The start of the African track and field championships in Nigeria was delayed Wednesday after hundreds of athletes were stranded at an airport, some for three days when they were left to sleep on the floor as they waited for a connecting flight to the host city.
Those who did get on a plane from Lagos to Asaba in Nigeria’s southern Delta state had to fight for their place, one team coach said, calling the scenes at Lagos’ international airport “totally chaotic.” “People were exchanging blows, people were pushing and shoving to try and get a seat on the plane,” Zimbabwe coach Lisimati Phakamile told The Associated Press.
The Confederation of African Athletics said only a small number of events scheduled for the first day of Africa’s top athletics competition would go ahead, and would be moved back from Wednesday morning to the afternoon. The majority of the events scheduled for Day 1 in Asaba will take place later in the week with teams still arriving.
The CAA said there had been “organizing problems” as angry and exhausted athletes were stuck in Lagos amid long delays. Some were still there on Wednesday. Photographs posted on social media showed Africa’s top athletes sleeping on the airport floor surrounded by their luggage. Some used suitcases for pillows as they slept next to abandoned airline check-in desks. Members of the Kenya team, which includes current world champions Elijah Manangoi and Hellen Obiri, spent 48 hours at the airport and threatened to quit the championships and go home before they all finally reached Asaba on Wednesday.
“It’s not being rude … it’s being real. Nigeria is a poor, poor country,” Nicholas Bett, Kenya’s 400-meter hurdles world champion in 2015, wrote on his official Facebook page. The stranded athletes included South Africa’s Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya and long jump world champion Luvo Manyonga. The South African team spent three days in Lagos.
Moroccan high jumper Rhizlane Siba, the 2014 African champion, said she and her teammates were also stranded for three days and claimed they were given little help by organizers. “We slept the first night at the airport. And then we slept the second night at the hotel,” she said in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday. “They claimed that we had a flight coming today. We’ve spent the whole day in the airport waiting for a flight but when some of the Nigerian team came in, they took our spots and went to Asaba. We are stranded in Lagos. We haven’t trained for three days, and we haven’t eaten properly in two days.”
Phakamile, the Zimbabwe coach, said only one small plane was made available by organizers to take the hundreds of athletes arriving in Lagos to Asaba. The plane was making 3-4 trips back and forth per day, he said, but it still wasn’t enough. Together, the Kenya and South Africa teams brought nearly 200 athletes and officials. “I’d never seen such poor logistical arrangement,” Phakamile said. Officials at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria said they were not responsible for the problems and it was a matter for airlines and the championships organizers.
Kayode Thomas, spokesman for Asaba’s organizing committee, declined to comment and said the organizers would instead issue a media release later. IAAF president Sebastian Coe is in Nigeria for the event, which was initially meant to be held in Lagos but was moved to Asaba, a city with no previous experience of major sports events. Asaba’s airport doesn’t operate at night because of inadequate lighting, compounding the problem.
“Whoever gave Asaba the rights to host this year’s African athletics championships must see a doctor,” Kenyan journalist Muigai Kiguru said. He was stranded with the Kenyan team. Organizers put on a colorful welcoming ceremony for Coe in Asaba on Tuesday as the problems continued in Lagos. Ghana’s team gave up waiting for a flight to Asaba and instead flew to Benin City and made a two-hour road journey to Asaba, Ghana Athletics Association general secretary Bawa Fuseini said. Ghana has just four athletes competing. The problems weren’t restricted to Lagos’ airport.
Malawi’s athletes were still at home on Wednesday, waiting for organizers to issue them visas to travel to Nigeria, their athletics association said. “If we get the clearance by today, they will go. If not, there would be no need for them to go,” Athletics Association of Malawi general secretary Frank Chitembeya told the AP. The championships are scheduled to end on Sunday.
Pix shows track and field athletes competing