Some 7 years ago, I was part of a team of researchers from different countries in Africa that attended a workshop on Non-Communicable diseases in Africa.
Over lunch one day in the city of Nairobi, Kenya, one of them, a scientist and former athlete from the Mozambique, on learning that I was a former football player and captain of my national team, told us about the research project he was also working on about ‘Why sportsmen die young’.
It was an intriguing subject, and according to him, was relatively new as a concept in the world. Generally, because exercise is often considered the best medicine, it was never considered that beyond a certain threshold sport could also become lethal, the cause of early death of retired athletes. In his own findings, ongoing at the time, that was the case indeed – several high-performance athletes, for one reason or the other, die young. His private research was to find out why.
Deliberately, I have not kept in touch with him since then to find out more. Deep down in my heart I did not want to be told the truth. The mere thought of the possible veracity of such postulation would be a morale dampener for someone like me who is one of the global Champions of ‘Exercise is Medicine’.
Unfortunately, the reality is all around me. Were the National Institute of Sports working according to its original architecture, with a very rich research centre that has now become a home to cobwebs and rodents, work to discover the long-term effect of intensive exercise would have been commissioned to add to the school of knowledge.
So, here we are living in the reality of our environment.
In the past one week, Nigeria saw and experienced an unprecedented level of outpouring of support for an ailing national sports hero. Since pictures of one of the country’s greatest heroes, a national treasure and asset, a football icon, a leader and a gentleman to the core, hit the media airwaves like a tornado, the sports fraternity has woken up to new realities.
The picture was of a frail, ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, looking very old and very ill, wearing a hospital surgical gown, and being supported by a nurse and a few others to walk in a hospital corridor.
Within hours, the pictures and stories of his health condition had gone viral. Within days, an unprecedented number of promises and pledges of support from philanthropic Nigerians, had started to pour in like rain.
In one week, Chairman Christian Chukwu has moved from the obscurity and solitude of his sequestered life in Enugu to full attention in the centre of the universe! His health became the most talked about issue in Nigerian sports throughout the week eliciting unprecedented media attention and public reaction.
The Anambra State government had to quickly defend itself following accusations of neglect. The management of Rangers International Football Club has had to release details of funds it released for his treatment in hospital since all of this started.
For me, it was a reminder of my meeting in Kenya in 2012.
The reality is that, of the 22-man 1973 squad that won the 2nd All African Games Gold medal in Lagos Nigeria, with many of them just above 70 now, more than half the team have died.
The reality is that of the 1980 African Cup of Nations champions squad with only one in the periphery of 70 (the rest are far below) 6 have died!
The reality is that of the 1984 African Champions that also went to the World Cup for the first time, none of them up to even 60 years of age, 5 have died.
These are shocking statistics.
The story is similar across most sports in Nigeria – retired international athletes, particularly those in sports that are physically demanding and vigorous, dying relatively young and in penury.
It is truth that is hard to swallow, even with the reality staring us in the face.
Christian Chukwu is not alone in this medical health dilemma.
I look around the players of our generation and the list of those that are suffering different degrees of debilitating illnesses directly linked with our exposure to sport is very long.
I cannot go into athlete’s specific health issues here, but arthritis is number one, afflicting the joints and crippling ageing athletes. There are also other heart related challenges that have devastated the retired sports fraternity.
Unfortunately, it is an inevitability. Health challenges will come when they will come.
The tragedy is that we did not prepare for this time. No one told us. No one warned us. We would have been prepared for this period.
That’s why those that assembled us, those that made us train the way we did, those that used us and dumped us, those that have stopped doing anything for us since we stopped our sports careers as young men and now suffer the consequences in old age, they must take present responsibility.
Chukwu’s present case has become a litmus test for the country and the sports authorities at State and Federal government levels in particular.
The starting point is for sports persons that served their States and the country to a certain defined and agreed level should enjoy certain incentives and benefits in old age, otherwise the suffering and penury of retired ageing athletes will continue and become a burden and very bad advertisement for the country.
The starting point is appointing and engaging sports administrators with knowledge and experience of the field, and understand the sensibilities of sports. It is a sensitive and specialized field that should not be handed over to just any body, particularly, politicians.
Once again the Sports Ministries must surrender responsibility of day-to-day sports administration and development to National or State Sports Commissions with boards made up of sports technocrats and experts.
For now, Chukwu’s matter is and must remain on the front burner of our national concerns and discourse. Following his recent surgery and recovery, he must be taken abroad as early as possible by the governments for proper rehabilitation and better care in the absence of a good enough healthcare system in Nigeria.
That way, the rest of us can continue to contribute to the conversations, and be part of those articulating a proper direction and cause for all retired athletes across all sports in the country, so that our collective futures, particularly as we start to age, shall be more secure. We must not die ‘any how’ and early as a result of our ignorance or negligence to do what we should do but don’t.
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