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‘It’s painful competing for Nigeria

By Onochie Anibeze
A simple question at the mixed zone of the Athens Olympics appeared to have spoilt the day for Francis Obikwelu. He had just finished his 200m race and was being celebrated by the media for his silver medal feat. He was fielding questions. He spoke of his preparation, the challenges and the joy of winning an Olympic silver medal.

This reporter later asked what was supposed to be a simple question but which abruptly ended the interview on that section of the mixed zone. Obikwelu’s countenance changed immediately. Wrinkles developed on his face.

“What would it have meant to you if you won this medal for Nigeria?” was the question. He looked at the reporter, bitterness clearly written over him, frowned and never uttered a word. It appeared that the question hurt and he walked away, probably allowing his countenance to send the message.

That was a bit of a scene.   Obikwelu had  adopted Portuguese nationality and had won the medal for Portugal. That was a top Nigerian athlete just over a year before Athens Games in 2002.

About six years after that scene in Athens, Blessing Okagbore played it back at the Abuja Stadium on Saturday. She had just finished her Long Jump event in the IAAF Grand Prix and, naturally one wanted to know how she was gearing up towards the London Olympics. It was a question that made her almost look scornfully at the reporter. “Which Olympics? For who?,” she retorted.

When she calmed down she bared her mind:
“It is painful, so painful competing for Nigeria. You are never encouraged. It is interesting that you are asking about London Olympics. Are you sure that the people (administrators) are interested? They don’t care, so I don’t know if one should care too. Let’s hope that at the time of the Olympics one will still be there for Nigeria.”

It was another way of revealing prospects of adopting another country. And if athletes’ common conduct is anything to go by, there must have been overtures from some countries for her to make such a comment.

Blessing won bronze in the Long Jump event at the Beijing Olympics. Among top Nigerian athletes, she currently holds the fastest time this season. She has run 11.2 secs in the 100m which is another event officials think she has to take seriously.

Interestingly, Daramola Osiyemi, Nigeria’s current queen of the tracks had just finished expressing outrage at the way Nigeria treats her athletes before Blessing’s lamentations. Daramola boldly said on air that it was frustrating running for Nigeria and that the country should not be surprised if her athletes were adopting other countries. Blessing asked for one favour: “Find out how medalists at the Olympics from other countries were treated. Find out and you will know better.”

Athletes have a limited time to earn what could sustain them for greater part of their lives. That’s why many end up in penury at the time they retire. Now, athletes who find greener pastures in other countries go for them. Greater opportunities for life after retirement make such moves more attractive. Incidentally, winning Olympic medals does not mean much to Nigerian

“You are now talking about 2012 Olympics, do you know that nobody has told us anything after the Beijing Olympics? Not a word came from the Nigerian officials and I won an Olympic medal. Ask Damola. She won medal too. Nobody has said a word to us, nobody from government or from the sports ministry. It is painful to run for Nigeria, very painful. They make you feel you are not wanted.”

When told that the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN, now has a new board headed by Solomon Ogba, her mentor, it still did not convince Blessing that the future could be bright.

“Solomon Ogba cannot do everything,” was her blunt reaction. “Everywhere I go they tell me of the change the new AFN President will bring but I know our system and I know that he cannot do everything. Is he the sports ministry? Is he st an arm of the whole lot that should be involved in the planning and execution of programmes and welfare packages for Nigerian athletes. She does not see any bright future for Nigerian sports in the near future and she was not alone on this. Many others feel same way too.

the government?,” she fumed, trying to explain that AFN is just an arm of the whole lot that should be involved in the planning and execution of programmes and welfare packages for Nigerian athletes. She does not see any bright future for Nigerian sports in the near future and she was not alone on this. Many others feel same way too.


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