This is the second and final part of this story. Here is Part 1 of ‘Nigeria’s female Athletics pay a high price in a male-dominated field.’
For the 2019 African U-18 and U-20 Championships in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, about 11 coaches (nine male and two female) made the trip, with the two females being Endurance Ojokolo-Akpeki and Emily Osakwe. For the African Games in Rabat, Morocco, Ojokolo-Akpeki, was once again the only female coach selected to the team, alongside five male coaches. She thereafter made it to the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, as the only woman out of eight coaches selected.
The outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 put a pause on competitions and global travels as the world grappled with the new realities introduced by the pandemic. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics was moved to 2021. Eventually, an all-male coaching crew made up of five individuals, was selected to travel with the Athletics team to Tokyo, and even though her athlete, Itsekiri, was one of the sprinters representing Nigeria in Tokyo, Ojokolo-Akpeki was not invited for the trip. She would later be included in the team for the World U-20 Championships a month later in Nairobi as the only female coach.
The AFN participated in four major competitions in 2022: the African Senior Championships in Mauritius, the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, USA (where Tobi Amusan would shatter the world record in the 100 metres hurdles), four male coaches, the World U20 Championships in Cali, Colombia, four coaches, three male, one female and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in the United Kingdom four male, one female. Each of these competitions had one female coach in attendance, apart from the biggest event: the World Championships, which was predominantly a male affair, as all four coaches selected were men.
Where is the equity?
Mulling over these statistics upsets Ojokolo-Akpeki who believes that the inclusion of more female coaches for these events would encourage more women to venture into coaching. “The number one reason many female coaches are not encouraged to stick with this career is the lack of support, and what I mean by support is about the federation having your back”, she says.
“We are not many female coaches. There are about 10 of us in the country that I know of right now, but we are not being encouraged and supported. We need exposure. We can only get better when we are exposed, but we are not getting that from the federation. A lot of the times you see a team consisting of four male coaches and one female coach, or none at all; where is the gender equity? These are some of the reasons women give up on coaching, because we are not getting the right support.”
An AFN official who did not want to be named, noted that World Athletics has made it compulsory for federations running duly accredited coaching courses to have at least 30 percent female participation, in a bid to bridge the gender gap in coaching.
In a press release to commemorate the 2023 International Women’s Day, World Athletics reaffirmed their commitment to provide more opportunities to empower girls and women across the world via their #WeGrowAthletics campaign.
Part of the statement goes thus: “World Athletics pledges to Increase the number of female coaches at our World Championships to at least 20% by the World Athletics Championships Tokyo 2025 by encouraging Member Federations to send more female coaches, and providing the learning pathway in countries where women are underrepresented at the coaching level.”
Emilia Oyase states that these provisions made by the World Athletics have proven to be the saving grace of female athletics coaches in Nigeria. She said: “A lot of the time, our federation acts like they do not trust us or even see the efforts we make, as though it is only the male coaches that are knowledgeable. This is a very tedious job. If not for the fact that World Athletics has a charter that gives us female coaches a quota, we will not be considered for anything.”
Responding to insinuations that female Athletics coaches aren’t given the required support and exposure needed to help them develop their competence and capacity, AFN’s current Chief Coach Seigha Porbeni says the federation is left with little or no choice as only few female coaches meet the selection criteria to be considered for international competitions.
He said: “The first factor that earns a coach an invitation would be the number of athletes that coach has on the team; it shows competence and productivity. Secondly, there needs to be a national spread for everyone to be carried along, so that it’s not only coaches from a particular region of the country that make the team. Also, the coach should not be of questionable character, because they’re going to be with other people’s children, and need to be regarded as mentors. These are some of the areas we consider, amongst others.”
As the only individual to have served in the capacity of AFN’s Head Coach, Amelia Edet is of the opinion that female coaches have not been given adequate opportunity to prove themselves.
She said: “There are female coaches that work with the states and are hardworking. After all, the federation does not have athletes. All of the athletes selected to represent the country come from the states, and have coaches who discovered and nurtured them to the level they are. They need to be reached out to. The AFN board I worked with did that. The federation invites some of these female coaches to camp but ends up dropping them when it’s time to travel. What’s the rationale? Besides, there has been a trend of taking coaches who had no business being on the team to international competitions, and we end up coming back with nothing.”
Edet, who was honoured by World Athletics at its 47th Congress held in Berlin in 2009, receiving the prestigious IAAF Veteran Pin “for long and meritorious service to the cause of world athletics”, stated the importance of having more women as part of select teams to international tournaments.
“There should at least be a chaperone on every team to look out for the interest of the female athletes, but sometimes they are knocked off because people from the Sports Ministry want to travel”, she stated. “They end up using someone in the ministry who is not even used to the athletes. Even if you’re not going to bring a female coach to serve in her capacity as a coach, bring her in as a chaperone, because she already knows these athletes. That way, there will be discipline.
“Also, she would serve as someone the athletes can confide in in case there are any issues, which will yield positive results, because the female athletes have rest of mind; nothing is disturbing them and having her there will allay their fears. I was the chaperone at the 1984 Olympic Games; I also attended the Atlanta ’96 Olympics and then led the team to the 2000 Games in Sydney.”
The long road towards attaining gender equality
Having acknowledged the disparity in the ratio of male to female coaches globally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in collaboration with international sporting federations, seeks to bridge that gap and increase the representation of women coaches at elite levels as a matter of urgency.
The IOC is putting its money where its mouth is by launching a four-year programme tagged WISH – the Women in Sport High-performance pathway programme – which is being supported by USD 1 million in Olympic Solidarity funding and aimed at equipping 100 women for coaching at elite levels (Olympic, World Championship and continental teams) by 2024.
According to the IOC, “The programme is designed to help female coaches develop their leadership skills, confidence and careers. Mentoring is also a very important part of the programme. Coaches benefit from one-to-one leadership mentoring plus ongoing support from a sport-specific mentor. Such expert advice and feedback on real-life challenges can be invaluable to any coach, let alone a woman striving to perform at the top of her game in a male-dominated environment.”
Interestingly, Ojokolo-Akpeki is one of eight Athletics coaches (from across the world) selected for this programme, which she described as transformational. In an interview with worldathletics.org, she said: “When I was called by the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC) to be a part of this programme, I was so excited because I knew this was another opportunity for me to empower myself. It was like a dream come true. The one-week residential training felt like a lifetime of learning. What I gained in one week, some people spend a lifetime trying to achieve the same.
“The facilitators were really great and worked so hard to see the best come out of women; it broke something in me and brought out a new me,” she added. “Sometimes I can be timid and not challenge the status quo. The experience there has opened me up. The programme is not just about you as a coach but as a person, a wife, a mother, and a coach. There’s so much I learned from there. I’m a different person. Anyone who gets this opportunity should take advantage of it. There is a lot to learn. The chains were broken. It was a great experience.”
Would the AFN be toeing a similar path like the IOC and World Athletics by putting up structures to encourage more female coaches? Porbeni says it is highly unlikely that the AFN would do so publicly.
He said: “Organising programmes specifically for female coaches will look discriminatory, because in coaching we are one, so once you design any programme specifically based on gender, you will be brewing a gender war, and we already have enough issues to thrash. However, we can indirectly motivate them by providing some form of incentives, like traveling along with those of them who have produced athletes that make the national team.”
In the meantime, the ACAN President, Solomon Aliyu says one of the steps that can be taken to bridge the gender gap in coaching is to encourage a lot more female athletes who are at the brink of retiring, to take up coaching as a professional career, since it would be familiar territory for them.
He said, “Female athletes that are retiring would be encouraged to go into coaching, especially in events that they specialised in during their active days. That way, they can combine their experience as athletes with the knowledge they gain from the classroom, thus creating a seamless transmission. That will make them a total package, and we will have more of them enrolling in their numbers.”
Ahead of the Commonwealth Youth Games in Trinidad and Tobago, and the World Championships taking place in Budapest, Hungary – both holding in August – it remains to be seen if the sacrifices the likes of Ojokolo-Akpeki, Oyase, Itanyi and Lawal have made, will count.
This story was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Report Women! Female Reporters Leadership Programme (FRLP) – Champion Building edition.