When sports hugs diplomacy, By Wole Olaoye


Reading Time: 6 mins read

Ace footballer and former captain of Nigeria’s national team, Segun Odegbami, has found his larger purpose in life — aside from making soccer fans go wild with his incredible antics and goals on the field of play. Odegbami was a delight to watch while his magic lasted. He titillated us all with his mesmerising dribbles and cut-to-size crosses on the right flank, to the extent that the legendary commentator, Ernest Okoronkwo, nicknamed him ‘Mathematical’.

Although he appears to have sipped from the fount of perpetual youth, he has notched seven decades under his belt. That is not the story. The news is that this sportsman who has given so much of his sporting talents to his country and helped in raising others to live up to their potential, has now taken up the challenge of helping the African continent measure up to the intricacies of sports diplomacy to encourage the culture of excellence.

It is not given to everyone to realise his or her mission on this side of the great divide. Some set their targets so low that they fizzle into nothingness as soon as they achieve what they think is their life ambition. But people like Odegbami continue digging even after finding the jewel because they have come to realise that there is no limit to what the human being can achieve, as long as the mind can conceive it. Talking of dreams, who says Nigeria, in concert with some other African countries, can’t host the World Cup?

A graduate of engineering, Odegbami has forayed far afield into the intricacies of sports and how the sector intertwines with other areas, to such an extent that almost every facet of human development is connected with sports. Whichever way one turns — politics, commerce, marketing, medicine, engineering or tourism — one discovers that sports permeates virtually all human endeavours.

Sports diplomacy is as much a tool for wielding influence and winning friends, as any other traditional tool of statecraft. Call it soft power or whatever you will, it enables nations to make loud statements about where they stand on any issue. In modern times, sports is not just about who we compete or play against, it is also about who we refuse to play with. 

One of the greatest examples of sports diplomacy on the African continent was the boycott of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, by Nigeria and some other African countries, in protest against the participation of New Zealand in the games. The Supreme Council for Sports in Africa had protested against allowing a country which maintained sporting relations with Apartheid South Africa to take part in the Olympics. Athletes from the protesting countries had trained for four years and were already in the Olympics Village in Canada in readiness for the competition. 

On the eve of the opening ceremony of the Games, their dreams went up in flames. They were summoned by the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa (SCSA) and informed of the decision by several African government’s to boycott the Games in protest. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had failed to withdraw New Zealand from the Games for their ‘romance’ with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Twenty-seven African countries heeded the boycott call. So did Guyana and Iraq.

The IOC directed that all the contingents from the protesting countries should vacate the Games Village within one hour!

The former Eagles captain notes that in the records of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the directory of the World Olympians Association (WOA) the names of all the athletes from Nigeria that went to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, will not be found. Yet, they were physically at the Games, spent 10 days in the Games Village along with other athletes from around the world, were involved in pre-Olympics competitions, and even participated in the rehearsals for the ceremonial march-past.

“It was a devastating blow to the athletes affected. Ambitions to become Olympians were sacrificed on the altar of global politics that was deployed to seek justice for oppressed fellow Africans in South Africa. Worthy as the cause may have been, the price the athletes paid was high and the pain, everlasting. No governments or institutions since 1976, have recognised, appreciated, honoured or even compensated the athletes.”

Another landmark moment where sports served to add sheen to the country’s image was the 1980 African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Odegbami notes that, “Following the Nigerian Civil War that ended in 1970, the country needed every conceivable means to bury the hatchet of the war. The government introduced the National Youth Service Corp, NYSC, and the National Sports Festival, amongst other schemes, to bring the youths of the country together in the spirit of ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’. 

“This pursuit went on for years through different schemes and programmes all designed to create platforms for socialisation, re-integration, friendship and unity. It was in hosting the African Cup of Nations in 1980, however, that the country found the perfect elixir… The Green Eagles played out their hearts, and, for the first time since Independence in 1960, the people found in football the power that shunned differences and galvanised the people to be one.”

The 1980 team was celebrated, honoured and rewarded. However, it appears that the significance of that success still reverberates till now and an occasional reminder won’t do any harm. 

When Odegbami shared his dream of using the 1976 and 1980 events to bring people together and honour those who had made sacrifices for the continent and country, he found listening ears in both the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Professor Eghosa Osaghae, and the Managing Director of Air Peace, Mr Allen Onyema. While the NIIA has provided space for the erection of a commemorative plaque in honour of the 1976 and 1980 heroes and heroines, Air Peace is footing the bill of the celebrations, thereby rekindling the spirit of patriotism, sacrifice, love for country and the Black Race. For some of those sportspersons who have since passed on, the honour is coming too late but is nonetheless worthy of commendation.

The 1976 Olympic Football Team

Emmanuel Okala, Enugu *

Joseph Erico (late)

Andrew Atuegbu (USA)

Sanni Mohammed (Accra, Ghana)

Mudashiru Lawal (late)

Christian Chukwu (Enugu)

Godwin Odiye (USA)

Kelechi Emetiole (late)

Haruna Ilerika (late)

Adekunle Awesu (late)

Thompson Usiyan (late)

Alloysius Atuegbu (late)

Baba Otu Mohammed (Jos)

Jide Dina (late)

Samuel Ojebode (late)

Patrick Ekeji (USA, NA)

Segun Odegbami (Lagos)

Montreal 1976 Swimming Squad

John Ebito (USA)

Obisia Nwankpa (Lagos)

Davidson Andeh (late)

L. Obagoriola (Lagos)

1980 Africa Cup of Nations Team

Best Ogedegbe (late)

Moses Effiong (Calabar)

Emmanuel Okala (Enugu)

John Orlando (Accra)

David Adiele (Owerri)

Okey Isima (late)

Segun Odegbami (Abeokuta)

Felix Owolabi (Ibadan)

Godwin Odiye (USA)

Christian Chukwu (Enugu)

Adokie Amiesimaka (Port Harcourt)

Charles Bassey (Calabar)

Tunde Bamidele (late)

Kadiri Ikhana (Abeokuta)

Mudashiru Lawal (late)

Henry Nwosu (Lagos)

Ifeanyi Onyedika (Enugu)

Frank Onwuachi (Asaba)

Martin Eyo (late)

Shefiu Mohammed (Jalingo)

Alloysius Atuegbu (late)

Sylvanus Okpala  (Enugu)

The ex-athletes, apart from being ambassadors of Air Peace, will enjoy 12 free return flights of the airline in one year and also one international flight plus a cash reward. Odegbami predicted that the decision to write the names of the athletes in gold would mark a positive turn-around in the lives of many of them and future athletes.

Having campaigned over the years that Nigeria should always give recognition to those who have brought honour to the country, I was thrilled to note that the event matched the location — a sports event located within the premises of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; simultaneously, it is also a diplomatic event that derives its significance from the heroics of Nigerian, nay, African sportsmen and women. Sports plus diplomacy, it’s a win-win combination!








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