The Dalung Syndrome and Nigeria’s Rio Olympics Participation

I begin my column today with a caveat. The purpose of this piece is not to join in the much-dramatized pillory of Mr. Solomon Dalung, by far Nigeria’s most unpopular Minister of Sports so far. While several references to him may appear deservedly uncomplimentary, my intention really is to use the misdeed of a misfit to draw attention to more fundamental issues of nationhood and highlight some lessons in sports diplomacy. But if a high-ranking public official chooses by willful acts of commission or omission or both to make himself a classic item for comic relief in a nation buffeted by biting hardship, why not? Why would citizens seized by spasms of hunger and its associated anger not happily grab moments of relief to exhale even if at the expense of a fumbling member of the ruining (sorry, ruling) class? No one should blame citizens of the United States of Nigeria (apologies to the beret-wearing, mumbling-jumbling superintendent of sports) for making pun and fun with Mr. Dalung’s unforgivable gaffes. He should take that as part of the sacrifices of holding public office.

But for the rest of us such tragicomedy represents the unfortunate paradox of public service. And it is on this serious note I make my first intervention on a matter that has greatly embarrassed Nigeria on the global stage. It is no longer news that the country failed in its usual characteristic manner to prepare adequately for the ongoing Rio Olympic Games. But that the depth of unpreparedness would be as shockingly pedestrian as the inability of the authorities to arrange travel logistics and befitting costumes for athletes at the opening ceremony of the Games beggar belief. The case of the soccer team that was stranded in Atlanta, USA days before it was scheduled to land in Manaus for its opening clash with Japan provided global media networks ready feeds to feed the niche of negative narrative often reserved for Nigeria and much of the African continent. It is tragic that it was in the midst of such raging embarrassment which typified the crass incompetence of the sports ministry that Minister Dalung chose to exhibit his gross ineptitude in a blatant attempt to shield himself from blames in the mess. At the end of the day, he succeeded in making a mess of himself and calling to question the judgement of his appointment into the federal cabinet.

On the issue of costume at the opening ceremony of the Games penultimate Friday, the blame should be shared beyond Dalung. Granted that as Minister in charge of Sports he should be the one to drive and ensure a decent, befitting and creditable participation of Nigeria in international competitions. But the Olympic is far too important to be left in the purview of one ministry manned unfortunately by the wrong man. As the world’s greatest sporting event, a serious country leaves nothing to chance to make capital out of its participation from the opening parade to the closing ceremony. The Games provide nations of the world a chance once every four years to among other things showcase the best of sporting talents within their boundaries; attract friendship and build goodwill; promote their cultures and salient brand identities; and attract investment through interface with businesses, sponsoring organizations and the immense marketing opportunities built into the entire affair. And there are real benefits nations derive in all these during and after the Games. A report for instance, that an American airliner eventually came to the aid of the stranded soccer team in Atlanta because of the feat of its predecessor in winning the Gold medal in same city 20 years ago, is an example of how a country can benefit from participation in the globe’s apex sporting event. It was that same rare feat of defeating acclaimed leaders in the sport like Brazil and Argentina that confirmed Nigeria’s premium position as soccer powerhouse in the world, a status now lost to the past due to incremental afflictions with the Dalung syndrome.  

For those who do not know, the Olympic Games provide a most veritable opportunity for countries to nurture, promote and project their soft power advantages beyond just the competitions on the field of play. That is why it matters what the athletes wear in the opening march pass as well as what colours they adorn during dinner and at shopping time. It therefore did not make any sense that the Nigerian contingent wore drab tracksuits to announce their presence in Rio when other nations celebrated their brand through culturally-imbued clothing that serves as memorabilia both for the individual athletes and their national Olympic archives. Well, hopefully, this should be corrected at the closing ceremony. That is also why it matters that a specialized team of communication experts and not just a cluster of sports journalists and team spokespersons are chosen to coordinate the narration and narrative of a country’s participation at the Games. That is why it matters that public diplomacy professionals are enlisted into the national contingent to promote and maximize all possible avenues of soft power advantages accruable by participation. That is why it matters that undercover agents are embedded in the delegation to sniff out threats to national security within the melting pot of the global community typified by the Games. And the list goes on and on beyond and far above the questionable competencies (or lack of it) of Mr. Dalung and his incompetent team at the Sports Ministry. 

Thus, there should have been strategic inputs (beyond mere perfunctory facilitation in necessary cases like visa procurement for instance) from other relevant ministries and agencies like the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Office of Diaspora Affairs in the presidency; the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA); and even the Ministry of Trade and Investment, among others. For all intent and purposes, participating in the Games goes beyond a National Olympic Committee (NOC) which in the case of Nigeria’s showing in Rio, appears to have been emasculated or shadowed by the Dalung syndrome. 

But many have asked the very valid question of how Nigeria with all its abundant human resources bustling with brilliance in virtually all spheres of human endeavor both home and abroad ended up with a Dalung as Sports Minister? How have we continued as a nation to wallow in the celebration of mediocrity and incompetence above merit and excellence? Although a study of the Dalung syndrome (your definition is as good as mine) in sports administration which is however manifested in many facets of our national life may provide possible clues to unravelling this riddle, it goes beyond gainsaying that a holistic overhaul of Nigeria’s soul and body-polity is urgently needed. Many Nigerians both in high and low places have increased the clarion call for renegotiating our nationhood or nation-state as the case may be. If Nigerians are allowed to collectively agree on a template of togetherness it would have been far easier to prevent the likes of the misfortune that heralded the country’s participation in Rio and much less difficult to decisively deal with the silliness of how and who caused the embarrassment with which we have been served. But because there are all manners of convenient contrivances, buck-passing and lame leadership, things like these are allowed to pass off as normal. We would not be surprised if scapegoats are not made of the Rio fiasco at the end of the day especially if the athletes happen to perform miracles to wipe away the tears and shame of the pre-games moments. Already the immediate victims of the Dalung syndrome performed the first miracle of the Games for Nigeria when they arrived venue of the match barely three hours to kick-off and shook off the jet lag of the long haul from Atlanta to eventually beat the Japanese team which had been practicing on the pitch for weeks. Ironically, Mr. Dalung was shamelessly swift to issue a statement of congratulations to the team he dissed and treated shabbily. To be fair to him, the Minister reportedly apologized to the players for his nationally televised indiscretion but it is for objective minds to judge what kind of apology that is when he is also said to be taking issues with media organizations which made a show of his unforced faux pax. That the nation can tolerate his incongruous red beret does not mean that we should condone his impetuosity on national assignment. Enough of the Dalung syndrome in our national life.

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