By Ben Efe
Athletics Federation of Nigeria president, Chief Solomon Ogba on Thursday in Moscow, received a medal of commendation from the IAAF president, Lamine Diack for his outstanding contributions to athletics in Nigeria.
One of Chief Ogba’s major achievement was his tireless effort in transforming Blessing Okagbare from an average athlete in 2007 to a world class act. Okagbare is one of the Nigerian athletes expected to shine at the World Championships, which begins today in Moscow, Russia. But the big question is; can she live up to expectation and end Nigeria’s 12-year wait for a medal at the world athletics showpiece event?
The last time Nigeria won a medal was in Seville, Spain in 1999, where France Obikwelu and Gloria Alozie won silver in the men 200m and women 100m hurdles events. Obikwelu and Alozie have since taken up Portuguese and Spanish nationalities respectively due to the unfortunate neglect of the sport by successive sports administrators, a condition that is unchanging and it has dragged athletics in Nigeria to the doldrums, but not for a lucky few like Okagbare whose career has been well oiled, there would be nothing for Nigeria’s athletics enthusiasts to look forward to.
And beginning from this morning, Okagbare will be in the field digging for gold, starting with the long jump billed for this afternoon. She is in the same qualification pool with the very women who are standing between her and a medal in the event. They include Olympic 2012 champion, Britney Recce of the USA, with a season best of 7.25m and home girl, Olga Kucherenko with a season’s best of 7. 00m and a personal best of 7.13m. Okagbare, in July broke the seven meter barrier and from the look of things, she must have to do more than the wind added 7.14m she did recently to stand a decent chance of winning a medal in the event, it is crowded.
On Sunday, she will run in the heats of the women’s 100m and then in the afternoon session she will do battle in the final of the women long jump hopefully. Once the dust settles on the long jump on Sunday, Okagbare will focus on the women’s 100m and it promises to be another explosive encounter and for Nigerians who are practically living on a prayer, it is time to say a word or two to the mighty Man in heaven to give Okagbare some measure of luck and stability, because this is what it will boil down to in the women’s 100m where all the top contenders, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Camelita Jeter, Kelly-Ann Baptise, and Gardner English appear to have equal chances to the medals at stake. However, Okagbare and Fraser Pryce are the women all eyes are on.
On paper, the Jamaican sprinter has the edge, but judging from the form displayed by Okagbare in their last race in London, she could take the race to the limit, with her long and powerful stride, it all depends on her having a good start as she tends to come from behind most of the time to finish.
Nigeria’s other hopefuls include Ajoke Odumosu who was in the final of the women’s 400m hurdles at the London 2012 Olympics. Much has not been heard of her this season other than the 55.10 seconds she ran in Warri. There is also Regina George in the women’s 400m who is hoping for a place in the final with her 50.99 season’s best.
Apart from Okagbare, Nigeria’s best chance for medals are the 4x100m and 4x400m women relays. However, it seems the coaches have a lot of work to do, if the teams are to do well. There was not enough time for the quartets to practice and this usually comes into play in the heat of the competition.
“After the All Nigeria championships in Calabar, what did we do with our athletes. Apart from Okagbare, which other athlete can we say has gotten adequate preparation,” Bruce Ijirigho a former Nigerian international and coordinator of Cross River grassroots athletics development programme queried.
“ The long and short of the matter is that we are not prepared for the championships. We can only pray that Okagbare redeems us. She has a chance to win in the long jump and sprint.
Our relay 4x400m could do something too. As for the 4x100m, I do not see them getting the rhythm since they have not really practiced much this season,” he stressed.