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Minding the Gap in Nigeria’s Track and Field

‘ind the gap’ is an audible warning usually directed at passengers on the London Underground, because an unsafe gap is created when a train stops at a curved platform, and if a passenger is not vigilant, there is the likelihood of stepping into the gap and getting injured.

If there is one malady that isentrenched in the Nigerian system, it is the issue of continuity – or rather, the lack of it, leading to adisruption of the process, andcreating a vacuum at the end of the day. Being a subset of the Nigerian system, the Sports sector is not left out of this malaise. In fact, Track and Field, which used to be Nigeria’s biggest sport, is one of the hardest hitin terms of lack of continuity. In other words, we are not minding the gap that has been created by our lack of foresight as a nation.

Nigeria’s best Olympics outing was at Atlanta ’96 where the country won six medals: four of which were from Athletics (including ChiomaAjunwa’s Long Jump Gold medal). The country managed to win two medals in Track and Field at Sydney 2000, another two at Athens 2004, and then two more at Beijing 2008. And then the draught began!

London 2012 and Rio 2016 went by without Nigeria getting to the podium in any Athletics event. Tokyo 2020 is barely three years away,yet there is nothing to suggest that things are going to be different this time around.All over the world, countries much smaller than Nigeria have created effective systems that give no room for a lacuna as far as the development of talent is concerned, and Nigeria can learn a thing or two from these countries.

A cursory look at some of the results of the Rio 2016 Olympics show that Jamaica had three finalists in the women’s 100m final, including the winner of the race, 25-year old Elaine Thompson.It is interesting to note that the winner of the women’s 100m event at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, was Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (30), and even though she wasn’t in top form in Rio where she finished 3rd, the Gold medal still came to her country. That can only happen as a result of foresight and adequate planning.

The Gold and Silver medalists from the men’s 100m at the London 2017 World Championships are Americans: Justin Gatlin (35), and 21-year old Christian Coleman. There is a 14-year gap between the pair, but should Gatlin decide to retire from Track and Field today, there are already several athletes waiting to take his place; Coleman is only one of such athletes.

Jamaica had three finalists in the women’s 400m in London:Shericka Jackson, StephenieAnn McPherson and Novlene Williams-Mills who finished 5th, 6th and 8th respectively. Aged 35, a veteran of six World Championships and a Breast Cancer survivor, London 2017 was Williams-Mills’ final outing before calling time on her Athletics career.

McPherson, the reigning Commonwealth Champion, is aged 29. The youngest of the trio, Jackson (23), won a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships, which incidentally, was her debut outing at the championship. She also won another Bronze at the Rio Olympics where she was also making her maiden appearance. Ironically, her older teammates haven’t won individual global medals, but young Jackson already has two. Talk about minding the gap!

At the same women’s 400m final in London, USA’s Allyson Felix (32) who came as the defending champion, lost her title to her younger teammate Phyllis Francis (25), and had to settle for the Bronze. Perhaps, the examples of the US and Jamaica may seem too far-fetched, so we will focus onour continent.

31-year old Isaac Makwala of Botswana is a two-time African Champion (2012 and 2014) in the men’s 400m, and former African Record Holder in the event. At the 2016 African Senior Championships in Durban, Makwala was expected to race to a third successive title.

However, it was a different scenario altogether as his much younger compatriots Baboloki Thebe (20 years old) and KaraboSibanda (19) won Gold and Silver respectively. Both athletes were still juniors at the time, and they formed the nucleus of the young Botswana 4x400m team that dethroned Nigeria as continental champions; Makwala wasn’t even a part of the team.

Makwala has competed in two Olympic Games (London 2012 and Rio 2016) but has never gotten to the final. But Sibanda, who was only 18 at the time, was in the final of the Rio Olympics where he placed 5th! The Botswana team went on to win a Silver medal in the 4x400m behind the US at the 2017 IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas.

Botswana would have had two finalists (and possibly a medalist) in the men’s 400m in London, but for the unfortunate situation that led to Makwala being quarantined despite having qualified for the final, following an outbreak of gastroenteritis at the athletes’hotel. His teammate Thebe finished 4th in that race in spite of an injury.

Since Atlanta ’96 where Ajunwa (Long Jump), Mary Onyali(200m) and FalilatOgunkoya (400m) won individual medals in their respective events, no Nigerian athlete asides Blessing Okagbare (Long Jump Silver at Beijing 2008) has won an individual Olympic medal. It took a period of 12 years for Nigeria to find a saviour in Okagbare, and it is now nine years since she performed this feat. Who is going to bridge that gap for Nigeria?

 


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