibility that the surge of the virus will reduce with the expectation that we would have achieved herd immunity to the stubborn virus. By that time too, the University of Benin would be available to be used as Games Village.
However, if it is confirmed that the Olympic Games will hold this year as it is being speculated, the sports authorities can fix the National Sports Festival to hold in June – just before the Olympic Games. What Covid-19 also did was to disrupt the marketing of the National Sports Festival.
From my personal experience, it is doubtful if sponsors would be willing to jump on any request because of the prevailing circumstances – the safety of everyone at this time will be their concern.
Sponsorship of the Festival in normal times would have been a creative way of enhancing and exploiting the multiple dimensions (people, place and media opportunities) of the brand assets available and earning revenue. With Covid-19 numbers going up daily, it will difficult to humanise the brands associated with the National Sports Festival.
–Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)