George Ashiru is the new President of Nigeria Taekwondo Federation (NTF) and seven-time Nigerian taekwondo champion in the lightweight and welterweight categories. He is also Africa’s first ever 7th Degree Black belt international master instructor. In this interview with IFEANYI EDUZOR, Ashiru who won a silver medal at the 1987 All Africa Games in Kenya and currently an international Class A referee speaks on his plans for the development of the sport in the country.
You were recently elected as President of Nigeria Taekwondo Federation, what should Nigerians expect from your new board?
We have just received a heavy responsibility in administering taekwondo in the next four years. And you are aware that Nigeria has participated in taekwondo in four Olympics which is a one hundred percent record. During that period, we have won medals in two of the Olympics which is a good record compared with most Olympic sports in Nigeria.
The expectation is now to go beyond appearances to increasing the colour of the medals both at the All Africa Games and the Olympics which are the two major international events we participate in. Right now, we have three years to do that before Rio 2016, so we have to get on the job almost immediately. We have to try and get our team in place which will involve fund raising and developmental projects because it is no longer like in the past where Federations go to the Sports Ministry to look for funds.
These days, we have to source for funds to augment whatever we get from the government. So, we are going to change the model of running the sport and adopt a business model by having departments. We are going to bring in professionals like chartered accountants and marketing specialists into these departments. They are going to give us business proposals and business plans which means we have to run the sport now as a business otherwise we will not survive our four-year tenure.
My first three months in office will involve re-structuring the Federation. We are going to apply a two -tier approach which will involve elite athletes’ and grassroots development, and talent identification at the zones. There will be technical committees unlike in the past where everything is centralised. In doing this, we will ensure that coaches in the nine zones of the NSC will form zonal technical committees on behalf of the federation. All these are some of our business models which hopefully will work.
What efforts will your board make to ensure that apart from the annual LG sponsored competition more corporate organisations are encouraged to partner with the federation to develop taekwondo?
I have already started making contacts on that and I have just received a letter of congratulations from the Korean ambassador to Nigeria. In addition to that, they have also awarded the Korean Ambassador’s Cup to Nigeria which will be held in September. The Korean government is also sending a 20-man demonstration team to honour us in the same month and test our athletes. Immediately after that, we are having another international tournament in Abuja, so within a month or two, we are going to have two international championships that will attract athletes from all parts of the world.
There are also local tournaments that are sponsored by NGO’s and state associations and we are going to use these tournaments to build up our teams towards Rio 2016. We are also expecting a Korean coach as a result of the bilateral agreement we have with the Korean government and I should be discussing with their ambassador on the possibility of having a Korean coach that will come and help us with elite athletes development and some grassroots development of the game. All of these are evidence that we have already started work.
The most important thing is that most of the board members have goodwill and we are going to use that good will to attract sponsors to the sport. We are going to approach more sponsors, but before we go to them, we must have good plans on ground which we are presently working on.
Many athletes in the past have complained about lack of adequate mats and head guards for fights, what will your board do to solve this problem?
Mats is one of the major facilities needed for the practice of taekwondo and with the technical support of the Korea government we will ensure that mats and head guards are provided in all the zones to avoid a situation where we have to transport them from one state to the other.
All we need to do is to find ways to provide mats in all zones so that whenever we are having training or tournaments, we will have the same facilities all over the place. Although this could take a year to accomplish, but I hope it will happen shortly because recently the Korean government gave NIPOGA some sets of mats and we hope to partner with them in this regard.
What plans do you have as regards the 2014 Youth Olympics?
We are going to participate at the Youth Olympics which is an age grade competition. Currently, we have a team of young athletes who are going on a training tour of Europe and West Africa. It is hoped that with that exposure, we are going to put up a good performance at the Youth Olympics which will prepare our athletes adequately for the Olympics proper.
During the London 2012 Olympics all hopes where placed on Chika Chukwumerije to win medal for the country in the sport, but the hope was dashed. What efforts is your federation making to ensure we produce more athletes that will challenge for medals at the 2016 Olympics?
It must be noted that it takes 12 years to create an Olympic champion, so what this means is that if we do not start looking for fresh legs now, expose them and build confidence in them, we will continue to have problems. So, we need to assess plenty of funds and ensure that bilateral relationships with countries we want to work with are not jeopardized.
We need to give potential athletes about nine months of continuous training which requires a lot of funding because these are full time athletes. So, if we can keep them in camp at least nine months for two consecutive years, we are going to have better results than in the past. The funding I am talking about is not N10 million funding but hundreds of millions, so, our board is going to sit down, do our home work well and come out with a policy document for the future of taekwondo.
Once we have this in place, we now go to the Ministry and negotiate with them and tell them that if they want medals, this is what they have to do and they in turn will tell us what they expect from us. Once these things are done, the next thing to do is to evolve technical strategy which will involve how to make sure that the best athletes are selected and not the favored ones.
How will you tackle the problem of re-training of coaches and technical officials during your tenure?
We have already started work on that. In the next two weeks, one of our instructors will be traveling to Korea for a three-month course which is the longest any Nigerian coach has received and this course is even sponsored by the Korean government.
The Korean government has also told me through their ambassador that after the Korean Ambassadors’ Cup in September, the winners of that tournament will also be sent to the Asian country for training. So what we need to do is to tie up a solid arrangement with that country to enable them give adequate exposure to our athletes through continuous training particularly for the All Africa Games. Apart from this, we are going to encourage coaches to improve themselves by organising regular seminars which will hold quarterly and also at the zonal levels. Remember, I told you that the Korean government is sending an expert and we specifically asked for somebody who is a former world champion that will train our athletes.
What is your take on providing a good social welfare package for taekwondo athletes in the country as is obtainable in other countries of the world?
To be sincere with you, the board cannot do everything. It is not possible for the national federation to be feeding, preparing and training athletes. As you know, the federation is a government agency and government does not provide any form of subvention. Having said this, we will encourage our athletes to do what is internationally recognised which is taking insurance policy that will indemnify them in case of injury. Already through the Black Belt College which I am also its president, we have been encouraging athletes to embrace insurance policies because when you are insured, you do not need to come to the federation begging for money.
There is no country in the world that does not encourage their athletes to be insured. In developed countries of the world like United States of America and Britain, the insurance policy comes through the government. What they do is that so long as you pay your tax, they deduct the national insurance from your tax and once an athlete is injured the insurance company will pay his claims, but unfortunately we don’t have social welfare scheme in this country. We are also going to look for a way to have agreement with schools to provide scholarships for some of our outstanding athletes.
For example, I was a beneficiary of government scholarship when I won silver at the All Africa Games held in Kenya in 1987 and equally won another scholarship from Lagos State Government for outstanding performance at the National Sports Festival tagged “Rivers 88’.
So I know the importance of scholarship. There are some big schools that can do that, but nobody has gone to them. I still remember there was a time University of Lagos had what was called sports admission which unfortunately nobody hears about now.
When we have agreement with state governments, they will be able to provide scholarships for gold medalists at the National Sports Festival instead of giving them N1 million or N500, 000 as is presently done. The advantage of it is that when athletes know that they will receive scholarships, there is the tendency for them to perform better. It is unfortunate that we believe so much on elite athletes forgetting about school sports where we have a lot of talented athletes. We fail to realise that we can get the crop of our athletes from NUGA, NIPOGA and other school sports competitions.