While the Olympics team came home without a single medal, the Paralympians are giving disabled Nigerians a welcome boost.
Fourteen-year-old Abdullahi Maggi has never had the luxury of watching a televised sporting event, but his eyes shine when he talks of Nigeria’s Paralympics team.
“I have heard there are people with no legs who can run. It makes me proud to be like them,” he says, spinning on a makeshift wheelchair in a crammed public home for disabled people – one of only two in Lagos, Africa’s largest metropolis.
He and his friends heard of the Paralympic Games for the first time this year, as news trickled in of Nigeria’s powerlifters winning 12 medals as of Friday, smashing two records along the way.
Maggagi has lived in the litter-strewn centre, where 250 surrounding rooms house almost 5,000 disabled people, since his legs withered away from polio at the age of four. “We want to be useful but we have no options. So we go begging, then they pick us from the street and put us in rehabilitation centres, but that is like prison to us. We try to occupy ourselves by playing football at times,” he says, showing calluses on his hands from pulling himself on his padded plank with wheels attached to it.
The Paralympian medal haul has been a ray of sunshine in a torrid run for Nigerian sport. Africa’s largest nation limped out of the Olympics without a single medal for the first time in over 20 years. Money thrown into crowd-pulling events such as football has disappeared into a black hole of corruption. In 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan sacked the football team and board and issued a two-year ban in an attempt to focus on training, before backtracking.
The Paralympians have won not only against disorganisation and inadequate funding – the Olympics team took the bulk of $14m (£8.7m) released only three months before the Games started – but in a society where disabled people have few options open to them.
“In another five years, I can see a gold medallist begging on the streets,” says Aare Feyisetan, a wheelchair user who coached the powerlifters to their 12 medals, including six golds. “In Nigeria when you want to talk to a person they look at you as if you only want to ask them for money. They believe that’s the only thing a physically challenged person can do.”
A former Paralympian who brought back a gold medal from the All Africa Games in 1995 and a clutch of golds in other international events, Feyistan says he narrowly avoided that fate. “If not for coaching now, I don’t know what I’d be doing. After the sport, there’s nothing else. That’s why the government should be doing something tangible for us when we return,” he adds.
Big name footballers are often awarded – or simply given – houses and cars in Nigeria. While a handful of officials, frequently paying from their own pockets, have nurtured disabled athletes, recognition has been a long time coming. Before heading to Korea for three months, most of the powerlifters trained at battered stadiums in downtown Lagos, where congested streets are difficult to navigate even for the able-bodied.
“There is nothing here, just the heat and rats. It is only their determination that allowed them to win,” says trainer Henry Oko, gesturing at rusting weightlifting equipment scattered outside one stadium.
Nigeria’s sports minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, says that’s set to change. “The lesson for us is that rather than spread our resources thin we focus on areas where we can win. We’re going to put more money into the sports where we have a comparative advantage,” he explains.
There have been other victories. “They have made us realise we have to give physically challenged people more opportunities in this country. They have made Nigerians proud in a way we haven’t been for a long time,” Lagos resident Odemuyiwa Tomori says, in front of an open air lagoon-side bar showing the Paralympic Games.
Beside him, motorbike driver Emmanuel Bzaryou agrees: “I’m from Liberia where, because of the war, we have facilities for amputees. Nigeria doesn’t have that. I really appreciate what the Nigerians have done. It makes people think: this man doesn’t have a leg but he is changing his life.”
Coach Feyistan has been approached by Brazil’s powerlifting federation. “We are having an impact even outside of Nigeria,” he says proudly. “I hope whoever is coming in to work in sports will now say: yes, this is how things can be done. From now on we can be seen as human beings in Nigeria.”