How we survived with borrowed kits, unpaid allowances in China – Nigerian athletes

By Abiodun Adewale

If there is one thing Nigerian athletes at any level are known for, it is their ability to export the uniqueness of Nigerian music and dance, as well as radiate positive energy behind the scenes at every competition they attend.

Thus, it was not surprising to see the country’s student-athletes on July 28 singing and dancing to Davido’s hit song ‘Unavailable’, during the opening ceremony of the FISU World University Games in Chengdu, China, which ended August 8.

It was a spectacle that attracted cheers from the audience and the Nigeria University Games Association did their bit to gain traction with the video on social media.

But that was as good as it got for the 27 athletes that represented Nigeria at the Games.

The song ‘Unavailable’ was perhaps prophetic, possibly alluding to the unavailability of some of the basic things they would need during the Games, but how were they to know?

The students wanted more in terms of financial compensation for their efforts, but their hopes were dashed even before they started competing.

While that seemed to be the major bone of contention as they returned home, they also lamented other factors like poor coaching, inadequate preparations, lack of kits and equipment, and unfair treatment before and after the Games.


Perhaps the athletes didn’t see the handwriting on the wall, but a lot of factors pointed towards some of their challenges before the Games, and preparations was one of them.

After they completed the trials for the World University Games in May, NUGA announced that it had picked about 100 athletes to represent the country in Chengdu.

However, the hopes of many of them began to hit the rocks a month later, when NUGA cried out over lack of funds to prepare for the Games.

In a statement signed by the acting General Secretary of NUGA, Chidiebere Ezeani, the body expressed the urgent need for assistance from the government and corporate organisations.

“We appeal to the government to come to our aid and support our athletes to the World University Games; we call upon the government, sports authorities, and corporate sponsors to recognise the immense value of investing in university athletes. They are the future of Nigerian sports, and their success will inspire generations to come,” Ezeani stated.

“NUGA implores the government, sports authorities and corporate sponsors to step forward and provide the necessary financial support to ensure Nigeria’s participation at the World University Games. With timely assistance, we can empower our talented athletes to represent our great nation with pride, resilience and determination.”

Further checks by our correspondent revealed that lack of funds threatened NUGA in the areas of paying participation fees, meeting deadlines for air tickets, procurement of kits for athletes and paying their allowances.

It also meant that there was no camping of the athletes ahead of the Games, with their number drastically reduced from the selected 100 to 27, as NUGA relied on schools to pay for the few students and officials from some of the schools.

NUGA did find a way around paying the participation fees, as some of it were already paid months ahead, with just the balance upon arrival at the Games. It also secured a partnership for an official kit (tracks and t-shirt) for the 27 athletes and 14 officials.

But for equipment, coaching and allowances for the athletes, the universities and NUGA couldn’t salvage the situation, and the consequence is why you are reading this piece.

According to the athletes, who spoke with Sunday PUNCH, there was no provision of equipment by NUGA.

However, some of them were taken care of by their schools, while some of the athletes dipped into their own pockets to buy kits and equipment to compete. Some others, who neither got from their schools nor could afford to buy, had to borrow kits within their contingent and even from other countries in Chengdu.

 “As a badminton player, you are supposed to play with recommended badminton shirts and shorts, but we were not provided with any. My teammates and I bought shirts and customised our names as well as the name of the country at the back because that is one of the prerequisites to play,” one of the badminton players said.

“I bought a pair of canvas in Nigeria for N40,000. Every piece of equipment I used was my personal equipment,” she added.

“For taekwondo, we went with our own personal kits but were expected to fight with the approved uniforms. They reluctantly agreed to buy us one uniform when complaints were too much. We borrowed more than half of our equipment, which we returned after our events,” a taekwondo athlete told The PUNCH.

One of them also said they requested for the equipment but they weren’t provided.

“NUGA refused to get us equipment even when we requested for them weeks before. For table tennis, our rackets failed the racket tests and we were compelled to buy new rubbers. Our school paid about 70 per cent of the cost of the rackets,” he said.

When Sunday PUNCH asked Ezeani if she was aware that some of the athletes bought their own kits for the Games, she stated, “I’m aware they bought some of these things, but they were informed before traveling that they needed to have these things as the (NUGA) secretariat wrote their universities to provide them.

“For table tennis, the Directors of Sports, University of Benin and University of Lagos, bought their rackets. NUGA paid for one badminton racket and other equipment for Taekwondo.

“Which athlete will travel to play without his gear? Or is this peculiar to Nigeria?

“Like I earlier informed you, they were told these things, including the unavailability of allowances due to the lack of funds. We currently still owe travel agents and individuals we borrowed money from to make up payments for the tickets.

“I noticed the badminton players had the same playing shirts, this is because we could not afford to make these items for them.”

However, another athlete, who competed in the tennis event, affirmed that her school provided everything she needed for her trip.

“My school was responsible for my equipment down to what I wore,” she noted.

Even as they soldiered on, they also faced the test of technical input from the sidelines during their events.

The available officials were drafted into the seven events the country featured in, but the athletes claimed the strategy was ineffective.

In some cases, like taekwondo, it was as good as not having a coach, leaving the athletes at the mercy of improvising with coaches from other countries, most of who couldn’t speak English.

“A delegate was assigned as our coach, actually it was my school’s sports director, but he didn’t have much knowledge of the game and as such, accompanying us to the venue was the best he could do. Coaches from other countries referred to me as a fellow coach jokingly. I literally coached the other Nigerians, took their videos and pictures with my phone as well,” one of them said.

“Any country we could get, we begged them to stand for us. For instance, in my fight, I was seconded by a coach from São Tomé and Principe. He speaks Portuguese, how was I supposed to understand him?” one of the taekwondo athletes lamented.

“Some others were seconded by Spanish, French and even Arab coaches,” he added.

Acting secretary of NUGA, Ezeani, told Sunday PUNCH that the shortcomings were due to the financial challenges bedeviling the association, adding that universities would have to do more in providing sports equipment for their athletes.

“Due to financial constraints, we couldn’t travel with some coaches as our funds relied solely on university payments. Regrettably, our coaches weren’t sponsored by their schools. Despite this, we believe it’s a valuable experience for athletes, many of whom hadn’t competed internationally. We also requested universities to provide necessary equipment, while NUGA provided athletes kits,” Ezeani said.

“Particularly in taekwondo, some athletes were using the equipment for the first time, which can impact their performance. It is important to acknowledge the calibre of opponents as well. I have openly emphasised the need to enhance the sports standards in our universities to match international norms. Thus, it was crucial for NUGA and the athletes to experience this gap firsthand.”

‘No allowance now, no allowance forever’

When the reality of these issues dawned on them, like an average Nigerian athlete, they resolved to voice their displeasure with NUGA, but during a meeting with Ezeani, she told them the FISU Games were classified as amateur, hence, they weren’t entitled to anything other than feeding, accommodation and transportation during the Games, all of which the association had taken care of by paying the participation fees.

She added that the athletes should bury their expectations, saying they had the option of boycotting their events if they liked.

“We paid N37m for you to be here. There is no allowance now, there is no allowance forever. I had to leave at the pre-meeting in Abuja, else I would have told you there. It’s not hard, I would pay $100 to change the names of people on the tickets to another person, so you would have had a choice in Abuja. Those of you who have not competed, if you chose not to, I will not hold it against you,” Ezeani told the athletes during their meeting in China.

“I don’t play politics with people’s destinies. There is nothing more important to me than my integrity, I will not be subject to anybody going to social media to say NUGA is owing you.

“If you are given an allowance, it is because the association has money. Now, again, under the full weight of NUGA, there is no money now, there is no money in the future. If I call you suddenly and say send me your account number, maybe there is money. But now I’m telling you, bury expectations.”

While the athletes claimed her statements were contrary to the promises of the first vice president of NUGA, Bawa Mohammed, who they claimed had told them before they left Nigeria that the body was working on their allowances, Ezeani also stated that the responsibility was on their schools, as stated in the letter sent to them by NUGA.

“The letters written to your schools do not bear allowance, we said we would feed and accommodate. I cannot write a letter that says I will take care of you, no, that’s a very vague statement. My letter was precise, ‘feed and accommodate’ and those things have been fulfilled in flying colours, nobody owes you anything,” Ezeani said.

In the letter addressed to one of the schools, which was obtained by our correspondent, NUGA stated, “While planning for the event, we have taken into account various factors, including the cost of airfare and the frequency of flights. After thorough evaluation, we have determined that the cost of a return ticket to Chengdu, China, for each athlete will amount to N1.5m. This estimation covers the airfare expenses and ensures the timely arrival and departure of our athletes.

“Considering this information, we kindly request your sponsorship in covering the airfare expenses for your athletes. Rest assured, NUGA will take care of all other expenses related to the athletes’ participation, including participation fees, accommodation, and other relevant expenses,” the letter read.

In a separate chat with our correspondent, Ezeani further explained that the association was in debt, insisting that it was uncertain if they would be able to meet up with the allowances later.

“Our 41-person delegation incurred a total cost of €20,090 (N17,193,002) for participation fees and €820 (N701,756) — exchange rate as at July 28 when the Games began — for registration fee, enabling our athletes to compete. We have taken loans to complete these payments and also supplement fees for the flight as universities paid N1.5m per person, while the tickets were in excess of N2m,” Ezeani told Sunday PUNCH.

“Honestly, we do not know if these allowances will be paid for an association that is owing in excess of N30m. There are very few countries that pay allowances to their athletes, something they (Nigerian athletes) explored and found to be true, including the biggest like USA, Brazil, Australia and even South Africa. These athletes are given rewards for performances and medals, not allowances.”

Past athletes

Except for the 2019 edition of the World University Games in Napoli, Italy which the country missed out on, Nigeria’s most recent appearance at the Games was 2015 in Gwangju, South Korea and 2017 in Taipei, China.

However, our correspondent learnt that athletes were rewarded in the past, with some of the athletes who represented Nigeria in previous editions of the competition saying they were given allowances for competing.

Lara Omotosho, who competed in the women’s 200m event in 2015, said she was paid between N100,000 and N120,000 by NUGA, while she was also feted to a reception by her school, Adekunle Ajasin University, where she was gifted a brand-new laptop.

According to her, they received part of the money at the venue of the Games and got the balance upon their arrival in Nigeria.

Alex Fapohunda, who competed in the men’s badminton event in 2017, said he was paid about N70,000 few weeks after arriving in Nigeria.

A national athlete, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that Nigerian student-athletes don’t enjoy benefits as their counterparts in the NCAA, hence, the appropriate thing to do was to pay them allowances for attending such competitions.

“To the best of my knowledge, you are entitled to an allowance in any competition you represent Nigeria.

“How will they tell me they are travelling out to represent Nigeria and won’t get an allowance. In my opinion, their excuse doesn’t add up because you cannot compare those who enjoy scholarships, training and every other thing in the NCAA with the Nigerian student-athletes,” he said,

The aggrieved athletes also told our correspondents that their various schools paid them allowances ranging from N40,000 to N70,000 during the NUGA Games in 2022, while they were also paid between N12,000 to N30,000 during the NUGA trials for the FISU Games earlier this year, hence, they couldn’t comprehend why they weren’t paid for the Games proper.

Fostering ties for better funding

While it remains unclear if the athletes will get the contested allowances or not, NUGA says it will find ways to enhance the performance of its athletes in subsequent international competitions, and also find a lasting solution to avoid issues emanating from allowances.

“We have to do better in terms of preparations and we need funding to be able to prepare our athletes. If we don’t start on time, we will not meet up to expectations and our athletes will continue to fall short,” Ezeani added.

“We are currently trying to formulate a way with the Senate and the relevant ministries, including education and sports, as well as the NUC to see how we can foster the best relationships to get the kind of funding we require for university sports.

“The vice chancellors agreed that all entry level students will pay the sum of N1000 for international sports events at the point of admission, so we are hoping to, in partnership with the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, to be able to access these funds,” she added.

Sweet experience

The Nigerian athletes ended the global Games without laurels and frustration at returning home empty-handed, but it was not all tales of sorrow throughout the sporting fiesta in Chengdu.

Some of them told our correspondent that they would cherish the experience for a lifetime despite the challenges.

Few days before the end of the Games, Sunday PUNCH captured some of the invaluable experiences of some of the athletes, who gushed over their involvement in the Games.

Some of them had sweet experiences to share about the exposure and opportunities the FISU Games opened them to.

Their narratives were about dreams coming true and a sense of fulfilment representing the country at an international competition. Even though there were no laurels to show for their efforts, they didn’t feel like losers. Rather, the Games opened their eyes to areas they needed to improve on as they continue their journey of turning professional athletes on graduating from their various universities.

A taekwondo athlete from the University of Jos, Olajumoke Olateju, said it was a dream come true to represent Nigeria.

“There is a saying that ‘Chengdu makes dreams come true,’ this is true in every aspect. The exposure we got will linger with us all through our lives and I’m a proud participant of the Chengdu World University Games,” she said.

Badminton player for Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Motunrayo Abiola, added, “The experience was amazing and playing against some of the best ranked athletes in the world showed me how much I have to work hard as well.”

“Attending FISU Games is an eye opener for me and I can say it’s the best sporting experience I’ve had,” Joy Aiyegbeni, another taekwondo athlete from the Osun State University, stated.

“Though I lost my fight, it doesn’t make me feel like a loser, it motivates me to get better because I see a lot of people up there getting the medals and I feel like if they can get there, nothing can stop me as well.”

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