‘How government inconsistency, others cripple Nigerian athletics’

Okagbare has been Nigeria’s biggest athlete in the last one decade

• Stakeholders lament absence from major competitions

Nigerian athletics is facing bleak future following lack of practical commitment by the government to develop the track and field events as well as the athletes.

For over a decade, Nigeria has been a one-athlete country, with all hopes in major championships hinged on only Blessing Okagbare. Stakeholders are worried that since Okagbare won a bronze medal at Beijing 2008 Olympics and a silver and bronze at 2013 World Championships in Moscow, she has not been impressive on the track, going by her current status in world athletics.

In Brazil, Okagbare, like most other Nigerian athletes, could not go past the semifinals of their events. The only exception was the youthful Ese Brume who finished as the fifth best in the long jump event.

As has always been the case, at the end of the games in Brazil, the Federal Government, through the sports ministry, proclaimed that Nigeria would no longer suffer such indignity as happened at the London 2012 and Brazil 2016 Games, where the country ended with no medal and just one bronze. The government said preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Games would start immediately.

Before the Brazil 2016 Games, Nigerians knew the country had no hope of winning any medal, except from football, due to the poor preparations and the quality of the athletes it took to the competition. All the stakeholders, including the sports ministry, agreed that the panacea to such bad outings was raising quality athletes from the grassroots through catch-them-young initiatives. And now, just one year after the Brazil debacle, Nigeria has started sowing the seeds for worse results going by the recent events surrounding the youth teams.

Recently, Kenya hosted the IAAF U-18 World Championships, where every country presented her future champions to test their readiness to move up to the elite class. Surprisingly, Nigeria did not attend such an important event. The reason given by various ‘stakeholders’ was that the sports ministry had no money to send the team to Kenya. Some blamed it on the uncertainty surrounding the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) following the agency’s elections.

Again, there was the Commonwealth Youth Games featuring U-18 athletes from all the countries that make up the union in Bahamas, Nigeria did not participate in such an important competition, which ran from July 19 to 23, 2017. The sports ministry said it could not secure transit visas from the British and United States embassies as the team was routed to stop over either in London or in New York. What this means is that in less than two months, Nigerian youths were denied the opportunity to measure their level of growth against the best athletes from across the world.

In 2013, Nigeria’s junior athletes made big headlines in Africa, winning the 11th edition of the African Junior Athletics Championship in Mauritius. Before then, the young athletes also did the country proud at the 2013 World Youth Athletics Championship in Donetsk, Ukraine. Two years later, they went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and conquered at the 12th Africa Junior Athletics Championship. The championships in 2013 and 2015 threw up many young athletes, including sprinter Divine Oduduru, 200m runner Nkeiruka Uwakwe, long jumper Ese Brume, 400m star Omeiza Akerele and others like Harry Chukwudike, Mamus Emuobonuvie, Tega Odele, Ade Benjamin, Rita Ossai and Amusan Olawatobiloba.

However, 2017 has ushered in a dangerous trend as the country could not send a team to both the CAA African Junior Championships in Algeria and the just concluded 10th IAAF World U-18 Championships in Kenya.

“This will surely play a damaging role against the country’s athletics for years to come because Nigeria has just wasted a generation of athletes,” immediate past president of the AFN, Solomon Ogba told The Guardian. “It was so sad we couldn’t present a team of junior athletes in the two championships.”

Till date, many athletics followers, particularly those who witnessed the final day of competition at Mauritius 2013 African Youth Championship inside the Stade Germain Comarmond in Bambous still remember the exploits by Nigerian junior athletes, especially the trio of Oduduru, Akerele and Uwakwe, whose performances catapulted Team Nigeria to the top of the medals table amidst stiff challenges by South Africa and Kenya.

The duo of Akerele and Oduduru were in Nigeria’s U-17 team to the 2013 World Youth Athletics Championship in Donetsk, Ukraine. While Oduduru finished sixth in the 200m final, despite his initial blunder, Akerele ran a personal best time of 47.23 seconds in the 400m, though it could not fetch the country a medal. They were elevated to the U-20 squad a few months later for the trip to Mauritius and many felt it was a ‘wasted’ ticket. They were able to prove critics wrong.

In the boys 200m final, the contingent from South Africa relied so much on the ability of their sprinter, Mokofeng Fana James. To them, no other athlete would outclass James, so their supporters moved to the finish line drumming for the anticipated gold. It didn’t come their way, Oduduru rescued the gold for Nigeria.

Just before the 200m final, Akerele became the saving grace for the 4x400m team in the final, rescuing the gold in the most sensational manner that was reminiscent of the heroics of Enefiok Udo-Obong at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

On their part, the 200m specialist Nkeiruka Uwakwe, who won three gold medals to emerge overall best athlete at Mauritius 2013, and Brume, who won two gold and a silver medal at the championship, have since graduated to the senior cadre. Brume became Africa’s revelation barely a year later, as she won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and also became the continent’s best jumper at the African Senior Athletics Championship in Marrakech, Morocco, also in 2014. She was Nigeria’s only individual athlete to qualify for the final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Those were some of the gains of allowing athletes to undergo training programmes.

“After Team Nigeria’s disappointing outing at London 2012 Olympics Games, the AFN under my leadership decided to channel our energy on youth development programmes, and it yielded good fruits for the country. Ogba noted. “The likes of Amusan, Oduduru, Brume, Akerele, Chukwudike, Mamus Emuobonuvie, Odele, Uwakwe, Benjamin and Ossai, who are the country’s best athletes today are products of our junior programmes.

“And apart from Okagbare, all other athletes who have qualified for the London 2017 World Senior Athletics Championships are those from the junior ranks. Now that Nigeria can’t sponsor an U-18 team to the Africa and World junior championships, it means a generation of athletes have been wasted,” Ogba stated.

The country’s absence at Algeria 2017 CAA African Junior Championships was the first time in 10 years after missing the 2007 edition held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And the failure to present a team at the IAAF U-18 championship in Kenya was the first time in 20 years Nigeria’s flag was missing in continental athletics contest. It was the second time the IAAF World Youth Championships was hosted in Africa, after Morocco hosted it in 2005.

Former AFN board member, Prof. Ken Anugweje, said the nation’s absence, particularly at the IAAF World Junior Athletics Championship in Kenya, was a disaster. “This is because in the past, a majority of athletes who had the privileges of showcasing their talents at that level of competition went on to rule the world at the senior level. Our absence at the IAAF event in Kenya will surely affect us in many ways.

“It will take Nigeria a long time to catch up with the rest of the world in athletics. This has set the country back in terms of athletes discovery and grooming, and it will be difficult to raise a good team that will challenge the rest of the continent in the nearest future,” Anugweje stated.

Coach Paul Obodochina, who was in camp with the athletes for about three months in Abuja preparing for the IAAF championship in Kenya, said: “It is a very painful development for our athletics. With what is going on at the AFN, nobody is sure of anything at the moment and it is sad. This will not help our desire to develop.”

One athletics critic asked: “How come the Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, was unable to secure money to send a team of Nigerian junior athletes to the championships in Algeria, Kenya and the Commonwealth Games in Bahamas, but was able to attend the World Youth Ministers Forum in the city of Busan, South Korea recently?”

The irony is that early this year, Dalung led a delegation from the ministry to inspect facilities for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Nassau, Bahamas. The inspection was one of the requirements of participating countries, as well as a meeting with the host nation ahead of the competition.

Reacting to the country’s failure to attend the Commonwealth Games, Senior Special Assistant to the Sports Minister (Media), Nneka Anibeze blamed the British High Commission in Nigeria and the United States Embassy for not issuing transit visas to the Nigerian contingent.

“The team already had visas and all they needed was transit visas because they will stay two or three hours on transit. Only two airlines, the British Airways and Delta Airlines, were available and we planned to use either of the two for the journey.”

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