Where did Nigeria get it wrong?
By Patrick Omorodion
There was a time in world athletics when the United States athletes, kings and queens of the sport were scared of Nigerians. That was the era when Nigerian athletes enjoyed scholarships from American universities and had the privilege of being exposed to the best facilities the sport could offer.
But the Nigerian athletes did not just come out of the blues to rub shoulders with the Americans. They were mostly products of school sports which was the main avenue of discovering athletes in the 70s and 80s.
That was when the National Sports Festival introduced by the military government of General Yakubu Gowon to heal the wounds of the civil war was like a religion for Nigerian youths. Talents mostly from the secondary schools were discovered at this competition and snapped by the various Universities which needed them for their own Games, the Nigeria Universities Games, aka NUGA.
American universities soon discovered the horde of talents in Nigeria and extended their dragnets here and lured the athletes with scholarship offers which turned out a blessing for the athletes and the country.
Before the invasion of Nigeria for raw talents by American universities, the Midwest government of Brigadier General Samuel Ogbemudia had put up a structure for the development of its sports facilities and athletes made the state second to none in sports in the country. The Ogbemudia regime built an athletics camp in Afuze in present day Edo state where athletes trained devoid of any distraction and even in adverse weather conditions
That structure is what produced student-star athletes like Ajayi Agbebaku, Charlton Ehizuelen, Felix Imadiyi, Peter Okodogbe, all who became household names in athletics. Vanguard Media’s Corporate Affairs Manager, Victor Omoregie, himself a student athlete who shone in the National Sports Festival from where he was snapped by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka became a NUGA champion and also represented the country in the World Universities Games in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1977.
Nigeria has never lacked in talents from the Ogbemudia era. The revolution spread to other states and talents were discovered in quantum. Schools were proud to produce star athletes and spent resources to put infrastructure for all sports. The government keyed into it and made fund available through the annual budget.
Going back memory lane in the IAAF World Championship in Athletics which debuted in Helsinki in 1983, Nigeria’s flag was hoisted courtesy of a bronze medal effort by Ajayi Agbebaku who leaped 17.18m in the Triple jump. That record remains till today.
This improved to silver in the next edition in Rome in 1987 when Innocent Egbunike ran 44.56secs to pick a silver. That was shortly after he shocked Africans, especially Kenya President, Arap Moi with his blistering race in the 400m of the African Games in Nairobi. President Moi was forced to say that “this Innocent is not innocent after all” by the way he finished the race to deny Kenya the gold in that race.
In 1991 in Tokyo, Nigeria returned without a medal but her athletes returned with records. Olopade Adeniken set an African record with 20.30secs in the Men’s 200m. African records were also set by the relay teams, 4×100 men – 38.43secs, 4x100m women – 42.77secs and women’s 4x400m – 3.24.45secs.
After a disappointing performance in 1993 in Stuttgart, Germany without any medal, Nigeria recorded her third medal at the 1995 edition in Gothenburg, Sweden when her 4x400m men’s team finished third to win the bronze in a time of 3.03.18secs.
The hue of the medal changed to silver in 1997 at Athens, Greece when the quartet of the Ezinwa brothers, Davidson and Osmond, Olopade Adeniken and Francis Obikwelu finished in second place with a new African record of 38.07secs.
The 1999 edition in Seville, Spain brought a much better feeling for Nigerians, being the first time the country recorded more than a medal, though without the elusive gold. Glory Alozie got a silver in the women’s 100m hurdles while Francis Obikwelu finished third for the men’s 100m bronze.
Incidentally, the emergence of the Olusegun Obasanjo’s civilian regime in 1999 which preached and practised the handshake policy which saw athletes not getting to be rewarded saw the beginning of decline in, not only athletics, but all the sports.
It was not a coincidence therefore that between the 2001 edition in Edmonton, Canada and Daegu, South Korea in 2001, with six editions, Nigeria made no significant impact. It was no surprise therefore that Obikwelu and Alozie, the two medallists from the 1999 edition, switched allegiance to Portugal and Spain and maintained their form, helping their adopted countries to more athletics glory. All because of the insensitivity of the Nigerian authorities to the welfare of her athletes.
Just like it took the effort of Chief Segun Odegbami to prop up Chioma Ajunwa in 1996 to win the country’s first gold medal both as an individual and country, it took the efforts of the Delta state government of former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan to support Blessing Okgbare, one of the new generation athletes after the golden era to record another good outing in 2013.
Moscow 2013 provided another podium performance for a Nigerian when Okagbare became the first Nigerian to win two medals at the IAAF World Championships. She got a silver in the long Jump and a bronze in the 200m. That has been the last time for Nigeria, once the powerhouse of African athletics, at least in the sprints.
The London edition will end on Sunday and the hope for a medal remains as bleak as in the last edition in Beijing, China. The only possible chance as usual is in the relays which are yet to be decided. That again is if the baton exchange is not woeful or the teams disqualified for crossing into another lane.
On the World Championships table as updated after the 2015 edition, Nigeria remains 69th in the world and 14th in Africa. All other countries before her have recorded from one gold medal as recorded by Somalia, Senegal, Eritrea, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia to Six for Algeria, eight for South Africa, 10 for Morocco, 25 for Ethiopia and 50 for Kenya, number one in Africa and third in the world.
The decline did not start today but it has been made further worse by the present regime which foisted a total novice, Barrister Solomon Dalung, a former Prison Warder as the country’s sports minister.
The first salvo Dalung released to make sports stakeholders believe they are in for a tough time was when he told the world shortly before the Rio Olympics, albeit to cover up his inefficiency, that athletes don’t need long term preparation to excel but just “a winning mentality”.
Is that not why Dalung’s sports ministry was less perturbed about whether the athletes prepared at all for the London 2017 IAAF World Championships? Yet he was busy trying to foist his favourites as board members to steer the Athletics Federation of Nigeria for another four-year term which is expected to terminate in 2021.
That some of them even got travelling visas and flight tickets to appear in London for the event was a miracle. Yet Dalung was one of the few if not the first sports minister of any country to land in London when his athletes were holed up back home. He has remained in London, maybe as a cheer leader for other African countries making waves.