THE 2018 Athletics season has taken off in earnest, and asides the Commonwealth Games holding in Gold Coast in April, one of the major events Nigeria will be hoping to dominate is the African Championships scheduled to hold in August in Asaba, Delta State.
Of course it goes without saying that Nigeria will be aiming to finish at the top of the medals table, considering their status as hosts of the championship. The first and only time Nigeria hosted the African Championships was in 1989, at the National Stadium in Lagos, and it was the sixth edition of the event.
Of course at the time, Nigeria was a force to reckon with in the area of sports, and so it was no surprise that our athletes dominated the championship, topping the medals table with 14 Gold, 12 Silver and 9 Bronze medals. Algeria was a distant 2nd with nine Gold, four Silver and four Bronze medals, while the East African pair of Kenya and Ethiopia finished 3rd and 4th respectively.
Nigeria won Gold in events like the men’s 200m (Olapade Adeniken), 110m Hurdles (Ikechukwu Mbadugha), 400m Hurdles (Henry Amike), men’s Long Jump (Yusuf Alli), men and women’s Javelin throw (Pius Bazighe and Chinweoke Chikwelu), and the men and women’s 4x100m and 4x400m relays.
In the women’s 100m (Mary Onyali, Tina Iheagwam, Rufina Ubah), 400m (Falilat Ogunkoya, Fatima Yusuf, Airat Bakare) and Long Jump (Chioma Ajunwa, Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara), Nigeria made a clean sweep of all the medals available in these events, and won Gold and Silver (Onyali and Ogunkoya) in the women’s 200m.
Prior to the 1989 Championships, Nigeria had won three other editions of the competition, including the maiden edition held in 1979. But nearly three decades down the line, one can’t help but make the same lamentation of David in the Bible when he cried: “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle”. While other countries were toiling and re-strategizing, we went to sleep, expecting that somehow, we would always pull through.
Take for instance Nigeria’s performance at the last edition of the African Championships held in 2016 in Durban. The so-called Giant of Africa did not win Gold in any of the 14 events the country had dominated at the 1989 Championships, save for the women’s Long Jump which was won by Ese Brume.
Oh, some members of the contingent won Gold in three events that weren’t part of the 1989 conquest: the men’s Triple Jump, women’s Discus throw and the Heptathlon. But having gone with a disorganized squad due to the usual constraints, Nigeria only fielded a team in one of four relay races, and eventually finished with four Gold, five Silver and seven Bronze medals.
Even at the 2014 edition of the championships where Nigeria went with a full squad, the team only got to win about half of the events they won in 1989 and finished behind South Africa on the medals table. To demonstrate the extent of Nigeria’s decline in Athletics, the country has only finished at the top of the medals table twice within the last two decades: in 1998 and 2012.
Heading into the 2018 African Championships, Nigeria will have the advantage of numbers and will need to properly harness this opportunity if we are planning to regain control. However, depending solely on numbers without adequate preparation is tantamount to failure.
Nigeria’s performance at the Commonwealth Games would provide an insight on our areas of weakness and strength, which can then be worked on ahead of the African Championships. However, it is not going to be a walk in the park for Nigeria as most of the participating nations will be coming with strong contingents, seeing that the African Championships will be used to select the continental team for the IAAF Continental Cup coming up in Ostrava in September.
Nigeria’s biggest threat will be the South Africans who are now dominating both track and then field events in Africa. They have beaten Nigeria to the top spot at the last two editions of the continental championship, and will be looking to extend their winning streak. Three of the Top 10 fastest men in the world in 2017 are South Africans (Akani Simbine, Wayde Van Niekerk and Thando Roto). They also boast of the best hurdlers on the continent, as well as the best throwers.
The Ivoirians will be the ones to watch out for in the 100m, considering their powerful trio of Murielle Ahoure (who displaced Blessing Okagbare as African Record holder in the 100m), Marie Josee Ta Lou (who won double Silver at last year’s World Championships), and Ben Youssef Meite who was in the final of the 100m at the Rio Olympics.
Botswana strongest event is the quartermile, and Isaac Makwala and Baboloki Thebe who were respectively ranked 3rd and 5th in the world in 2017, will be keen on keeping the title in Botswana. Between them, the duo has won the men’s 400m in the last three editions of the competition, while their men’s 4x400m relay squad won Gold in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
While it is a good idea for Nigeria to host and win the competition, it will be far better for our administrators to use the hosting of the African Championships to map out sustainable programmes that will transform the sport. Now, that is what I call a win-win situation!
Birmingham 2018, a building block for exploits
In less than 50 days, some of the world’s best athletes will converge in Birmingham for the 2018 World Indoor Championships, the major IAAF event of the year, and when the competition takes off from March 1, it would be exactly 10 years since Nigeria last won a medal at the biennial championship.
Even though the World Indoors is less glamorous than the World (outdoor) Championships, it is interesting to note that Nigeria has enjoyed a better performance in the former than the latter, having amassed a total of 11 medals (Two Gold, Six Silver and Three Bronze) at the World Indoors, as compared to the tally of eight medals secured at the World Championships.
Olusoji Fasuba was Nigeria’s last medalist at the competition, a feat he achieved in 2008 in Valencia where he raced to the men’s 60m title with a then world-leading time of 6.51s, beating Great Britain’s Dwain Chambers (6.54s) and Kim Collins (6.54s) to become the continent’s first ever (and only) winner of the event. Teammate Uche Isaac who was also in that race, finished 6th. Furthermore, Damola Osayomi and Franca Idoko both competed in the women’s 60m final where they placed 6th and 7th respectively.
The country’s only other World Indoors Gold medalist is the late Sunday Bada (Nigeria’s most decorated athlete), who won the men’s 400m in 1997 in Paris, having settled for Silver in the 1993 and 1995 editions respectively.
Paul Emordi was the country’s first World Indoors medalist. The former African Champion took a Silver medal behind USA’s Larry Myricks in the men’s Long Jump in 1987, paving the way for his countrymen to follow suit. Chidi Imoh ensured that Nigeria was represented on the podium in 1991 in Seville, winning the Bronze medal in the men’s 60m, while Davidson Ezinwa did same at the 1997 edition of the championships.
In fact, Nigeria recorded her best performance at the 1997 World Indoors where Chioma Ajunwa’s Silver in the women’s Long Jump, Francis Obikwelu’s Bronze in the 200m, alongside Bada’s 400m Gold and Ezinwa’s Bronze, made it a total of four medals from a single championship. The country’s final World Indoors medalists are Falilat Ogunkoya (400m Silver) and Glory Alozie (60m Hurdles Silver), who also made the podium in 1999 in Maebashi.
Unfortunately, Fasuba’s superb performance in 2008 was followed by years of drought in Nigerian Track and Field, which the country is yet to fully recover from. Even getting to the final of an individual event has now become a tall order. Only a handful of athletes have been able to make the final of their events at the World Indoors.
One of such is former hurdler Seun Adigun, who is now the captain of the Nigerian women’s Bobsled team to the Winter Olympics. Adigun got to the final of the 2012 World Indoors in Istanbul, finishing 8th in the 60m Hurdles. Gloria Asumnu finished 6th and 7th respectively in the 60m in the 2012 and 2014 editions of the championship, much to her credit.
At the last edition of the World Indoors, Portland 2016, even though a number of Nigerian athletes made the final, most of them still ended far from the medals zone. Ogho-Oghene Egwero who was the only representative in the 60m, was unable to qualify out of the heats, while same also happened with Chidi Okezie in the men’s 400m. Ironically, no Nigerian woman competed in the 400m which was eventually won by Kemi Adekoya while running in Bahraini colours.
Stephen Mozia made the men’s Shot put final but finished a distant 12th, while National Record holder in the women’s High Jump, Doreen Amata placed 9th in her event. Tosin Oke was 6th in the men’s Triple jump final, while the men and women’s 4x400m relay teams settled for 4th and 5th place respectively.
With less than 50 days before the 2018 World Indoors, it would be unrealistic to expect a lot from the Nigerian team, with a good number of athletes currently in camp in preparation for the Commonwealth Games holding in Gold Coast, Australia in April. Considering that the season is starting earlier than usual, one wonders if the athletes would start to peak as early as March.
The prevailing sentiment though, is for the athletes to use the World Indoors as preparation for the Commonwealth Games, as that will most likely be the only international competition the team will compete in before the Games.
The World Indoors may not be as big as the World Championships, but if the opportunities it presents are maximized, the competition could serve as a launching pad to greater exploits in an athlete’s career. For instance, after scooping a Silver medal at the 1999 World Indoors in March, Alozie went on to win another Silver at the World outdoors in August of the same year, before securing another Silver medal at the Sydney Olympics the following year.
Venezuela’s Golden girl Yulimar Rojas used the 2016 World Indoors as a stepping stone to bigger things. The 22-year old won the women’s Triple Jump event in Portland and went on to finish 2nd behind veteran Caterine Ibarguen at the Olympic Games in Rio. However, she staged an upset by defeating Ibarguen at the 2017 World Championships in London to win her country’s first ever World (outdoor) Championships Gold medal and has now become the woman to beat in her event!