Nigeria will host the maiden edition of the Africa Track Championship, the African Cup at the State of the Art Velodrome Complex in Abuja. In this interview with Abuja Bureau Chief, Tony Ezimakor, Chief Giandomenico Massari, President of the Cycling Federation of Nigeria, talks on the prospects, challenges and benefit of hosting the event; Excerpts.
How would you assess the board under your leadership over one year now?
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Our achievement can be measured by what the athletes are doing. One of our junior cyclists, a female, is ranked 5th in the world in the Point Race Track. We’ve achieved many feats particularly in Road Race and now we are glad to secure the Velodrome for our use, which has been inactive since it was built. It was renovated shortly before the last National Sports Festival and that’s when we started training with it. Imagine within one month, these two junior and senior athletes went to South Africa and won five silver and two bronze medals. They did very well with short preparation. Imagine what will happen if they receive adequate training with right equipment. One good thing is that the Velodrome is a state of the art facility, one of the best in the world. We are intensifying effort in road races as well as tracks. In the road race, we have won a lot of laurels. At the Youth African Games in Eritrea, we won gold and silver, and in the last All Africa Games we won gold and silver in female category. Even last year we had good outing in a competition in Ghana for West Africa, we won gold in the male category. Certainly things are improving and interest is picking up. Following the successes I’ve listed, we were awarded the hosting right for the 1st edition of Africa Track championship (Africa Cup) that will hold here in Abuja July 26 to 28. We will invite all cycling federations in Africa to come and compete for the various medals at stake. I hope Nigeria will excel in this competition.
What preparations is the federation making to ensure that we perform well?
There are two types of preparations, the athletes’ preparation and organizational preparation. In the athletes’ preparation, we have sponsored a two week training programme between April 28th and May 12 at the Velodrome. We invited all the states male and female, elite and junior to participate. We have very good response from them. We have over 90 cyclists’ elite and junior from all parts of the country taking part. We are happy, even zones where cycling as sports never existed are showing interest. For us it is a great thing that cycling is now growing and is being accepted in all the six geopolitical zones making it one of the fastest growing sports in the country. We invited some West African countries, Benin Republic and Ghana. We have started on a very successful note with our selection to pick the best for the competition in July(which is the African Cup). We have already qualified for the World Junior Championship (male and female) coming up in Germany from August 14-18. We also have the All Africa Games (AAG) which is for the seniors coming in Morocco in August. The AAG is Road Cycling but the African Cup is track. In this training we have included two courses for coaches in Track Cycling and Commissars. We hope to train 20 coaches and 25 commissars in three days. We are doing this to upgrade all areas of the cycling family. For the Africa Cup, we have a massive preparation that hopefully will be supported by UCI, two weeks before the championships. There will also be training courses for coaches and commissars where certificate will be awarded. The instructors will be coming from UCI. Those who excel in the exams will be elevated, and that will raise the standard of the sport among the best in the world professionally.
It appears we will soon begin to reap the benefit of the Velodrome?
The Velodrome was built specifically for track race. It can be used for other indoor events. Track race is one of the highest specialties in cycling. It is one of the disciplines of the sport that Nigerian athletes have very great potentials. In Road Race we have shown great potentials particularly the females. They are giving evidence that they can get to the top of their game. The boys are not at that level but they can get there. On track, Nigerian athletes have great advantage; the average Nigerian athletes have great strength, power and are good in sprints. With short preparation we went to South Africa and got medals. There is potential and high possibility for males. This very category is even good preparation for Road Race because if you see those who are champions in the roads race, they have already made preparation on track. We have a big advantage moreover the facility is here and we are not building it new. It is not a waste because there is room to train people as masseurs, mechanics, athletes’ coaches and commissars. In a way it is a complete industry
What other preparation are you making for the Africa Cup?
The Africa Cup is a big task ahead of us. If the programme is successful, it is a success not on for Cycling Federation but for Nigeria. We intend to raise the standard. We are also thinking of incorporating a sort of partnership that will showcase Nigerian made cultural artifacts, fashion, food etc. We want to use it to showcase young promising fashion designers; we want a situation where we forge collaboration with fashion. We also want to use the event to put Nigeria again on the global map by bringing past icons of the sport like world champions in Cycling to be the face of the event and testimonial of the sport. We want to create a show that goes beyond championship, attract interest for sport and visitors and tourist to Nigeria. Our desire is to showcase Nigeria in a manner that it will positively attract attention of the world media, like CNN, BBC Aljazeera. For us the image of Nigeria is very important.
What you are planning requires huge capital outlay. Have you got sponsors for this event and how much are you looking at?
We have initiated discussions with potential sponsors and friends of the sport. I don’t want to disclose who and who at this time. Because we want to attract sponsor not just to do a promotion of one sport event but sponsors that will enjoy the challenge of promoting people of Nigeria in their various endeavour, through the sport of Cycling and the Fashion I talked about. And of course the sponsor is promoting the country and at same time the sponsor will be associating your brand with an event that showcases the best part of the country. We want to do this to promote the country, the youth of Nigeria and engage in a lifelong career through Cycling. Others who see this will be attracted. Sport generally is an avenue to nurture the youth to greatness, give them hope. When you give hope to the youth, you are battling the societal vices, the restiveness, the criminality, and you are giving opportunity for them to have a career, to earn a living. As I said embracing the sport and creating the kind of chain we have in cycling, you are creating a career you are starting when you start riding, and after you retire, you can continue as a coach, commissar, mechanic, masseur or any other part. So you have a life long career.
As regards the Africa Cup, what challenges are you facing now? We now have the velodrome, are you saying everything is set?
Well the facility is basically set because it was built to be of high standard, despite the passage of time the facility is okay. The only challenge we have is that when it was built in 2003, it was not a requirement to have an internal transparent barrier separating the track from the inner part. But now it is a requirement, since it was introduced in 2005, before it can be certified for use.They have come to inspect the Velodrome and they say it is okay except the barrier. Once we put the barrier, we get certification. That is why we are pleading with the ministry to assist us with this. I hope they will do this for us because the asset is not our own, it is the ministry’s. At the end it will raise the value of the asset, and only that can guarantee its certification by UCI. After that any type of international event can be held here. We are very lucky to have such infrastructure and at this state. But like I told you, an event like the Africa Cup requires funding and we are looking for more than one sponsor. We are looking for consortium of sponsors. One sponsor is good but two, three sponsors can share the cost and at the end they will have a very good appearance. We are looking to staging an event that leaves international impression.
What about equipment, the track bikes, do we have the bikes?
We have six track bikes but this is not enough. We are planning to have 30 cycles plus the promise UCI made to donate 20 bikes. There other things I am not disclosing, they are supposed to be in the pipeline and UCI has assured us. This location is going to be one of UCI Satellite Centres in the world. At the moment, there’s South Africa, Egypt and this will be for the whole West Africa region. It’s a great opportunity; we have good athletes and now the infrastructure.
When it comes to cycling, Giro De Italia and Tour d’France, and these are massive events. When do you think our Cycling will get off this incubation stage?
It is a long road. Who started Cycling as a professional sport? France followed by Italy. We have Tour du France and immediately two years after, Giro De Italia but how many years ago was that, 1900. So we have more than 120 years of distance to catch. Nigeria is not starting now, we started before and we have made some good achievement in the past, eventually everything declined for some reason but now we are ready to climb back but we have this gap. Notwithstanding we have had good achievement in Road Cycling, especially the female. But we have started to create a change but we must also create a succession plan so that young athletes can always take from ageing ones. So we are planning seriously to host the Nigerian championship around October/ November. We also want to resuscitate Tour of Nigeria, it is top on agenda. This is the way to grow the sport.
Recently Confederation of Africa Cycling, appointed you the Head of its Marketing Commission, how will the appointment benefit the Africa Cup.
Sometimes some appointment tears you between two poles. Being there you think CAC and here you think Nigeria. In any way we can synergize to get benefit to Nigeria and benefit to all Africa Cycling family. I am planning to secure sponsor that can sponsor here and there. We have to create programme that will attract sponsors, invest in Cycling, and invest in people. We also note that the Cycling as an activity has heath benefits and this is what we have been doing. It also benefits the environment and decongest traffic. So embracing it people get benefit for themselves, the environment and the society.