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Christopher Lee/Redux

Tanitoluwa Adewumi (Christopher Lee/Redux)

Sports

Chess frenzy

Nigerians are working to make chess and other mind games pay—literally

On a Saturday afternoon in December, the sounds of clicking timers echoed from a white tent in an Abuja garden. There, 36 chess players focused on their boards while observers stood on both sides of the tent.

The spectators included nine children from a primary school waiting for their own tournament after the nine 10-minute rapid rounds. 

Folarin Adebayo, the children’s coach of four years, told me he’s taken them to several tournaments, including one in Lagos state, where a 6-year-old won a bronze medal.

“Most of the grandmasters played before 14,” he said. “We’re planning to get a grandmaster in the space of five to seven years.”

The event is part of a goal to provide more opportunities for chess and other mind games. Several groups like Adebayo’s are also training younger children, hoping to establish the game as a professional sport that could lead to the first grandmaster in West Africa. 

Efe Onodavberoh, 24, who organized the tournament, first started playing chess while he attended the University of Abuja. He tried to organize his first tournament in 2017 but didn’t know enough players. 

But through social media he gathered enough participants to host the Abuja tournament and wants to make it a regular occurrence: “I’m already planning my next event for April.”

What I want to do next is to start going for my goal of being the youngest grandmaster in the world. —Tanitoluwa Adewumi

Ngozi Uba-eze was the only female participating in the main competition. She typically plays chess for leisure and was attending her first tournament. In the second round she lost to the more experienced Joshua Adejo.

He won a national open championship in Lagos, where players from Ivory Coast and a grandmaster from India attended. Adejo, 30, runs a business on the side but is working toward becoming a grandmaster. 

One challenge is the scarcity of rated tournaments in Nigeria. “I’m praying, but I don’t have time on my side,” he said, laughing. 

Nigerians’ chess prowess appeared on the global stage earlier this year when 8-year-old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian refugee in Manhattan, won in his grade in the New York State chess championship. 

He did so with a little more than a year’s worth of training—defeating children from elite schools with private tutors—and while living at a homeless shelter. His family fled northern Nigeria in 2017, fearing attacks from Islamist terror group Boko Haram. 

He attended P.S. 116, where a part-time chess teacher taught him the game and waived his fees for the chess club. He practiced on the floor of the shelter, and his mother took him to free chess sessions in Harlem on the weekends. 

Since his victory, his family moved into an apartment and received multiple donations, including from elite private schools. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah is set to co-produce a motion picture based on his story for Paramount Pictures. 

“What I want to do next is to start going for my goal of being the youngest grandmaster in the world,” he told New York’s NBC News 4 in March. 

Luke Owolabi said Tani’s story proves many young Nigerians have talent but lack the “conducive environment” to thrive. In 2017, he launched the Lagos-based Mind Games Incorporated (MGI) and organized his first tournament in Scrabble, chess, and checkers.

His background is stronger in Scrabble: In 2015, he represented Nigeria at the World Scrabble Championship. His initial plan was to keep Nigerian youth engaged, but that changed along the way: “We can create a means of livelihood around these games.”

MGI has trainers in about 23 private schools across Lagos, and Owolabi is talking with the education ministry and other groups about creating the same opportunities at little to no cost at public schools. 

They are also raising money for a national championship. In November, MGI’s annual premier championship included players from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Gambia. The winners for Scrabble and chess each walked away with $1,600. Such contests are essential if the games are to become a sustainable income source, he added. “If you don’t provide that kind of platform, the kids have the mentality that the game is for leisure and move on with their lives.” 

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Norma Salinas/Austin Herd

Austin Herd (Norma Salinas/Austin Herd)

Sports

The Huns, the Herd, the Barbarians

Rugby sets out to conquer America

If you were trying to pick a sport that wouldn’t land your child on a stretcher, you might not think of rugby. But a belief that rugby is safer than football is helping the sport grow.

Julie Nicholson is an Austin mom who put her son in rugby in part because she heard it was safer than football—less plagued by controversy over CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Her son, Connor, 16, ended up tearing his shoulder on the rugby field and needing surgery.

Nevertheless, Julie, who knew next to nothing about rugby just a few years ago, is now quite the fan. Undeterred by the injury, she sent her son back out to play: “It was rough to let him go back out there. But it’s part of the game.”

I caught up with her on a recent Saturday at a youth rugby event in Round Rock, Texas. Sporting a rugby hat and manning a recruiting tent for a local club, she told me, “What made me feel a lot better about rugby is they learn how to tackle properly, they’re not going in with their head, and they’re more leading with their shoulders.”

The technique that she’s describing, formerly a key distinctive of rugby, has begun to influence American football and has even been adopted by some professional teams, most notably the Seattle Seahawks.

“You hear a lot more about rugby on the NFL these days when they say, ‘there’s a scrum,’ or they talk about the ‘rugby punt’—those words are starting to make their way into American football,” says Richard Osborn, owner of the Austin Herd, a recently established professional rugby team.

Scott Constable, the director of Huns Youth Rugby, says it’s not uncommon for Texas high-school football coaches to recruit rugby players: “The football coaches usually like the rugby players because they know how to tackle and they start seeking contact.”

The games are similar in many respects: Players score “tries” instead of touchdowns, and they can kick a “drop goal” that’s similar to a field goal. But the play is more continuous, and there are 15 players per side.

Rugby players don’t wear pads, except sometimes a thin “scrum cap” designed to prevent a condition called cauliflower ear. Proponents say the absence of pads actually reduces the risk of injury. Paul McCartney, a Round Rock chiropractor who coaches a high-school select team, explains that hits are generally softer in rugby because players don’t want to injure themselves: “The contact is controlled, and there are certain rules that protect the players from getting injuries.”

Allan Lester is the father of two boys introduced to the sport by McCartney, their chiropractor. Both boys played football as well. “My older son had a neck injury in football. When we went to the thoracic surgeon, we were asking him, could he play football again? He said, ‘Well, I don’t know about football.’”

The doctor was less worried about rugby, Lester recalls. “He said he sees more broken fingers than any other injury in rugby, because you get stepped on. But not a lot of neck injuries.”

Rugby’s elevation to Olympic status in 2016 has helped the sport grow. That’s how Nicholson’s son first learned of the sport. The launch of a professional league in 2018, Major League Rugby, also provided a boost.

The league has 12 teams in the United States and Canada and secured a TV deal with CBS. But unlike, say, Ultimate Fighting or the short-lived XFL (“Extreme Football”), Major League Rugby is not the product of outside money or media hype.

It’s instead a natural outgrowth of club-level rugby, which is competitive but not professional. Scattered throughout the country, club teams tend to have martial, wild-sounding names like the Norsemen, the Saracens, or the Barbarians (a name held by at least three American clubs).

Major League Rugby’s 2020 regular season will run from February through May, with playoffs and a final taking place in June.

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Beth Stelzer (Handout)

Sports

Dead lift serious

A powerlifting mom from Minnesota wants to protect the rights of female athletes 

It sounds like a skit from The Carol Burnett Show. A man sporting long hair enters a women’s weightlifting competition and handily wins, besting all his female competitors.

The mock scene is funny. The real one is not.

The scenario troubles Minnesota powerlifter Beth Stelzer. And it’s why she started Save Women’s Sports, a nonpartisan organization advocating for the preservation of biology-based standards for female sports competitions. Not only in powerlifting but in women’s sports throughout the world, women are increasingly finding themselves competing against biological males.

In February, chanting protesters led by JayCee Cooper, a male powerlifter who identifies as female, interrupted the USA Powerlifting Minnesota Women’s State Championship. The raucous protesters demanded that self-identified “transgender females” like Cooper be able to “share the platform” to compete against women.

They created such a disruption that when 34-year-old competitor Stelzer went home and processed what had just happened, she decided to take action. Several weeks earlier, Cooper had obliterated the competition in the United States Powerlifting Association Minnesota women’s championship by lifting 150 pounds more than the woman who would have won.

Save Women’s Sports counts as allies conservative and liberal groups as diverse as Concerned Women for America, the Heritage Foundation, Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, Women’s Liberation Front, and Feminist Current. It also rallies parent coalitions and individuals.

The Save Women’s Sports website highlights obvious biological differences between the sexes, underscoring male competitive advantage. Even if males who compete as females reduce their testosterone levels, studies show testosterone production during puberty gives males long-term advantages, including greater skeletal size and muscle mass, less fat, and larger heart and lungs.

Even with testosterone suppression, most men can’t reduce levels comparable to females, or keep them in that range, according to the medical journal Endocrine Practice

Stelzer says biological males are competing as females in swimming, wrestling, track and field, cycling, soccer, softball, powerlifting, and other sports, robbing females of opportunities, medals, scholarships, records, sponsorships, and even participation. “I never would’ve started powerlifting if I’d known I’d have to compete against males,” she told me.

She warns that if Congress passes the Equality Act or if the Supreme Court redefines “sex,” those decisions would destroy Title IX, part of the landmark Education Amendments of 1972 that ensured females equal opportunities in athletics.

“If we allow biological males to compete in women’s sports, there will be men’s sports, there will be coed sports, but there will be no women’s sports,” Stelzer says. She urges parents of younger athletes to find out their school’s policies, inform like-minded parents, talk with school board members about concerns, and insist males shouldn’t compete against females or use the same restrooms.

Emily Zinos of Minnesota Family Council says Minnesota’s gender inclusion policy allows a high-school boy to complete a one-page form saying he’s a girl. He can then play on girls’ teams. Because of supposed gender fluidity, the child can change sexual identity at any time. Schools don’t tell parents about gender changes unless parents ask, and schools decide whether opposite sexes can use the same locker room and shower facilities.

So far, the USA Powerlifting and 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation are the only sports organizations Stelzer knows of that restrict biological males from competing as females. 

For speaking out, Stelzer has received death threats and harassment. She says that’s why girls and women are often afraid to address the issue publicly: “Transgender activists have invaded women’s social media. … They’ll put your name and private information online, call your employers. They’re ruthless.”

Still, Stelzer is concerned that if people don’t speak up, females will be injured competing against males in contact sports.

“I’m just a small-town mom and housewife who cares,” Stelzer says. “Biology matters. This isn’t bigotry.”

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