By Joseph Aigbonosumua
Asaba 2018 is one tournament African Senior Athletics would not forget in a hurry as it was characterized with various ugly incidents, tragedy was also averted when a poorly installed water tank crashed right inside the venue where the event was holding.
Apart from participating delegations being stranded at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos while waiting to be ferried to Asaba, the competition has been fraught with other problems and complaints from athletes and officials.
Before the competition began on Wednesday, the social media was awash with pictures and videos of athletes stranded in Lagos. Ivory Coast track star Marie Josee Ta Lou was among the first set of athletes to express their anger at the organisation of the competition on Monday when she took to social media to express her frustration.
“I think this is the first and last time I will come to Nigeria to compete. If you are not ready to organise something please don’t,” Ta Lou wrote on her Instagram status shortly before she departed Lagos for Asaba on Monday.
“It was three days of travel for some and two days for others; like you are travelling from Africa to Asia or America. I have been to four African Championships and it’s my first time to have that kind of bad organisation. No respect for the people.”
A video showing the Moroccan team also followed Ta Lou’s lamentation. Former women’s high jump champion Rhizlane Siba said the team were at the airport for two nights.
“We made it to Lagos two nights ago (Sunday). We slept the first night at the airport and the second night at the hotel. They claimed that we had a flight coming today (Tuesday), but we have spent the whole day at the airport. We are stranded in Lagos. We haven’t trained for three days, and we haven’t eaten properly in two days,” she said in the viral video.
On Tuesday, over 200 athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and Eritrea were still in Lagos waiting to be conveyed to Asaba.
However, all the athletes were ferried to the Delta State capital on Wednesday morning after chartered planes made several flights between Lagos and Asaba. The late arrival of the athletes caused the event and opening ceremony of the competition to be postponed till evening.
Chairman of the Local Organising Committee of the competition Solomon Ogba said the failure of the teams to furnish the LOC with their travel schedules caused the problem.
At a press conference during the week, Ogba said, “I apologise for the shortcomings that have been experienced at this championships. We are not trying to put blames on anybody and we accept all shortcomings. Teams were supposed to provide their travel schedule to the LOC two days before arrival but many countries failed to do that and it affected our plans.
“All the athletes are here now and we were able to appeal to the Technical Committee to adjust the programme to capture every athlete’s event.”
But according to the News Agency of Nigeria, an immigration official said the delay was caused by the failure of the countries to make online payments for their visas on arrival.
“The Local Organising Committee was not able to make the payment, because it did not make enough preparation toward their arrival into Nigeria,” the unnamed official told NAN.
“They all came at once and our technical partner had to generate ID and reference number for each and every one of them to make the payment easier. But, as they were not able to generate the payment, instead of delaying them and keep them at the airport until when the payment is done, we collected their passports.
“So, when the payment was done, we put the visas and stickers on their passports and returned them to the organising committee.”
With transportation sorted, the next hurdle was accreditation as the athletes’ late arrival caused a delay in their accreditation. Journalists also found it difficult to get accredited and many were denied access into the stadium.
At the Football House in Asaba, venue of the accreditation exercise, the teams, who arrived on Wednesday, were asked to return to their hotels to await their accreditation. Kenya, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and some South African athletes were among those affected by the delay.
An Eritrean athlete Tegsay Mehari narrated his experience to our correspondent.
“We’ve not had a good experience since we arrived in Nigeria. We spent two days in Lagos, waited for many hours at the airport before we were lodged in a hotel. I am happy that the storm is finally over, the past days have been hectic and discouraging,” he said.
The Kenyan athletes were visibly angry when they were told they would not be accredited. A member of the LOC had to plead with them before they returned to their buses and agreed to be driven to their hotel to rest and await their accreditation tags.
Three of them – Vincent Kipsang, Kipsang Temoi and Josephat Bett – ran in the men’s 10,000m about five hours after their arrival in Asaba. They however did not win as Kipsang finished fourth while Temoi was fifth.
South African journalist Wesley Botton wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, “No hotel rooms available and no accreditation for us to get into the stadium, less than an hour before the start of the African Athletics Champs. This mess keeps getting messier…”
The accreditation was sorted on Thursday when all athletes and journalists received their tags. But pictures of journalists sitting on bare floor and working with their laptops in the media centre went viral. Reports said there were no chairs initially at the media centre.
Foreign journalists also complained that they had no power outlets to plug their equipment in the media tribune of the Asaba stadium.
But for the Tanzanian team, who decided to boycott the championships on Thursday because of the organisational lapses, it was good riddance to bad rubbish.
Athletics Tanzania’s secretary Wilhelm Gidabuday said the team decided to withdraw because of concerns over a lack of information about visas.
“When the letters were sent, it was even sent via Whatsapp and not email. We saw what happened to the Kenyan team and we can’t risk that happening to our athletes. We will wait till next time to compete,” Gidabuday said.
“The website was not working, so we travelled to Asaba because we were so keen on participating. We are not angry, but we are disappointed,” Gidabuday added.
But Ogba said the Tanzanian team confirmed their participation and travel plans for the competition late.
He said, “Their decision to be in Nigeria was a late one by them, and that was what affected them. Technically, they were not registered and so it cannot really be classified as withdrawal.”
Performance-wise, the competition has witnessed a poor return of times by the athletes. This they attributed to the bumpy tracks of the Stephen Keshi Stadium.
Many athletes said the CAA-approved tracks were undulating and could cause serious injuries to them and thus preferred to run slower times and stay fit. The women’s 100m was won in 11.15secs by Ta Lou, who had ran faster times this year. The men’s 100m saw Akani Simbine of South Africa winning in 10.25secs.
“I came with the aim to run a sub-9secs but that is really not achievable on the tracks. I have to be careful to avoid serious injuries,” Simbine said.
Ta Lou said, “The track needs to be worked on for a smoother finish. The surface appears good but when you run on it, you notice that it is bumpy and not smooth. There can be no fast times at this competition.”
Nigerian athletes also lamented. National men’s 100m champion Adeseye Ogunlewe, who finished fifth in the final of the event, stumbled in each of his races.
Although South Africa lead the medals table and are primed to win the championships for the third consecutive time, the competition has gone far from being smooth in terms of organization.
He said, “The tracks are bad. You are running fast and all of a sudden you bump into a bad portion and stumble. I almost fell in each of the races. I ran in lane 5 and 6 and each of them was not good.”
With over N4bn reportedly spent to organise the competition, the Stephen Keshi Stadium fell short of the standard expected of the African Championships.
According to IAAF, a host city of a major athletics championship should have met these conditions: a minimum of 1,000,000 population (for world championships), minimum 30,000-seat stadium, category 1 stadium certificate, eight-lane synthetic track, warm-up facilities including standard 400m track with at least six lanes and separate area for long throws (for world championships), in-stadium hospitality and facilities(for world championships), including catering for approximately 1800 people in the official stand (for world championships), three training venues (for world championships), at least 3000 beds in 4-star hotels, village-style accommodation (preferred for world championships), international airport within city and a minimum budget of at least US$40m (for world championships).
On Monday, Ogba said the stadium would be ready for the opening ceremony as contractors battled to put the stadium in shape on the eve of the competition’s commencement.
But as at Friday, the stadium still had no floodlights, which made events to be completed before 7pm. The scoreboard and several other parts were uncompleted as of the time of filing this report. It was learnt that some of the floodlights and some other materials needed to complete the stadium would arrive before the end of the competition.
On Thursday, a giant overhead water tank at the stadium collapsed and crushed two cars parked outside the fence of the stadium. The water tank, which was mounted on iron stands, was meant to serve the stadium’s swimming pool, which is still under construction, and some other parts of the stadium.
While athletics events were ongoing on Thursday, the tank crashed and destroyed parts of the stadium fence. The iron stands, on which the tank was mounted, tore the bonnet of a Sports Utility Vehicle while parts of the tank fell on another car.
“A Kenyan official actually called me to say they were almost crushed,” BBC Africa’s Celestine Karoney told TheCable.
Also, the sanitary facilities at the stadium could not be effectively used as there was no water supply to the toilets. Sanitary workers in charge of cleaning the toilets fetched water from a tank outside the mainbowl to cater for the athletes’ needs.
It was also learnt that the athletes had no changing room and reportedly changed their tracks in the open before heading out for their events.
An Egyptian athlete was frustrated after he could not get water on Thursday to clean up after using the toilet.
However, it’s not been all gloom as spectators enjoyed the competition. On Wednesday, the over 20,000-capacity stadium was filled as the opening ceremony held. On other days, an average of 1,000 fans thronged the stadium to cheer the athletes.
The crowd was thrown into ecstasy as the Nigerian anthem was played for the first time at the competition on Thursday after Tobi Amusan won the country’s first medal in the women’s 100m hurdles.
Also, Nigerian athletes Temilola Ogunrinde and Chukwuebuka Enekwechi set new national and championship records in the women’s hammer and men’s shot put en route to winning medals for the country. Ogunrinde, who is debuting for Nigeria at the championships, threw 67.39m on Thursday to win silver and erase the former record of 66.86m set by home-based Queen Obisesan in February. Enekwechi’s 21.08m was enough to win gold and erase the previous championship record of 20.04m held by South Africa’s Janus Roberts.
Despite the issues, Simbine scores the competition high and believes Nigeria has what it takes to host the World Championships in future.
“The competition was intense and everyone gave their best. There were issues with people’s arrival but I believed that occurred as a result of some challenges that were beyond the organisers’ control,” he said.
“If Africa was to host the World Championships, I believe Nigeria can do that if they correct all the problems that have been noted at this competition. They can do better than this but left to me South Africa will always host the best World Championships if they are given.”
To avoid a repeat of the travelling drama when athletes are leaving the city, the LOC said they have made arrangements to ease their departure.
Ogba said on Thursday, “To ensure that there is a hitch-free movement out of Asaba, we have made plans for six planes to leave Asaba on August 6 (a day after the championship). However, that is dependent on the departure schedules sent to us by the federations, and their deadline for submission is Thursday.
“Any country that doesn’t send their schedule will have to work out their own travelling arrangements themselves.”
However, CAA boss Kalkaba commended the efforts of the Delta State Government in hosting the event.
“We are lucky to be here at Asaba 2018. We must support the championships. As the athletes go home, I ask them to learn from this experience, it will help them to cope with situations in the future,” Kalkaba said.
And with IAAF president Sebastian Coe promising to assist the sport in Africa, it is believed that the organisational setbacks witnessed in Asaba would be eradicated in the nearest future.
Coe said, “I am not just here just here for the ceremony, I brought a big team with me from our headquarters to understand the challenges countries face in delivering athletics events like this even at the regional level.
“My team are also here to look to address and observe to see how they can be more helpful in the delivering more opportunities. Africa has a great potential and we have to work together with the officials on the continent to understand how the IAAF can help to develop the sport. This is a great event and although there are some challenges, the athletes have been doing well and that is good for the sport.”
At the 2016 Lagos Marathon we met with the Lagos State Governor who promised to host the African Championships. But it became obvious they were not going to host after we invited them to Durban to take the flag but they didn’t show up. We couldn’t put pressure on the governor to change his mind.
“And I asked Solomon Ogba who was AFN president then what is going to happen. He told us Delta State was ready to host and even at that we didn’t want to take the championships away from Nigeria.
“We didn’t have this kind of problem in previous championships. We have been to Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Marrakesh and Durban. The people there showed commitment and things went on well. We didn’t envisage this problem, but it depends on the kind of problem that presents itself and there is nothing the CAA could do.”
Those were the words of the Confederation of African Athletics president Hamad Kalkaba Malboum while explaining the choice of Asaba, the Delta State capital, as the host city of the 2018 African Athletics Championships, which began on Wednesday and scheduled to end today.