By Collins Ajibola
As the Coronavirus pandemic ravages the world and affects all spheres of life including the sports sector, there is no gainsaying that the time is now for well-meaning individuals, and groups to come to the aid of humanity, by supporting governments at all levels in alleviating the suffering of the people due to the forceful lockdown to contain the menace. In this interview conducted via WhatsApp, the Technical Director of the Gymnastics Federation of Nigeria and the Chief Executive of Tony International Gymnastics, Coach Tony Asuquo highlights the challenges of the Federation, discovery of talents, and his dream to see Nigeria attain podium success in Gymnastics at the Olympics.
You recently collaborated government’s effort as the Federal Government locks down the FCT in order to contain the spread of the dreaded COVID -19 by putting smiles on the faces of poor and vulnerable people in the city with distribution of food items and relief materials, how do you feel doing this?
I derive joy in making people smile. I remember when I started Gymnastics at the Lagos State Sports Council in 1989, I was living in Oshodi barracks with nobody helping us to get to the Sports Council, and so what we did then was to wait for the train at the train station everyday by 4pm. By the time we board the train, we usually hid in the toilet because we had no money to pay for the fair. As soon as we get to Alagomeji bustop, that is the bus stop before the then Lagos State Sports Council, now known as Lagos State Sports Commission, we alight there and run to attend training. After the training, we hop again into the Big Yellow buses in Lagos popularly called ‘Molue’ from Casino bus stop and plead with the bus conductor to help us as we stand all through the trip or sometimes, we beg some elderly ones sitting to carry us on their laps. With all of these, it was tough, but we were determined to be successful and get better lives for ourselves. Considering the fact that our parent weren’t wealthy, and seeing a lot of poor people, I made up my mind then that if God blesses me, I will always reach out to the poor and put smiles on their faces. I was raised by a single parent, my mum, who sold her wares including her wrappers to see me through school and give me education, which has helped me appreciate a humble background. We are not taking anything out of this world, so why will I store and store. The best thing is to serve humanity. It gives me joy doing so. I am one who want to leave legacy and not currency. People, especially children learn from legacy, not currency. Legacy can make them better in life, but currency will be spent and if not careful mismanaged. This is why I love putting smiles on faces of people, especially children. For example, so many people in the villages we went to in this course don’t know what is COVID-19, they don’t care about personal hygiene. We gave them some sensitization, distributed hand sanitizers, and how to keep social distancing. I also taught the children some basics of Gymnastics.
What has been done by the Gymnastics Federation of Nigeria at the grass root level to grow the game of Gymnastics, just as you have Football and Athletics dominating secondary school sports, because it is evident that even in the Olympic Games, Gymnastics is one of the strong pint for medal hauling by the Europeans and Americas?
It takes physical preparation for you to be able to grow grass root sports. All the six geo-political zones of the country must be involved. Thereafter, the technical team will guide them on how to effectively put the structures on ground. The rules and regulations and also make sure that the physical activities are fixed properly. Right now, what we have in Nigeria is individual talents from the Coaches. I am yet to really see any Sports Federation in Nigeria that has the policy of training athletes from grass root to competitive level. Since 1989 to 2006 that I have been competing at the NSF, I have never seen us take data of our athletes at the NSF. Though we have been able to discover athletes, that is, exceptional outstanding talents from the NSF, but keeping records of their data by the various federations so that they don’t just fade away has been poor. Many good athletes fade away with time because they lack encouragement from their federations or sports council. I must tell you that many athletes don’t get paid. They just go for training and after that, it is finish. Not many sports councils pay their athletes, what they most commonly do is call them during the period of NSF, give them lots of money and short term contracts that expires immediately after the NSF. Many federations too don’t get to organize developmental programmes. It is only when there is a competition that they gather the athletes and start the usual ‘fire brigade’ approach, which I think is not good for our athletes, especially the conditioning of their physical body. We should rather be helping them (athletes) with their body alignment. I also believe we should have a monitoring team. For instance, when I attended my Coaching Course at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, where I studied Sports Science, there is what is called Physical preparation that is given to each athlete.
Is Gymnastics part of the competitive games for the National Sports Festival that has unfortunately been postponed due to the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic? And if so, what happens to the Gymnasts, what is the feedback mechanism?
Yes, Gymnastics is going to be one of the sports at the sport festival. We have about 17states that should be taking part in Aerobic Gymnastics, Artistic Gymnastics and Power Tumbling Gymnastics. The Aerobic Gymnastics and the Power Tumbling Gymnastics are the new arm of Gymnastics introduced to enable us get more medals and also for those that couldn’t flip, so that they can join Aerobic Gymnastics as it can be done by anybody because it is very simple if you follow the element right.
Despite your unquantifiable contributions to the growth of Gymnastics in Nigeria, the jealousy, persecution and all the victimization especially from the present board, have you ever thought of quitting the stage or withdrawing your contribution towards the growth and development of Gymnastics in Nigeria?
There is no way I will withdraw my contributions from the growth of the sports in Nigeria. I will not quit promoting the game of Gymnastics in Nigeria. If I don’t have Gymnastics Federation of Nigeria, (GFN), in mind or I don’t want to grow Gymnastics in Nigeria, I would have gone to other countries that have offered me good pay. I wouldn’t have been in Nigeria, because the offers I have are not even from clubs, but countries. I must also say that when the GFN was grounded, when we got banned by the International body, I spoke with the President of the Federation of International Gymnastics, (FIG), and also the World Programme Manager, Addy Think and told him that we can’t just kill Gymnastics in Nigeria, myself and Ngozi Amayo, the former Secretary General of the Gymnastics Federation and the Treasurer who was a representative of the Ministry pleaded with them and I went to the bank to pay the sum of Eight Hundred Dollars and the ban was lifted. We spoke to the present President, Kevin Eremose, if he was going to pay, he said no. We also spoke to the former President of the Federation, Mr. Foluso Adefemi, he also refused to pay. I personally paid that money to get the ban lifted. Today, they are enjoying that benefit from the International Body. Yes, there is jealousy and this is very unfortunate. I have come to understand that the tree that bears good fruits ends up being stoned more. I will continue to do my best. Let me also add that from the first National Youth Games in Ilorin, to the National Sports Festival and the All African Games I have never gotten an accreditation card. The President actually asked Shagaya and co not to give me accreditation for the last NSF in Abuja. I was supposed to be representing Nigeria as one of the best in Africa at the Brevert Course that will qualify me as an African representative all over the world. The examination was for the 18th of December 2019, the letter was sent to the GFN, but the President directed the Secretary not to pass the letter unto me. He told me personally that he wasn’t going to allow me attend the course and I replied him that he is harming the country as a whole and not me. I like the President, I am not fighting with him, but where all these envy and jealousy are coming from, is what I don’t know. I am the only one that is certified in Aerobics Gymnastics Level 2 and also Artistic Gymnastics and remain the highest certified Coach. He said I have disrespected him and sincerely I don’t know how. But let me use this opportunity to say I am sorry in whatever way I have disrespected him. I will continue to do my best to see that Gymnastics grow in Nigeria.
What is your position of the catch them young prgramme, the foreign exchange programme to Japan, China, and other parts of the world. What also is this issue about the internal rancor with members of the Federation like Chief Obanor?
This is a very important question. It is said that you cannot do anything beyond your capacity. What you don’t know is bigger than you. Concerning the exchange programme with Japan, I remember when the Japanese Ambassador came to the National Stadium with Coach Isaiah Obanor, the Chief Coach of the National Team for so many years and he is one of the pioneers of Gymnastics in Nigeria. When this board came in, the President kicked him out and decided to use his own brother. But Coach Obanor refused giving out some information about the exchange programme that we are having with the International Body. I could remember that a Coach from the Lagos State Sports Commission got a letter from the Japan and he is yet to pass that information to the Federation because he believes they will snatch the programme from him and won’t get the opportunity to take part in the programme. Because the President doesn’t have the trust of the people, they have refuse to pass any information to him that will promote the Federation from their own end. Coach Obanor has the experience to grow the game in this country. He has a lot of connections outside. He is not the type to be pushed aside if we want the good of the game of Gymnastics in Nigeria. He is a like a father that will share his expertise with us based on how to promote Gymnastics in Nigeria, then we can now all work together to see how purify the sports and move to the next level.
With the current Coronavirus pandemic ravaging the world, what kind of exercise as an expert would you recommend for athletes who are preparing for the Olympics considering that there is almost a global lockdown of activities?
I have been able to reach out to two of our athletes who by God’s grace should be representing Nigeria at the Olympics for the first time, talking about Uche Eke and Annabel. I have using the online mode to reach them and I must say they have been taking their physical preparations serious. The only thing that Gymnasts will not be doing now is the flipping and flying skills. What the athlete will focus for now due to the situation is the physical preparation. For people that at home, when you wake up in the morning, make sure you stretch your body. Do some sit ups. Push-ups, jumping jack, squats and then stretch again. I will also advice that you take lots of fruits, drink lots of water and eat well.
What can we do to make Gymnastics a household sports in Nigeria, considering that many parents are scared of involving their children unlike Football?
Gymnastics is the mother of all sports. It is the number one sport in America, and also in South Africa. In America alone, Gymnastics has created over 40,000 jobs and in Africa, especially in the Tertiary institutions of learning, Gymnasts gets more of scholarships than any other sports. For instance, the Cheerleaders, the Balerin and the other components. All of these are from Gymnastics. You must not necessarily do Artistic Gymnastics that entails you tumbling. To promote Gymnastics in Nigeria is not difficult, it only demands creativity on the part of the Federation. Children are not scared to try something new. All you have to do is engage the parents and make them see the need.
You have been accused of only training the rich, what can you say about this and what plans do you have if any for the less privileged who have interest in this sport?
The rich children are also children. The rich also cry. But again, how do one identify the rich. Being rich is the state of the mind and not by how much you have. Some rich parents can’t afford to take their children to the Gym, instead they take them to the Cinemas, buy video games and all sort. The ones that come to Gym are not really rich, but they are ready to help their children get to the next level. Now, let me tell you something, we have Tomisin, and others like Michael, Goodnews. These children come all the way from Suleja in Niger state to the FCT, Gwarimpa, Galadimawa and some from Mararaba in Nasarawa state coming to the Gym. Some of them have not seen their parents in the last two to three years and also Muahmmed all the way from Ogun state. These are less privileged children, but today, they are super stars in Gymnastics. Tomi won a Gold Medal in Ilorin last year, defending what he won in the previous edition. He has been to South Africa with us and the lad is from Suleja. The parents couldn’t afford to buy air ticket, not even airport or Visa fee. So what we do is we bring parents together who want their children to do Gymnastics and create a platform on how to support a particular child. Emeka that we call Coach Emeka today is a beneficiary of such gesture. He is one of the top Aerobics Gymnasts we have in the country as at today. Emeka started Gymnastics with me when he was Junior Secondary School, JSS 3, right now, he is in the University. He even got a Scholarship in South Africa. Now let me also add this, Emeka’s parents are in the village. They are not rich. He has been staying with me in Abuja for over six years now. I do everything for them with the power of God and support of other good parents. We have just gotten them accommodation. Nothing from the government, it is what the parents contributes, such as Five Thousand Naira in a month and to shock you more, some parents don’t even pay. It is from this we pay the over 12 Coaches and Secretary that we have in our Gym. We do other things like lightning, plumbing, other infrastructure. Many of the equipment in the stadium are for Tony International Gymnastics, (TIG) and not even for the Federations. We train all and sundry, irrespective of your social status. Even the humanitarian services that we went for, there I discovered some children with potential and we are going to give them scholarships from the grassroot level to the competitive level. Remember that last year we trained over 300 vulnerable children for UNESCO. In December we also went to school Handicapped in Kuje and trained some of them. I did that because physical exercise is also good for the children. Everybody is rich in the Gym, no poor person. A poor child can be siting with a Governor’s child and you will never know that the child is poor. It is just a thing of the mind and how your project it to the parents.
Beyond Gymnastics, you seem to have passion in helping the needy. Are you planning to lunch a foundation and if yes, when will that be?
We would get there very soon. First of all, I just want to focus on Gymnastics. The foundation will come very soon. My ultimate goal for now is to see that we produce Olympic Champions for the country.
Thank you for your time Coach Tony.
Thank you for having me. God bless Nigeria.