SAITAMA, Japan – Immediately, Nigerian basketball player Chimezie Metu shifted his disappointment from being eliminated from the Olympic tournament Saturday to outright disdain and disappointment in his country’s government and Olympic Committee.
Metu, an NBA player for the Sacramento Kings, ripped his country for what he called mistreatment of its Olympic athletes. According to coach Mike Brown, the Nigerian team took 30 hours to travel from Oakland, Calif., to Tokyo because they were forced to fly through Germany, apparently as a cost-saving move. A direct flight from San Francisco to Tokyo is 10 hours.
And while in Tokyo, seven members of Brown’s staff were not allowed to stay in the Olympic village for visa issues, prompting Brown to leave the village and stay at the hotel with his staff. Nigeria also had 10 track-and-field athletes banned from the Games for failing to meet drug-testing requirements in out-of-competition situations.
Countries that are considered “high risk” for doping by the Athletics Integrity Unit are required to take three tests in out-of-competition times within 10 months of major competition. Nigeria apparently had 10 athletes that did not meet those requirements.
Twenty athletes were banned in total, but Nigeria was by far the hardest hit by the sanctions.
Metu, who like a lot of his teammates, decided to compete for his native country in his first Olympics Games, wanted nothing to do with questions about the 80-71 loss to Italy, Nigeria’s third defeat in three games just two weeks after a stunning exhibition upset over Team USA.
Metu instead discussed the difficulties of even competing.
“I’d like to use this time to bring awareness and comment on the off-the-court things a lot of Nigerian athletes have had to go through in these Olympics,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult to go out there and try to focus on the basketball game when you’re dealing with so much stuff off the court. For a lot of athletes that are here that represent Nigeria, our country, we’re ready to risk it all and put it on the line, but our government and the Olympic Committee of Nigeria, they make it extremely difficult to go out there and just focus on performing on our sport. I’m not just talking about basketball. I’m talking about the track athletes. I’m pretty sure everybody has heard about the 10 track athletes that were disqualified and it had nothing to do with what they did.
“It was a lack of attention to detail and lack of empathy for the hard work that’s put in by us athletes by the Nigerian Olympic Committee as well as the government. For 60-something athletes to fly halfway across the world and get disrespected and humiliated by our country, that’s something that I’m pretty sure none of us will stand for. I commend coach Mike Brown; he’s put a lot on the line for us.”
The IOC dissuaded athletes from making political statements at the Tokyo Games and there have been very few. But Metu could be the first athlete during the Games to openly criticize his own country for its treatment of athletes. FIBA officials tried directing reporters to ask only about the game, but eventually relented when Metu and Brown freely addressed their issues.
“We had to practice with no coach before we played the best team in the world, Australia,” Metu said. “I just feel I have to bring attention to that and try to use this platform to speak out against this. We’ve got 60-something athletes here and every single one of us has had a hard time since we’ve been here.”
He said the disparity of treatment can be seen when the Nigerian athletes are in the Olympic village.
“We see other countries and how they’re living and it’s just so smooth for them,” Metu said. “Man, what I wouldn’t give to have that. Like I said, all of us would die for our country. We would put it on the line, every last one of us. They make it extremely difficult to want to go out there and want to represent honestly, but over and over again, they continue to (mistreat us).
“I would like to use this time to ask the government and the Olympic Committee to kind of reflect on it and just see the stress they’re putting on us athletes that are coming to represent their dream. Like I said, the game is secondary to me at this point.”
Brown, credited for helping Nigeria improve and become an international factor over the past few months, had not said much about the conditions the Nigerian team were subjected to, but he admitted the journey has been difficult, despite the success.
Brown said the team had an eight-hour layover in Germany after flying from San Francisco. He has also remained in a hotel with a majority of his staff despite having quarters at the Olympic Village.
“It’s stuff you have to go through, I guess, I don’t know, this is my first Olympics,” Brown said. “I don’t know why it is this way. It is tough when you look and see other teams have nine, 10 staff members here. There was added stress. We feel bad for the athletes because they don’t have the same advantages as other countries.”
Brown, who said four of his coaches weren’t allowed to attend games, took over Nigeria in an attempt to push the emerging basketball country to the next level. He has been an NBA coach for the Lakers and Cavaliers and is currently an assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
He pledged to keep coaching Nigeria.
“I coached in Afrobasket (African qualifying tournament) during a pandemic in 2020 in November and had no problems,” Brown said. “The players involved, as long as they want to keep coming back, I’m going to keep fighting for them. And I’m going to get this program headed in the right way because this program can be really good. We hit a few speed bumps during this Olympics and it hurts.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.