Lagos, Nigeria – The sun beats down on the baked grass as spectators shelter beneath a blue and white marquee. The field of the Lagos Polo Club is emblazoned with the name of the oil and gas firm Caverton.
The tent does little to alleviate the oppressive humidity as team Zippy begin their preparations for the afternoon’s Low Cup. This is the second week of the Lagos International Polo Tournament and the tension is mounting. Bode Makanjuola, 39, takes deep drags on a cigarette while his younger brother, Rotimi, stares into the distance.
The keen polo players are at the heart of Caverton, a family-owned company run by the Makanjuolas. A childhood friend, Sherrif Shagaya, and a South African professional player, Leroux Hendriks, form the other half of team Zippy.
“I’m trying not to shout,” says Rotimi softly. Apparently the ponies and jerseys from the sponsor are yet to arrive. “So many things have gone wrong,” he says.
The 34-year-old – whose friends and family call him ‘Tim’ – says he always gets butterflies before a match.
Leroux discusses strategy and, 15 minutes later, after the jerseys and ponies have arrived, the team rides out into the heat.
The South African’s voice can be heard throughout the match – coaching and coaxing his team-mates to victory.
‘The sport of kings’
It isn’t unusual for foreign professionals to be brought in to improve a team’s handicap ratings for particular cups.
Each player is awarded a handicap rating, which is combined with those of their team-mates. The Low Cup requires a maximum rating of seven.
Leroux isn’t the only overseas pro competing at the tournament. Fred Allison, an entertainment entrepreneur who is watching the game, explains that overseas pros are often flown in and paid around $10,000 to $15,000 to participate in the tournament. He nods towards a few Argentine players on the field and jokes: “They’re kind of like mercenaries.”
Argentine horses are also popular. Considered the best, they are imported for upwards of $30,000 each.
As each player needs at least six to eight horses to compete, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that most of them are wealthy businessmen.
Female players are not participating in this tournament, but Uneku Atawodi, the female player who is perhaps Nigeria’s most famous polo export, is watching from the sidelines.
When asked whether there are plans to make events like this more inclusive, the tournament’s organiser, Duntan West, says there are few female riders. Then she adds, pointedly: “It’s the sport of kings.”
There is little in the way of social diversity out on the field. Most members of the club can point to only one example of somebody breaking through the elitist ranks – Ahmed Umar, a groom who became a professional player.
Thirty-six-year-old Ahmed is a pro who travels around the world competing in tournaments. He also manages the logistics department of Honeywell Oil & Gas, a family-owned company run by Ahmed’s polo patron, Obafemi Otudeko.
“He wants me to work with him and play polo with him … He’s my friend and also my boss,” says Ahmed, laughing.
He recalls his childhood assisting his father, who was a groom in Ibadan, south-western Nigeria. It was during this time that his passion for horses and polo developed. As people noticed his talent, he says, they would hire him to participate in tournaments.
Ahmed earns about $3,000 per tournament, which might involve about four matches played over the course of a week.
He still doesn’t own any horses, he says, but he hopes one day to open a farm where he can breed polo ponies.
He’s unsure whether somebody from his background would be able to enter the sport today. “It’s not impossible, but it would be very difficult,” he says. “It is much more elitist.”
Ahmed thinks it’s especially difficult to break into the sport in Lagos.
“I started in Ibadan so it made it easier. I had a little bit of [an] education … Also the skills in the game … By God’s grace and favour, I was able to focus and gain people’s respect.”
“It is definitely a game of means,” says Bode. “There’s no hiding that.”
And, for some, the sport’s exclusivity adds to its appeal.
Ayo Olashoju, who was elected Lagos Polo Club captain last year, acknowledges that the sport attracts affluent patrons and sponsors who want to rub shoulders with the Lagos elite. Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, was spotted at the grand finale of this tournament’s prestigious Majekodunmi Cup and royal guests, such as the Oba of Lagos, are regular attendees.
Attracting the ‘right’ crowd
Thirty-two-year-old technology entrepreneur Olumide Soyombo was introduced to the sport by a school friend. He is sponsoring two teams at this year’s tournament, but is reluctant to disclose the cost of this arrangement.
Whatever it is, he believes it pays to associate his company, Blue Chip Technologies, with the sport. “It’s a game that every brand would want to be affiliated with because it can capture the right markets and the right target audience,” he explains.
At the tournament, that “right audience” is enjoying suya, a spiced grilled shish kebab popular in Nigeria, as a burly security guard stands by a roped-off entrance to a space where guests lounge on white sofas as waitresses in tight black shorts serve them champagne.
Bode has finished playing and is now sipping on champagne himself. “Everyone loves playing in front of a big crowd,” he says. “We’ve seen the membership of the club grow. We have a lot of social members who just love coming to watch polo.”
He describes himself as a late starter. He only began horse riding in his mid-20s, and his passion for polo followed.
Ellison, a childhood friend of Bode’s, chips in, explaining how, back in 2006, the polo scene didn’t hold the same allure it does today. “Bode was a pioneer [for] young people,” he says. “It wasn’t as cool as it is now. He helped to turn the atmosphere around … [Now] it’s like a bunch of friends hanging out and at the end someone brags about winning.”
The polo lifestyle
But not all spectators are here for the glitz and glamour. A few hardcore polo enthusiasts are lined up at the bar by the field.
They arrive early in the afternoon to enjoy a full day of matches and show little interest in drinking or socialising. For them, it is all about the game.
Bola Lawal, who asked that his real name not be revealed, grew interested in the sport more than 10 years ago, after spending a year in the northern city of Kaduna, where riding horses is far more commonplace. The 30-year-old dreams of one day being able to own ponies and to afford club membership.
“It’s aspirational. Everyone wants to be here,” he says.
“Basically, it’s a Nigerian trait … People want to mix with the successful. Who doesn’t want to hang out with the rich and famous? This is 80 percent of the reason people [come here],” he adds.
Despite being dependent on the hospitality of friends in order to access this world, Bola says he admires the exclusive nature of the club. “When things become too accessible the value deteriorates,” he says.
Olatona Olayinka is one of the ushers working at the event. The bus trip from her home in Surulere, a suburb of Lagos, to the club takes 90 minutes each way. She has been hired through an agency and works at a wide range of events to earn extra money while studying cell biology and genetics at the University of Lagos. She will be paid 5,000 naira ($25) a day for the 12-day tournament, arriving at 10am and finishing at 10pm most nights.
“The pay is OK,” she says.
Olatona laughs when asked if she enjoys polo. She has no interest in the sport, but this is the second year she’s worked at the tournament and she likes the crowd.
“This one is very cool,” she says. “It’s very well-organised and the whole setting is perfect.”
The ushers explain that people begin to arrive from around 4pm. As the weekend approaches, the number of people in attendance grows. By the time Saturday comes, the club is packed.
Luqman Adebayo, 40, a polo player, company CEO and club member, describes the popularity of the sport: “You can see drones flying around. The games are streamed live. Social media makes everything more accessible.”
And the club has big plans to expand. It has already spent $300,000 on a new field and is now planning to roll out a three-phase renovation project, explains the club’s president, Ade Laoye. That will include building a state-of-the-art stable and grooms’ quarters and constructing hospitality boxes for sponsors. The first phase is expected to start next year at a cost of $2m.
These plans come at a time when Nigeria is experiencing an economic downturn as a result of the plummeting price of crude oil.
The state of the economy is a hot topic of conversation during the tournament and collective belt-tightening a recurrent theme.
Tournament organiser Duntan West admits that sponsorship has dwindled substantially. She says she has responded to these financial difficulties by altering the balance between sporting and social activities, which were once given equal status at the club. “Now we do, maybe, 70 [percent] polo, 30 [percent] socials,” she explains.
Players have also been hit by the financial downturn, but many seem reluctant to cut back on their passion.
“Regardless of the economic situation, people always try to find a way to do the things they love doing,” Bode explains. “You find that most polo players cut back on other luxuries, but … try and … maintain [the] polo lifestyle. Maybe I planned to buy [a] car this year, but … I’d rather buy a horse and play polo.”
Luqman, who runs a construction firm based in the city, admits that he doesn’t calculate his polo expenses. “If you keep counting, you’re not going to do it … I can just tell you that it’s not cheap.”
He grew up in Ikoyi, where the club is based. He remembers how, as a six-year-old, he was cycling around the neighbourhood when he was drawn to the sound of a tournament taking place. After watching through the club gates he decided he was going to play polo. He started riding and, seven years later, competed in his first polo game.
Bode gushes about his love of the sport. “I think all polo players are polo evangelists,” he says smiling. “It’s just about the passion.”