Nigeria’s most consistent sprinter in nearly a decade, Blessing Okagbare, was recently honoured by her alma mater, University of Texas El Paso (UTEP). The sprinter cum jumper was inducted into the UTEP Hall of Fame, havingenjoyed a distinguished career which saw her set several records in and for UTEP during her stint as a student-athlete. Sheculminated her stay in UTEP by winning the 100m and Long Jump titles atthe National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Outdoor Championships, becoming the first athlete in collegiate history to do so.
Since bursting into the limelight in 2008 after winning a Bronze medal in the Long Jump at the Beijing Olympics, Okagbare has not looked back and has come to be regarded as the face of Athletics in Nigeria.She is arguably Nigeria’s most decorated female athlete, although some would argue that that revered position belongs to Mary Onyali. Suffice to say that it is no mean feat for an athlete that shares the same heritage asamazons like Onyali, Tina Iheagwam and Endurance Ojokolo, to be considered one of Nigeria’s best exports.
Within the past decade, Okagbare has amassed about 20 National titles cutting across the 100m, 200m, Long Jump and Triple Jump. She has six medals from the African Championships, and five from the All-African Games. On the global scene, she claimed a Bronze medal at her maiden outing at the Beijing Olympics, which was later upgraded to Silver.
At the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, she became the first Nigerian athlete to win two medals at the same World Championships after she soared to Silver in the Long Jump and stormed to Bronze in the 200m. She’s also the only Nigerian (male or female) with two individual world titles to her name, and second after Francis Obikwelu to own two World Championships medals. In fact, Okagbare alone accounts for two of Nigeria’s eight World Championships medal haul!
The remaining six are from Ajayi Agbebaku (Triple Jump Bronze, 1983); Innocent Egbunike (400m Silver, 1987); the Men’s 4x400m quartet of Kunle Adejuyigbe, Sunday Bada, Udeme Ekpeyong and Jude Monye (Bronze, 1995); Men’s 4x100m team comprising of Olapade Adeniken, Davidson Ezinwa, Osmond Ezinwa and Obikwelu (Silver, 1997); Obikwelu (200m Bronze, 1999) and Glory Alozie (100m Hurdles Silver, 1999).Okagbare and Alozie are Nigeria’s only female World Championships (outdoor) medalists.
She then blazed her way into the history books by becoming the first Nigerian and African woman to win the sprint double at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She is the fourth woman in Commonwealth Games history to claim double Gold in the 100m and 200m, joining the exclusive class of the likes of Merlene Ottey and Debbie Ferguson. Her winning time of 10.85s in the 100m is also a Commonwealth Games record.
In 2015, she led the Nigerian 4x200m women’s team to Gold at the 2015 IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas. In 2016, she entered the Guinness Book of Records as the athlete with the highest number of appearances in the IAAF Diamond League, having competed in 38 meetings!I can go on and on about Okagbare’s many achievements, but one can’t help but ask, when will Nigeria produce other world class athletes who will be in a position toreceive the baton from Okagbare as she approaches the twilight of her career? For how long will Okagbare remain Nigeria’s sole burden bearer at international championships?
At the 2017 IAAF World Championships held in London, only the women’s 4x400m team and Okagbare (Long Jump) got to the final of their events. Okagbare only got to the semis in the 100m. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, she also stopped short of making the finals of the 100m and 200m. Ese Brume was Nigeria’s only individual finalist in Rio where she finished 5th in the Long Jump.
Two years ago in Beijing, Okagbare and Tosin Oke (Triple Jump) were Nigeria’s only finalists at the World Championships. At the 2013 edition of the championship in Moscow, Nigeria got to the final of four events: women’s 100m (Okagbare), women’s 200m (Okagbare), women’s Long Jump (Okagbare) and the women’s 4x400m relay. Nigeria had four finalists at the London 2012 Games namely Ajoke Odumosu (400m Hurdles), Oke, Okagbare (100m), and the women’s 4x100m, which Okagbare was a part of.
At Daegu 2011, Okagbare got to the final of two events (100m and 4x100m), as well as Doreen Amata (High Jump) and the women’s 4x400m team. Okagbare seems to be the common denominator in all of these, and this is too huge a burden for an individual that hails from the world’s most populous black nation estimated at about 180 million people!
And this is why the new board of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, need to stem this tide as a matter of urgency, or else there would be no pool of athletes to fall back on once Okagbare retires. Already,a shadow of things to comeif the situation is not well handled, is already playing out.
For instance last year, Okagbare won the Nigerian Trials with 11.02s, while Aniekeme Alphonsus who placed 8th in the same race,clocked 11.52s. This year, Okagbare didn’t come for the National Trials and in her absence, Alphonsus won the trials with the same time of 11.52s with which she finished 8th last year. What an irony!