–Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medalist, speaks on his plans to sell wrestling to the Nigerian public
Daniel Baraladei Igali is the President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation.
The Bayelsa State born former Canadian freestyle wrestler, who is an Olympic gold medalist has relocated to the country to develop the sport which brought him fame and fortunes.
In This interview with TUNDE KOIKI on the COMPLETE SPORTS STUDIO radio programme, SPORTS PLANET, Igali shares his passion to sell Nigerian wrestling to the international world…
Sports Planet: Mr Daniel Igali, thank you so much for finding time to talk to us sir.
Igali: Thank you very much for having me on.
Sports Planet: Well sir, let me start with you, you are an Olympic and Commonwealth gold medalist for Canada at the Sydney Olympics and subsequent Commonwealth Games, with the attendant fame and fortune that come with being an Olympic medalist in other countries. The question a lot of people have on their minds is why did you forsake all that and come back to Nigeria?
Igali: Well, I think it’s more out of my resolve to ensure that Wrestling thrives in Nigeria, that’s essentially why I came back. Added to that, I have a foundation, the Daniel Igali Foundation which also caters to the emotional, scholastic and athletic wellbeing of young people in the Niger Delta area, so I set up the Daniel Igali Foundation, set up the school and I needed to run that and my Grandmother was also getting older, you know, I grew up with my Grandmother from a very young age till I was about 10. I wanted to be with her till her last days, unfortunately she passed away two years ago. So there were a couple of reasons that made me come back, essentially relocate back to Nigeria but I think the core one was the fact that I wanted Wrestling to thrive in Nigeria.
Sports Planet: Ok, now you are the President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation, you also tried to get on the board of FILA, the International Wrestling Foundation, last month, I believe. How would you describe the journey so far in trying to reposition Wrestling in Nigeria?
Igali: It’s challenging, like every other human endeavour, you know I didn’t start out as the President, I started out as the Technical Adviser of the Federation, from 2007 to 2012 and within that period I took Nigeria to win our first international medal, our first world championship medals, in 2009 and 2010 we won bronze medals at the world championships, the first time in our history and in 2010 at the Commonwealth Games, we won three gold medals, the first time in our history, we went with 15 athletes and won 13 medals. I just assumed the position as President of the Federation, last year and in that short time, from just one tournament a year, we’ve been able to host two tournaments yearly, from when I became President, we’ve already had a tournament this year and we’re going to have another one at the end of this year in Bayelsa , which will make it two.
Our long term goal, we’re setting up a ten year goal from now till 2025, our aspiration from now till 2025, is to be one of the top six Wrestling nations in the World. We’re planning to fundraise and in other respects raise the sum of about 1.5 billion naira to actualize that feat, we want a situation where we have Wrestling centres in all the zones in the country, about six zones in the nation, we want to ensure that in every fertile Wrestling land there is a Wrestling mat. Right now, we just have about six standard Wrestling mats in the whole country, a nation of about 180 million people which is a travesty in itself. We have a lot of goals, we want to ensure that our referees and technical officials are up to date, there is just a grade one referee right now, so we intend to have six grade one referees by 2025. It is our desire that by the 2016 Olympic Games, we can win at least a medal, by the 2020 Olympic Games, we want to win at least two medals, we want to ensure that by 2017 to 2020, we could win multiple medals at the world championships.
These are the kinds of goals that we have and these are the kinds of goals that any productive Federation should be having and I’m hoping that without the hindrance of financial constraints, that we’re going to achieve all this in due course.
Sports Planet: You’ve spoken very clearly and eloquently about your plans for the future sir. Actually I was at the last Commonwealth Games and watched the Nigerian Wrestlers do very well at the Games. This brings the question to mind, Nigeria being a major Wrestling hot spot, Wrestling is one of the oldest traditional sports in this part of the World, yet parents find it difficult to let their children participate in Wrestling but these same parents allow their children take part in sports, like Taekwondo, Karate and Judo.
Igali: Yeah! This is because Wrestling has not been sold to the general public as a fun sport, as a healthy lifestyle. Taekwondo is more of a self defence mechanism for young ones and we’ve not been able to sell Wrestling that way and that’s what we need to do The other thing is that we’ve not been able to clearly differentiate between Freestyle, Greco-Roman, Female, Olympic style from that soap opera that you call professional wrestling where matches are pre-determined and people go to perform and entertain people. So, a lot of parents think that when you say wrestling, that is what you want to get their kids to be involved in. We need to do a better job of enlightening the public about what we do, how many medals we win, in fact if you go to the general public and you ask people, they don’t even know that Wresting is probably one of the mainstays of the National Sports Commission, at continental games. They wouldn’t know that at the last Commonwealth Games which just ended about three months ago, Nigeria won 36 medals and of the 36, Wrestling contributed 12.
One third of all the medals Nigeria won, they wouldn’t know that we had a 20 year old, Adekoroye Odunayo, who in my opinion was the stand out athlete of the tournament, not having one point scored on her. I want to also tell you that the quarter- finalist that she wrestled, a Canadian girl that she beat 10-0,which is superiority or a technical knock-out in Wrestling, just won a bronze medal at the World Championships last month. So Nigerians don’t know the potentials that we have in wrestling and I think it’s because we’ve not been able to get through to the mainstream society, we’ve not been able to sell ourselves to corporate Nigeria. I’m not saying Wrestling is the only sport that hasn’t done that, probably football is the only one that has successfully done that. Most sports that we would in our climes, call amateur sports have not been able to break through to mainstream corporate Nigeria, so that is the big problem that we have and until we are able to liase with companies, we’re able to have individual sponsorships for athletes endorsing brands, endorsing products and for instance, having kids eating cereal and having a Wrestler on that cereal box, I think the job of letting them understand what we are about is going to be that much more difficult.
Sports Planet: Well sir, what about those who say that your federation should go back to the grassroots, all those Nigerian traditional wrestling competitions? Maybe you should go back and start scouting from there to get athletes who are raw but talented for future competitions.
Igali: Sure! We do that, we do a lot of scouting. There are a lot of local tournaments where we send our scouts out to spot talents. What we must not discount is the fact that you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs. Every tournament or every competition that you have to organize requires a lot of funds, requires money and the biggest bane of Nigerian sports right now is funding. For instance, if Wrestling was even funded with half of the funding that athletics gets, I tell you that every year I would be having a world champion in Wrestling. But we don’t have the kind of funding that other sports have. We don’t have a quarter of the funding that the Under-17 football team has.
Sports Planet: (Cuts in) but the talent is there…
Igali: We have the talent, we have enormous talents. How do you get all that talent out when not one high school in the whole country has a wrestling mat? For instance in Canada where I come, the city of Surrey, the little city that I come from has 90 mats, ninety, nine- zero mats. Every school, every primary and secondary school has a wrestling mat and that is how we are going to be able to grow the sport but wrestling mats are not cheap, a standard wrestling mat costs about three to five million naira. Those are the kinds of things that we need to do, corporate Nigeria needs to understand this and understand that we have a goldmine in wrestling, we have a goldmine in some other sports that will bring a lot of pride to Nigerians. We want to be able to stand up at every international tournament, have that green and white flag waving all over the place and stand proudly and listen to the national anthem. We cannot do that if we don’t fund the sport. It is not about technical competence, we have people like me who have all the necessary competence in the world to administer the sport. But getting through to corporate Nigeria, I’m not even talking about government now, because I think government does their fair share, government can do more but corporate Nigeria has not come to the table and until they come to the table, amateur wrestling is not going to have the kind of success we all hope to have in the future.
Sports Planet: You’ve spoken particularly eloquently about your plans for the future, and the depth of talents Nigeria has, you’ve spoken about the fact that you have the capacity to administer the sport. What about those who say that we should look to foreign shores for some kind of technical assistance, in Canada, Russia or the United States for coaches who can groom our own athletes to world standards or even have students exchange programmes where we send our best athletes and wrestlers for scholarships in the United States?
Igali: In doing all of these, everything comes into play. I have a lot of friends in the United States, Jordan, the 74kg world champion, does not train in the United States alone, he spends three months of the year touring the whole world. He’s in France this week, Russia next week, he’s in Germany the week after, then on to South Korea. You cannot be the best Wrestler if you remain in your country, because you have to get acquainted with different styles of Wrestling. So I don’t in any way begrudge anyone who says we need to have some technical competence from outside, I do not begrudge anybody who says we need help in some areas. I also do think that my coaches and technical officials need some upgrading. I can also tell you that just competing within Nigeria, and then having just one tournament outside the country, I’ve been able to win world medals, so the talent is there. What we just need is that additional requirement, that little bit of extra push for us to be able to get the kind of medals we need and that also includes having some of our talented ones going to the United States, Sweden, Germany, Canada has an exceptionally great female wrestling programmes and there are a lot of universities ready to accept our athletes. But we must have states and organizations that are willing to also add to the kind of scholarships we have. Particularly in wrestling, there are no full scholarships for athletes, they are going to provide partial scholarships. So for instance, Miss Adekoroye from Ondo state, this state government should be able to say, Ondo state government will give a scholarship to this athlete to go to any university in the world and I know the university she will go to, where, when she comes back in two years, she will definitely win a medal at the Olympics.
Sports Planet: Finally sir, what is your personal target for the 2016 Olympic Games? What would you like to see Nigeria achieve in Wrestling?
Igali: To be very frank with you, I would like us to win a medal. I would like Nigeria to win at this stage where we are, you know, we don’t have time, we have 16 months to the Olympics in 2016.
We don’t have very much time. All the other tournaments we’re going to have from next year are qualification ones and those are pressure cookers. When you are going to qualification tournaments, there is so much pressure on the athlete and you can’t even do as well as you should do. We have missed out on the 2013 and 2014 world championships, so we just have one world championship to go to and that happens to be an Olympics qualifier, so my target in all sincerity is for us to win a medal, any medal, if we can win a bronze or silver medal, I’ll be grateful to God on high if we can win a gold medal. However, if we can win a medal, I’ll be extremely grateful but we can only win a medal if we get it right.
Sports Planet: Mr Daniel Igali, it has been an honour and a pleasure speaking to you today sir, thank you for your time.
Igali: You’re welcome!