By Desmond Ovbiagele
Exactly three weeks ago, I was in a state of quiet euphoria. Why? It was the 10th of August. A date I had been awaiting all year. Why?? For some, a birthday. A cherished wedding anniversary. Or their flight departure date to finally ‘check out’ of the shores of this land for a hopefully better life elsewhere.
And for me? It was the opening day of the World Athletics Championships.
‘Excuse me?’ Yeah, that’s right. The World Athletics Championships. Admittedly not an occasion that many would equate with cause for bursting into songs of delight. But those who know me tolerate this idiosyncrasy of mine with a bemused but good-natured (I think) shrug of the shoulders.
We all have our little passions; track and field just happens to be one of mine (especially since the folk at the Emirates Stadium seem to have lost the plot).
Probably stems from being a star athlete midway into secondary school. 60 meters, 100 meters, triple jump… anything that required a surge of speed and power was just fine by me. There was something about standing scant inches away from the starting line … staring down the narrow, white confines of your allotted lane to the race officials poised in anticipation at the finishing area… the hush of the expectant crowd… the steely resolve of your rivals beside you who twitch and flex aggressively in a silent war of psychological intimidation … basking in the waves of adrenalin that wash through your being as you visualize exploding through space with the wind in your face. Feeling young, strong, invincible, indomitable …
Never quite fulfilled my potential, though. Nah. Got muscle pull at the hip socket midway through the first of four events on my schedule on a fateful day. Was leading the race … was gonna win! Couldn’t believe the sudden, sharp bolt of pain.Took another stride… na lie. Crumpled to the grass as my competitors gleefully flashed by. Was stretchered off. Day over. Spent the next three weeks limping about school, fielding words of sympathy from well-wishers, their soothing commiserations providing only temporary relief for a bruised ego.
The physical pain eventually went. But the memory of it, especially the abrupt manner of its intrusion that day, never quite did. And in the absence of an authoritative explanation as to why the muscle pull occurred and how to guard against it in the future (e.g. warming up properly pre-race), the following year I simply didn’t compete. Yes, as house sports captain I marshalled the troops and gave whatever leadership and advice I could to inspire them to feats of acclaim, but the role of glorified cheerleader was always going to be a poor substitute for the thrill of a warrior.
And by the time I transited from secondary school to a local university system where sporting endeavours were perversely considered to be socially ‘uncool’ (the exact opposite of the American collegiate system which is the womb of that nation’s sustained athletic triumphs), all motivation to self-actualize in an area I was genuinely gifted in completely died.
My bad, though. No excuses.
But a true passion never truly dies. It just transforms into a different state. Mine was to find expression in the exploits of our national athletes. Yes, I found some satisfaction in a few other sports (e.g. football, whenever the Super Eagles could muster enough fire in the belly to contend with the ferocity required for victory), but it was always the efforts of our track and field gladiators that attracted the attention most.
So starting from the 1984 Olympics, I have keenly followed every hopeful our country has presented to the world, willing them on to a glorious conquest over the formidable barriers constituted by their fellow competitors. And every single time it was the same result, without variation.
Leading up to any major championship, performance after performance of superlative, eye-catching quality across the international athletics circuit by an endless conveyor belt of our top athletes, creating lofty expectations of that long-awaited moment when Nigeria’s national anthem would be played to the listening pleasure of a packed arena with a further one billion television viewers looking on in respectful admiration.
But with the exception of our year of jubilee at Atlanta 1996 with Chioma Ajuwa & the ‘Dream Team’, at the most crucial moment, whenever it’s make or break, now or never, do or die… alas. At the event’s conclusion, some wild-eyed fanatic from any other nation not called Nigeria embarks on a joyous victory lap around the applauding spectators even as our trounced representatives trudge off with bowed heads into the bowels of the stadium.