March 17, 2018

Track & Field: Reviving Nigerian Athletics and the daunting task of Making Champions

Track & Field: Reviving Nigerian Athletics and the daunting task of Making Champions

NUMERO UNO — Team Nigeria athletes celebrate in one of their former outings. Nigeria ruled Africa at the Athletics Championship in Benin Republic.

By Yemi Olus

In less than a month, the 2018 Commonwealth Games will get underway in Gold Coast, Australia, and 37 athletes are expected to represent Nigeria in Track and Field, according to the list released by the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN). One of these athletes is 18-year old Joy Udo-Gabriel who will be making her debut at the Games!

Udo-Gabriel earned her spot on the team after finishing 3rd in the women’s 100m final at the Commonwealth Games Trials held in Abuja in February, and is one of the youngest members of the Nigerian contingent across all sports.

This is an impressive feat, no doubt, but worthy of special mention is the support system behind Udo-Gabriel’s success. This platform known as Making of Champions, has created an enabling environment for the likes of Udo-Gabriel to be discovered and nurtured into athletes that can eventually represent Nigeria on the world stage and do the country proud as well.

The company developed an interest in Udo-Gabriel after she emerged the fastest school girl in Lagos State in 2015, having won the Girls’ 100m at the Lagos Secondary School Sports Festival that year. She was subsequently invited to compete at Making of Champions’ auditions held in Benin later that year, and Udo-Gabriel wowed the star-studded coaching crew that had been invited to spot out talent at the auditions.

This crew consisted of some of Nigeria’s best exports in Track and Field, all of them Olympic medallists in their own right, talking about Uchenna Emedolu, Deji Aliu, Francis Obikwelu and Glory Alozie. In 2016, Udo-Gabriel was invited to join Making of Champions Track Club, and almost two years down the line, she has metamorphosed from the fastest school girl in Lagos, to one of the fastest women in Nigeria.

Making of Champions came about as a result of Nigeria’s dismal outing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London where the country returned without a single medal in Track and Field, and all sports as a whole. To put things in perspective, 13 of Nigeria’s 25 Olympic medals were gotten from Athletics, and for a country that once prided itself as the Giant of Africa in Athletics, it was a huge dent on our image, that a country of over 100 million people could not produce a single medallist in London.

And so a young man named Bambo Akani, left a thriving career in the UK to come back home to begin the daunting task of reviving Athletics in Nigeria. In 2016, Akani set up Nigeria’s first professional Track Club in Lagos, because at the very core of Making of Champions is the firm belief that Nigeria can become the No. 1 Track and Field nation in the world within five years.

The goal is to train athletes to a world-class level here in Nigeria, to ensure that they become a dominant force in World Athletics by 2020 Olympics.

Many may consider this a lofty aim no doubt, because the goal of raising athletes to a world-class level in Nigeria means they have to be provided with good nutrition, medical support and physiotherapy, not forgetting world-class coaches.

And so Making of Champions secured the services of Olympic medallists and some of Nigeria’s fastest men ever, Deji Aliu and Uchenna Emedolu as Head Coaches for the Lagos and Port Harcourt Track Clubs respectively. Earlier this year, Nigeria’s last individual Olympic medallist on the track, Glory Alozie, also joined the club as its Hurdles coach. It must be mentioned that Alozie is Nigeria’s only Olympic medallist in the hurdles.

One striking thing about this movement, is the focus on both athletic and academic excellence, which led to the launching of a Student-Athlete scholarship in 2016, an initiative that is the first of its kind in Nigeria. This scholarship is meant to take care of the training and university education of these young athletes until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The initiative kicked off with two athletes: Udo-Gabriel (who is now a first-year student at the University of Lagos), and Jeremiah Jakpa who is at the University of Port Harcourt. The pair was awarded scholarships by an Oil and Gas company, ARCO Group. Other corporate organisations such as Shell, ND Western, and Midwestern Oil and Gas Company, have since toed the same line.

This support covers the athletes’ tuition, accommodation, nutrition, training and competition costs over a four-year period.

The club currently boasts of 16 promising athletes who are gradually making a headway in their Athletics careers. Take for instance 19-year old Jakpa who narrowly missed making the Commonwealth Games team after finishing 3rd in the men’s 200m final at the Commonwealth Games Trials. He had earlier placed 3rd in the same event at the 2017 All-Nigeria Senior Athletics Championships, and won a Bronze medal in the 100m at the 2017 National U-20 Championships.

Another teenager, Chiamaka Egbochinam who recently turned 17, won Silver in the Girls’ 100m at the 2017 National Youth Games in Ilorin, and two Bronze medals in the 100m and 200m respectively at the 2016 edition of the competition. She was the youngest competitor in the women’s 100m field at last month’s Commonwealth Games Trials where she made the final.

The task of reviving Nigeria’s Athletics is not an easy one, but we have to begin from somewhere. One man has started a movement, hopefully, others will follow suit.