By Yemi Olus
Some of Nigeria’s best exports in Track and Field, used the IAAF World Junior Championships (or World U-20 Championships as it is now being referred to) as a launching pad to greatness.
However, Nigeria’s participation at this competition in the past decade has been nothing to write home about due to several factors, including shoddy preparation, and the reliance on over-aged athletes, owing to the ‘win at all cost’ syndrome prevalent in our sports, and the lack of a proper structure that enhances a smooth transition from youth to junior, and then senior levels of competition.
Like I stated last week, 23 of Nigeria’s 30 medals amassed at the World Juniors were won from 1986 to 1998, while only seven medals were won from 2002 to 2014.
At the 2002 edition of the Championships, Esther Aghatise was Nigeria’s sole medallist, taking Bronze in the Long Jump, and then in 2004, the country returned without a medal. In 2006, Folashade Abugan, Ajoke Odumosu, Joy Eze and Sekinat Adesanya took Silver in the women’s 4x400m relay, and then in 2008, Folashade Abugan won Nigeria’s only medal at the championship, Gold in the 400m.
In 2010, Japhet Samuel, Tobi Ogunmola, Jonathan Nmaju and Isah Salihu won Silver in the men’s 4x400m. Margaret Etim took Silver as well in the women’s 400m and then the women’s 4x400m team comprising of Nkiruka Uwakwe, Bukola Abogunloko, Chizoba Okodogbe and Margaret Etim claimed another Silver. There was no medal for Nigeria in 2012, and then Divine Oduduru won the country’s last World Juniors medal in 2014 where he won Silver in the men’s 200m.
Nigeria endured a poor showing at the 2016 edition of the championship held in Poland due to our penchant for arriving late at competitions. The contingent got to Poland on Day 1 of the championship and a good number of the athletes missed their events due to the late arrival.
Last week, I highlighted the achievements of Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Fatima Yusuf, Francis Obikwelu, Davidson Ezinwa, Olapade Adeniken and Glory Alozie, who used the World Juniors as a stepping stone to dominance at senior level.
Ironically, the reverse has been the case for Nigeria’s World Juniors medallists in the last six editions of the competition. Most of these athletes have not been able to replicate same at senior level, unlike their predecessors. And this is mostly because the athletes used to execute these championships were over-aged, and at their peak at the time they represented Nigeria at the World Juniors.
The exception are perhaps Ajoke Odumosu who was the 2010 Commonwealth Games Champion in the women’s 400m Hurdles and a finalist at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and Divine Oduduru who is currently in the form of his life and has run some of the fastest times in the world this year.
In contrast, consider Usain Bolt who won the 200m at the World Juniors in 2002, and dominated the men’s 100m and 200m from 2008 to 2016! When he won that medal, Bolt was only 15 years, 332 days, making him the youngest ever World Junior Champion, until he was surpassed by New Zealand’s Jackson Gill who won Gold in the Shot put at 15 years, 213 days, at the 2010 World Juniors.
Bolt won the 200m at the World Youth Championships the following year, and it took him almost four years to find his rhythm, but because age was still on his side, by the time he emerged in 2007, all he needed was one more year and he became unstoppable.
Other athletes who were discovered at the same 2002 World Juniors include Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar, Blanka Vlasic and Valerie Adams. Defar went on to win two Olympic Gold medals, two World titles, and broke the World Record twice in the 5000m. Vlasic, a Croatian High Jumper, won two Olympic medals, including Bronze at Rio 2016, and two World Championships Gold medals. Adams is still active in the women’s Shot put and is a two-time Olympic champion in the event, and has a Silver from Rio. She also has four world titles and three Commonwealth Games titles.
The 2004 World Juniors threw up LaShawn Merritt, Aries Merritt and Kerron Clement. All three are still active 14 years after. Aries Merritt is the World Record holder in the 110m Hurdles and a former Olympic Champion. He had to undergo a kidney transplant in 2015 and made a return in 2016. LaShawn Merritt won the men’s 400m at the 2008 Olympic Games and has two world titles in the event. He went on to win Bronze at the Rio Olympics. Clement has two world titles and is the reigning Olympic Champion in the men’s 400m Hurdles.
Some of the athletes currently making waves on the global scene first came to the limelight at the 2010 World Juniors. One of them is Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim who is the second best High Jumper in history, and reigning World Champion.
Another such athlete is South Africa’s Luvo Manyonga who is the reigning World and Commonwealth Games Long Jump Champion. It’s a similar story for Shaunae Miller-Uibo who is the reigning Olympic Champion in the women’s 400m, and 2018 Commonwealth Games Gold medallist in the 200m. Miller-Uibo had beaten Nigeria’s Margaret Etim to win Gold at the World Juniors eight years ago, but Etim’s career is nowhere close to Miller-Uibo’s.
As long as we continue to cut corners and neglect grassroots development, we may find temporary fulfillment in winning age grade competitions. However, at the level where it really matters, we will continue to fall short, and will have no one else to blame but ourselves. As the 2018 World Juniors in Finland beckons, let’s hope it charts a new course for Track and Field in Nigeria.