For so long before 1996 Olympics, most Nigerians believed that the best sports the country could win a gold medal at the Olympic Games were in boxing and athletics.
It was when Nigeria’s U-23 football team, (fondly called the Dream Team) and Chioma Ajunwa won gold medals in football and long jump events respectively at the Atlanta ‘96 Olympics that so many Nigerians changed their perspective on which sport could win laurels for the country at international championships.
In this interview with Bamidele Olowosagba, Prince Adeshina Adeyemi, Chairman of the Lagos State Wheelchair Basketball Association, LSWBA, and also the Vice-Chairman of Lagos State Paralympic Sports, says with adequate funding, more tournaments and exposure to international championships wheelchair basketball will win medals for the country in the future.
How did wheelchair basketball started in this country?
Actually, wheelchair basketball started since 15 years ago by Mr. Oberreniene Adoki, who is the present Technical Director of Nigeria Wheelchair Basketball Federation, NWBF, who was formerly a referee of wheelchair basketball in Nigeria Basketball Federation, NBBF. It was after some years that the physically challenged people rallied around him to give an indentity to ourselves. It was not until 2007 when we wanted to go for the All Africa Games in Algeria that the federal government came to our rescue. Since then, the sport has been growing in Nigeria. With the help of the present President of the NWBF, Bukola Olopade, wheelchair basketball has become one of the fastest growing sports in Nigeria today.
What really motivated you to go into wheelchair basketball?
It is because of the love I have for the sport even though I used to participate in weighlifting in the past. I was involved in the sport as an official. I was the first wheelchair basketball classifier in Nigeria. As a physically challenged athlete myself, the zeal to bring others that are physically challenged out of the streets and provide them an opportuinty to engage themselves in sports is another motivation that led me into wheelchair basketball.
How do you get physically challenged players to compete in wheelchair basketball considering that is not an easy task to get such people to participate in sports?
Actually most of our players were into other sports before they decided to switch to wheelchair basketball, while some we saw the potential to become good players were discovered on the streets.
It is a general belief that it is only in Lagos and Delta States that the sport is popularly, what do you think is responsible for this?
It is not true that it is only in Lagos and Delta States that wheelchair basketball is popular. Though Lagos is the origin of wheelchair basketball and it is expected that it will command more popularity than in other states. Besides that, most of our players are based and train in Lagos because of the facilities here, but that does not mean that other states of the federation are not playing wheelchair basketball. Before the second edition of Victor Ochie championship in Lagos, we had some clinics in Bauchi and Ibadan in Oyo State. And for your information, the next edition of the Ochei tourney will be held in Abuja next year in order for us to create more awareness for the sport across the country. It is our belief that with more tourneys holding in other states, there would be more athletes participating in the sport.
Why is Nigeria not featuring in major international championships like other sports?
Actually, we had participated in some major championships in the past. We were at the U-23 African Championship in South Africa in 2008 and in 2012. We went to Morocco for the Senior Nations Cup. And we have also been to some neighbouring West African countries with our different teams to participate in some competitions. Due to some challenges we constantly faced, we have not been able to participate in more tourneys outside the country.
What are these challenges?
Like other so called minnow sports, we have such challenges lack that of sponsorship, dearth of tourneys and lack of training equipment such as modern wheelchairs, basketball courts and trainer’s shoes for our players. For instance, apart from Lagos State that bought wheelchairs for its players, no other state’s teams have their own wheelchairs. They depend on wheelchairs owned by the national federation or sub standard chairs. However, the major challenge has been lack of league matches for our players. Wheelchair basketball players, like in other sports, must be playing matches for them to improve on their game.
What has been your performance in past championships?
Nigeria have not done badly in most of the competitions we took part in the past. We performed well at the 2007 All Africa Games in Algeria where we came fourth in Africa. In the U-23 tournament held in South Africa in 2008, we finished as runners up. Currently, we are ranked among the first three countries in Africa. The South African team that are the number one team in Africa have league matches which makes the country to improve on the standard of the game. If we can have a league system- national or state, it will help our players to improve their skills and they will be able to compete with other national teams.
One of the yardsticks that determines sports that would participate in major championships is the medal winning ability of such sports. Do you think wheelchair basketball can win medal for Nigeria in a major competition in the nearest future?
If we continue improving our game at the rate we are doing right now, I can assure you that wheelchair basketball will win medal for Nigeria in no distant time. All we need is more tourneys for our players and I am confident we’ll be able to dethrone South Africa very soon.