Earlier this week, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) released a shortlist of finalists in contention for the IAAF’s prestigious Rising Star Award which is usually presented to athletes under the age of 23 who have shown great promise and posted impressive performances in the year under review.One of the athletes in contention for this award is 19-year old Salwa Eid Naser who competes for Bahrain.
This teenager won a Silver medal in the women’s 400m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, finishing ahead of USA’s most decorated female athlete, Allyson Felix. Naser’s feat earned her the accolade of the youngest ever medalist in the women’s 400m in World Championships history at 19 years, 2 months and 17 days!
Less than two weeks later, she defeated Felix once more at the Diamond League meeting in Birmingham, before going on to set a Bahraini Record of 49.88s in Brussels a week later. Her time is also an Asian U-20 Record!
I’ve had mixed feelings watching the exploits of this talented teenager who took the world by storm in 2017! A part of me feels happy that she is accomplishing great things in her Athletics career; however the patriotic Nigerian in me is sad that Naser is achieving this level of greatness whilst donning the red and white colours of Bahrain, but then I ask myself, would she have attained such feats if she had remained in Nigeria?
Naser was born to Nigerian parents from Anambra State, and was formerly known as Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu. However, she switched allegiances to Bahrain three years ago and has since won a lot of laurels for her adopted country including Silver at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games; Gold at the 2015 Asian Games, and another Gold at the 2015 Military Games.
Whilst competing in London, Naser broke the Bahraini National Record thrice. Incidentally, the former record of 50.72s was held by a fellow Nigerian-born athlete, Kemi Adekoya, who won a Gold medal for Bahrain in the women’s 400m at the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships. Ironically, only one Nigerian quartermiler has ever won a medal at the World Championships (Indoor and Outdoor). However, two Nigerian-born athletes – Adekoya and Naser, have now accomplished this for Bahrain.
Adekoya’s Bahraini Record of 54.12s in the 400m hurdles set in 2015, surpasses the Nigerian Record of 54.40s set by Ajoke Odumosu in 2012. Incidentally, the 4x400m women’s quartet that currently holds the Bahraini Record are all Nigerians: Naser, Edidiong Odiong, Iman Essa (formerly known as Endurance Udo) and Adekoya.
The innate talent of Nigerian-born athletes has never been in doubt and is evident in the performances of athletes with Nigerian backgrounds all over the world. After all, a good number of athletes in Team Great Britain have Nigerian backgrounds, from former Olympic and World Champion in the 400m Christine Ohuruogu, to the likes of Chijindu Ujah, the Ofili sisters Tiffany and Cindy, and a host of others.
Josephine Onyia owns the Spanish National Record in the 100m Hurdles. Femi Ogunode who began competing for Qatar seven years ago, holds the Qatari 100m and 200m National Records after clocking 9.91s and 19.97s in 2015. Both times are also the Asian Records in the sprint double.
Nigerian-born Francis Obikweluwho naturalized as a Portuguese citizen in 2001, is tied with Jimmy Vicaut of France for the European Record of 9.86s in the men’s 100m. The time also serves as the Portuguese National Record. Ironically, Obikwelu’s Personal Best of 19.84s set in 1999, still stands as the Nigerian Record in the 200m.
The African Record of 9.85s in the men’s 100m belongs to Nigeria’s Olusoji Fasuba who now has a British passport. This means that Nigerian-born athletes hold the men’s 100m records across three continents. If Nigerian products can be this outstanding in global Athletics, why then has it become so difficult to transform the bountiful talent here into world-class material?
Salwa EidNaser’s Coach, a Nigerian by the name of John Obeya, who is now a Sprints coach for Bahrain, has an interesting perspective to this puzzle. Speaking in an interview with Athletics website Making of Champions, he said: “Who doesn’t want a better life? We all want a better life. I began coaching in Nigeria since 1986 and even travelled with the Nigerian team to several competitions, but I was jobless for a long time until I got this appointment in Bahrain. If I was still in Nigeria, I probably would have been dead by now.
“I see a lot of my Nigerian colleagues looking wretched. That’s the problem with Nigeria. The welfare of athletes and coaches have to be made a priority. Apart from Blessing Okagbare who has been bearing the whole burden of Nigeria, who else does Nigeria have? Nigeria has a lot of potential but nobody pays attention to them until they begin to do well on the world stage for another country and then everyone will want to identify them as Nigerians.”
Well, Obeya has spoken the bitter truth, and unless there is a drastic change in the way Nigeria treats it athletes and coaches, we will continue to watch from the sidelines as the likes of Naser bring fame and glory to their adopted countries, while home based Nigerian athletes keep struggling to make an impact.