AT the 2017 World Championships held in August in London, Nigeria was represented by single athlete in the men’s 400m – Samson Nathaniel, who happens to be the Nigerian Champion in the event.
Whereas Nigeria’s quota for the women’s 400m was met (each country fields a maximum of three athletes in the individual events) as four women met the qualifying standard for the World Championships, Nathaniel was the only male Nigerian athlete to hit the entry standard for London 2017.
And so it was not surprising that Nigeria couldn’t present a men’s 4x400m relay team in London, same way the country wasn’t represented in both the men’s 400m and 4x400m in Beijing 2015, and the 4x400m at the Rio 2016 Olympics. The last time Nigeria fielded a 4x400m men’s team at the Worlds was in 2013 in Moscow, which begs this vital question: why is there a dearth of male quartermilers in Nigeria’s Track and Field?
Nigeria used to have a storehouse of quartermilers (male and female) who comfortably held their own amongst their peers on the continent, and even on the global stage. Nigeria’s first Olympics silverware in Athletics was a Bronze medal won by Sunday Uti, Moses Ugbisien, Rotimi Peters and Innocent Egbunikein the men’s 4x400m at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Nigeria’s first World Championships sprint medal, a Silver, was won by Egbunike in the 400m, at the second edition of the Championships held in Roma in 1987.Egbunike’sPersonal Best (PB) of 44.17s set in 1987, was the African Record for almost two decades until Gary Kikaya of the Democratic Republic of Congo broke it in 2006 with a mark of 44.10s. Three decades later, Egbunike’s time still stands as the Nigerian Record in the event, and going by the present state of the sport, it is not likely that this record will be broken any time soon.
It is interesting to note that Nigeria’s most decorated athlete (male or female) is a male quartermiler, talking about the late Sunday Bada, a nine-time national champion who won laurels in every major competition.Having won Silver medals at the 1993 and 1995 editions of the World Indoor Championships, Bada eventually emerged World Indoor Champion in 1997. He scooped a Bronze medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, and then anchored the Nigerian team to a Bronze medal at the 1995 World Championships in Göteborg.
Later that year, he went on to win the 200m at the All-African Games, before settling for Silver in the 400m.Bada, who passed on in 2011, was the captain of the historic 4x400m quartet that won Silver behind the USA at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Nigeria was eventually awarded the Gold medal after a member of the Americansquad, Antonio Pettigrew, confessed to using a banned substance.
Four years later at the 2004 Games in Athens, the men’s 4x400m squad anchored by EnefiokUdo-Obong won Bronze, making it the third Olympic medal won by the men’s 4x400m at the Games. No other Nigerian relay team has won as many medals. How then can a country that produced the likes of the great Egbunike and Bada be found wanting in the men’s 400m?
At continental level, Nigeria is tied with Mauritius and Botswana for the highest number of titles won in the men’s 400m at the African Championships, with three titles apiece. However, Botswana has since gone several notches higher, having won the event in the past three editions of the competition, and has displaced Nigeria as continental champions in the 4x400m.
Over the past decade, Nigerian male quartermilers have battled to clock 45s in the 400m. The last time a Nigerian male quartermiler ran a sub-45 was at the 2015 All-African Games in Congo Brazzaville where Orukpe Erayokan stormed to a PB of 44.95s, making him the fifth Nigerian male athlete to run below 45s in the 400m.
Only Egbunike(44.17s), Bada(44.63s), Clement Chukwu (44.65s) and Godday James (44.90s) have gone faster. Orukpe’s feat had inspired hope that it was perhaps a new dawn in the quartermile; alas, he has since returned to running within the 46s and 47s range.
Botswana had two of their quartermilers including 18-year old Karabo Sibanda, in the final of the men’s 400m at last year’s Olympic Games.They also claimed Silver behind the USA in the 4x400mat the 2017 IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas, and then had a finalist in the 400m final at the World Championships in London.The South African nation would have had two representatives in the final but Isaac Makwala, a potential medalist, was withdrawn from the race due to illness. Botswana’s rise in the 400m is a story for another day.
However, the most humbling aspect of this story is the fact that the current World and Olympic Champion, and World Record (WR) holder in the men’s 400m is not American or Jamaican, but an African – Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa. The 24-year old enigma decimated none other record but that of one of Athletics most revered subjects, Michael Johnson of the USA.
The men’s 400m final provided one of the major highlights of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Drawn in Lane 8, Van Niekerk ran the race of his life to shatter Johnson’s 17-year old WR of 43.18s, replacing it with a superior time of 43.03s, a feat many would have thought impossible.
Nigeria’s poor performance in the men’s 400m cannot be isolated from the general decline in the country’s Track and Field. Over the years, the sport has been hit by lack of proper management from the authorities, poor coaching, a lack of incentives, late preparation for competitions and lack of facilities among many other problems.
Orukpe Erayokan, the last Nigerian man to run a sub-45, had this to say: “If someone says money can’t motivate an athlete, that’s a lie. So what really spurred me to run 44s (in Congo) was the allowance, because we were paid before the race. I was so happy and I was eager to run the race. I thought after doing a 44s that the country or AFN would support me but till now nothing has been done. We have so much talent in this country. Just a little motivation and we would run faster!
“The authorities prefer the foreign based to home based athletes. Those who are running 47s would be given grants while we running faster wouldn’t receive a kobo.If 50% of athletes are being fully supported, then I think we would be running faster. If Abass Abubakar(who now competes for Bahrain) can run a 45s, then I believe I can do better. This country is not helping matters. We need change in Nigeria.”
Nigeria cannot attain the heights Botswana and South Africa currently enjoy by merely paying lip service to the sport. The daunting task of repositioning Track and Field has to start now or else ten years from now, we will be rehashing the same problems.