MY romance with Asaba as a resident began in March 2017. Then, as a member of the board of AFN, I travelled to Asaba with the President of CAA Malboum Kalkaba and then AFN President Solomon Ogba to persuade the Governor of Delta State, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, to host the African Championships.
Work commenced in earnest with so many things to do.
I fell in love with a city that gave me all the conveniences I enjoyed Lagos.
The residents, I thought, live as one family, until the rains started.
It had rained heavily one evening and the route to Okpanam Road was flooded, impeding vehicular and human movement.
A few minutes after the rain stopped, normalcy was restored as vehicle and human traffic resumed. But not so for opponents of the government of the day who flooded social media with images painting a distorted picture of Okpanam road and other parts of Asaba, with tales of a town that has been submerged for days.
Investigations revealed that in Delta, it is normal to play politics with bitterness, especially with the 2019 elections just months away.
DELTA SWAN VS CORRESPONDENTS
I thought sports will never be part of Delta’s politics of bitterness, until the list of accredited journalists for the championships was released.
Prior to its release, reportage of the championship was fair and balanced, but from the moment the list was released, bitterness crept in.
Sports Editors that applied for accreditation were denied and the reason is simple.
If editors cover the football World Cup and the Olympic Games, it is only fair and just to allow reporters cover events like the African Championships.
Most of the editors accepted my explanation, except one who was so bitter that he came to Asaba to do a negative story. Although he saw me, he never bothered to get the LOC side of the story, until it was published in an international medium.
In the case of correspondents in Delta State, the belief was that they and not members of Delta SWAN should be given priority.
From the moment the list was released and their names were missing, they started churning out negatives stories.
These are reporters who probably do not know if Blessing Okagbare is a sprinter or quarter-miler.
Their knowledge of the subject is zero. Explanations that their medium’s athletics reporters from Lagos or Abuja have been accredited fell on deaf ears.
Eventually, some of them were accredited and the moment they got accreditation, they requested for accommodation, brown envelope and transportation subsidy, which they erroneously believed come with accreditation.
Many texted their bank account details demanding to be paid. When they didn’t get alert, they resorted to writing negative stories.
Festus Ahon of Vanguard Newspapers, who wrote the water tank collapsing inside the stadium story which alleged that athletes and officials were scrambling for safety told me he wrote the false report because the LOC did not settle him.
The story was ridiculous.
Ahon broke the story while in Ughelli. The site where the tanker collapsed is about 100m from the stadium. Secondly, the area was condoned off, as it is a construction site.
When the tank fell, it fell outside the stadium and the affected cars were outside the stadium.
MEDIA WORKSTATION WITHOUT FACILITIES
It was the falsehood that Ahon and his likes were churning out that some reporters elsewhere were using to write opinions, without checking their fact.
For example, the report that the media workstation was not equipped was a misrepresentation of fact.
The media workstation was equipped and ready to serve journalists a week before the start of the championships.
On July 30, a clear 48 hours before the start of the Championships, we had the CAA/LOC Press Conference at the Media Workstation and journalists were seated.
This was shown on many television stations. But on the day of the opening ceremony, we got to the Workstation early and discovered that most of the chairs and table had disappeared. I believe it was sabotage.
I immediately wrote a letter of apology to all media practitioners, I called my colleague Harrison Ocholor, we ordered for one hundred chairs from a store nearby.
Because of the mammoth crowd that thronged the Stephen Keshi Stadium during opening ceremony, the chairs could not be brought in.
The moment traffic eased, we brought the chairs in but it was not reported.
ATHLETES SLEEPING AT THE AIRPORT FOR THREE NIGHTS
The report of athletes and officials sleeping at the airport for three nights was just plain mischief. Words of foreigners and mischief makers were taken as the gospel and some reporters did not bother to balance their stories.
It was not the responsibility of the LOC to make travel arrangements for athletes, officials and journalists from Lagos to Asaba.
The LOC’s responsibility starts at Asaba airport or the land border, that is the tradition.
As someone who has attended many games and championships as a reporter and as a media delegate, a team does not became the responsibility of the LOC until they arrive the host city, not the country.
As a reporter who has covered the Olympics, IAAF World Championships and African Athletics Championships, I arrange my accommodation, transport, feeding and others.
As a member of the board of AFN, I was a media delegate to games and championships, we make our arrangements.
I remember at the Marrakech 2014 African Senior Athletics Championships, we arrived Casablanca from Glasgow and waited at the airport for about nine hours before we were issued visas.
On leaving the airport, Olumide Bamiduro, the then secretary of AFN, had to arrange buses which took all night from Casablanca to Marrakech. We became the responsibility of the LOC when we arrived Marrakech.
Having participated in many African Championships and being aware of travels difficulties within Africa, the LOC set out to ease the burden of participating countries. This is the reason we organized the Delegates Registration Meeting (DRM).
At the meeting, it was agreed that delegates should send in their travel plans, at least two weeks before the arrival date, but majority did not adhere. The few that responded only did so a few days before their arrival date.
Equatorial Guinea was the worst. We were at the stadium discussing one evening and they just walked in to inform us that they are the delegates from Equatorial Guinea.
The LOC did everything humanly possible to clean the mess caused by our visitors.
Regular and chattered flights were arranged to transport them to Asaba. For those that could not be moved immediately, hotel accommodation was arranged at Novotel Hotel and the two Ibis Hotels in Lagos.
Regular users of Nigerian airports know that many of our airports are shut down by latest 11pm. So how could athletes have slept at the airport for three nights?
Moroccans arrived Lagos early Monday morning and were in Asaba Tuesday morning, I was at the airport to receive them. So how is Monday morning to Tuesday morning three nights?
If internet mobsters are spinning lies, I am hugely disappointed that established journalists and newsroom leaders joined the mob.
It is equally disappointing that a gubernatorial aspirant in Delta with heavy media contacts was running from one major newspaper to the other, begging with all manners of incentives to write editorial or front page comment about what he called Asaba Disgrace.
POSITIVES FROM ASABA 2018
While some Nigerian athletes, who I described as sore losers are blaming the track, on the same track IAAF, the world governing body of athletics, listed ten outstanding performances from Asaba 2018.
Botswana’s Nijel Amos beat world leader Emmanuel Korir in 800m, Ese Brume jumped a season’s best of 6.83m, Winny Chebet won the 1500m after holding off a late-race charge by Moroccans Rabab Arrafi and Malika Akkaoui. Just 0.15 separated the top three finishers.
Beatrice Chepkoech won the 3000m steeplechase in 8:59.88, the ninth fastest run of all time and one of the fastest un-paced performances ever.
Ruswahl Samaai defeated compatriot Luvo Manyonga by just two centimetres with an 8.45m season’s best leap in a competition in which the pair nearly matched each other’s jumps almost round by round.
Caster Semenya set two records in 400m and 800m.
OKOWA, DELTA DESERVES PRAISE COMMENDATION
Thanks to Governor Okowa and Delta State, Asaba 2018 achieved so many firsts in the history of the championships.
It had over 800 athletes in 46 events from 52 countries, this is the highest attendance since in 1979.
The 22,000-capacity Stephen Keshi Stadium was filled daily, the gate fee that ranged from N500 to N2000 did not deter them.
Stephen Keshi Stadium is no longer an abandoned project but now a world class stadium with a nine lane track. Just across the stadium is a training ground constructed by the LOC at the Anglican Girls Grammar School, among other facilities.
The equipment Delta has today is enough to host the IAAF World Championships or the athletics event of the summer Olympic Games.
Athletes and officials stayed in the city’s best hotels. Transport was super, security was excellent, there was no killing or kidnap, not even a mugging.
For the first time in the history of African Championships, athletes are getting prize money and teams are getting transport subsidy.
Many Deltans and Nigerians prospered from the championships.
Billions of Naira has been pumped into the state by the government, sponsors, and thousands of visitors from far and near. Most of the hotels in Asaba environs were fully booked. Souvenir sellers, food vendors, etc smiled to the bank. Asaba and Delta is now etched in the memory of millions from around the world.
But for a few mischief makers, most of them politicians, I really enjoyed my stay in Asaba and I will love to go back again and again.
OLUKAYODE THOMAS, a two time CNN African Journalist of Year Award Winner, is the Head Media and Publicity CAA Asaba 2018.