By Jude Atupulazi
Even before the competition got into its stride, Team Anambra, as the state's contingent to the National Youth Games at the University of Ilorin is called, had already pocketed two medals: a gold and a bronze. This early medals haul, more than anything, signaled the readiness of Team Anambra to excel at the ongoing games.
The bronze medal was in Gymnastics for vault performance. It was won by 8-year old Stephanie Onusiriuka; while the gold came from Judo, 44kg class, by Chiamaka Ofiaeli.
Indeed, it is not always that our teams enjoy the best of preparations; something that has come to be the albatross of the country as far as sports is concerned. But the Anambra State contingent were spared of this monster prior to their departure as they enjoyed what can be relatively described as the best of camping.
The athletes were camped at two places in Awka: Bishop Obiefuna Retreat, Pastoral and Conference Centre, and Tansi International College, both in Okpuno. The other part of the contingent, track and field, camped in Enugu where they trained at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, making use of its tartan tracks, reputed as the best in the east.
On his impressions of the Retreat Centre, the Chairman of Anambra State Sports Development Commission, Mr Tony Oli, described it as a wonderful place replete with good facilities and conducive for camping with its serene environment.
He said some of the athletes also made use of the facilities at Nnamdi Azikiwe University which the state government helped to renovate. The ones in Enugu were lodged in a hotel near the stadium for easy access to facilities there. They stayed there for a week.
While in camping, the athletes benefited from the experiences of some of the state's renowned stars like Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, who gave them pep talks.
The football team is under the supervision of an ex-Ranger, Ralph Okeke, a.k.a. Sarafi. It started with the selection of over 100 players from the academies which number was later reduced to 30 before finally pruning it down to the mandatory 18 players. The idea behind his choice, Oli said, is to ensure no biases in the selection of players.
The selection of the players, according to Oli, was easy because those players had already been spotted during the tournaments organized earlier in the state.
It is commendable that the state's contingent were among the very first to arrive in Ilorin. They left in four luxury buses with two back up buses, including a full police escort.
They arrived in Ilorin even when some states were still going cap in hand before their various governments for money. The early camping, according to Oli, was for them to settle down and acclimatize.
The entire contingent were properly and resplendently kitted in order to give them confidence.
The efforts of the state government, led by the indefatigable Oli, in seeing the contingent excel, led to the success already recorded.
Just before going to press, Team Anambra had beaten Delta and Imo in the male category in cricket, while in female volleyball, the state beat Adamawa. The female soccer team was also gearing up for third place match.
Team Anambra are participating in 12 events at the 5th National Youth Games taking place at the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN). They include, table tennis, boxing, basketball, chess, cricket, handball, taekwondo, scrabble, volleyball (beach), volleyball and football.
At the last games the state competed in only two events and even in those two, the teams became spectators after the first round of games as they were booted out.
Last Thursday, before we went to press, the female football team played Akwa Ibom at the Maracana I Stadium for bronze medal, while the male side traded tackles with their Lagos counterparts. In handball, Team Anambra, male and female, faced Borno State's male and female teams.
Other individual and team events were yet to be assigned opponents in the time leading to their games.
This is the first time Anambra will be presenting her largest contingent in the history of the games; six each for boys and girls, and this is apart from field events, and brain games like scrabble, chess, among others.
Oli said even though he charged the contingent to go for the ultimate, the result would not really matter for now as the state had an eye for the future development of the athletes by first laying solid foundations now.
As part of that foundation, he said, the state government is planning to boost sports in the grassroots by not only building a stadium in Awka and mini stadia in the major zones, but will get towns to choose schools in their domains which government will equip with sports facilities. The idea is for schools in each of the communities to make use of those facilities.
Those facilities will preferably be sited in secondary schools.
When the ongoing games end in Ilorin on the 17th of September, the thinking of the state government is that lessons learned will be sustained and improved upon in subsequent games across all age groups.
To say that sports in Anambra State is at last being given the real attention it deserves is to state the obvious. And the man oiling the wheel of this progress is no other than Mr Oli who seems to have the magical capacity of being at many places at same time. His work rate and passion are phenomenal and one will not fail to wish that things had always been like this.
The state may have left it late to blossom in sports but what matters is sustaining these initial successes. If sustained, it is hoped that in no distant future the state will be churning out world beaters as in the days of yore.
Results may not entirely be good at the moment but I'm cock sure that we are getting there gradually. There are other broader matters that need to be sorted out for sure. One of them is the state having a football team. While it can be argued that state governments should not be running football clubs, the situation in the country has made it easier for government sponsorship of clubs to thrive above that of individuals; after all, some of the leading soccer teams in the country's elite league are government owned.
Having led other states in the past in the number of teams in the league, Anambra cannot afford to continue in her present state of being the only Southeast state, along with Ebonyi, without a team in the top league.
While waiting for such a time, individually owned teams and academies should be supported as whatever glory they bring will also be shared by the state. For now, however, Anambra is on the path of recovery sports wise and the least anyone can do is to encourage and give kudos where and when necessary.