By Yemi Olus
Two weeks ago, Nigerian Track and Field aficionados woke up to the thrilling news that Divine Oduduru had won the men’s 200m title at the 2018 Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Oduduru who is a sophomore at Texas Tech, was one of nine Nigerian athletes that qualified to represent their various schools at the NCAA finals. Others were Charles Okeze (men’s 200m), Josh Awotunde (men’s Shot put), Oghenakpobo Efekoro (men’s Shot put), Mercy Abire (women’s Long Jump), Kelechi Nwanaga (women’s Javelin), Abike Egbeniyi (women’s 800m), Emerald Egwim (women’s 400m), and Kunle Fasasi (men’s 4x400m).
However, Oduduru was the only one who struck Gold at the Championship after storming to victory in a time of 20.28sec to claim his first NCAA title despite being drawn in Lane 8, making him the third Nigerian athlete in a decade to win the NCAAs. He joins Blessing Okagbare who won the 100m and Long Jump titles in 2010, and Tobi Amusan who won the 100m Hurdles for University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) last year.
Another Nigerian athlete who made the podium was Abike Egbeniyi who won Silver in the women’s 800m for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), making her the first Nigerian woman to win an NCAA medal in the 800m in the history of the championships. Josh Awotunde also won a Silver medal in the men’s Shot put for South Carolina.
Oduduru currently holds the men’s 60m, 200m (Indoor), 100m and 200m outdoor records at Texas Tech. His latest feat makes him the first NCAA Sprint Champion in Texas Tech history.
Ordinarily, one would be inclined to feel that should some of these athletes who made the podium at the NCAAs decide to represent Nigeria at the forthcoming African Championships in Asaba, they will certainly improve Nigeria’s medal chances at the event. However, considering that they kicked off their season so early, and have competed in several championships for their respective schools, one wonders if they would still have much left to give come August.
Oduduru for instance, ran the second fastest time in the world in the 200m (20.18sec) during the indoor season. However, outdoors, he is currently ranked 16th in the world in the 200m with his time of 20.13s set in May, and 6th in Africa behind Isaac Makwala (19.96sec) and South Africa’s quartet of Clarence Munyai (19.69sec), Ncincihli Titi (20.00sec), Luxolo Adams (20.01sec) and Anaso Jobodwana (20.07sec).
Also consider the case of Nigeria’s 2017 women’s Junior and Senior Champion in the 100m, Aniekeme Alphonsus, who is in her first year at the Oral Roberts University (ORU). The sprinter enjoyed a breakthrough season which saw her setting School Records in the 60m, 100m and 200m. However, at the NCAA Preliminaries, she was unable to qualify for the finals after being eliminated in the rounds with a time of 11.7sec, barely two weeks after running a wind-aided time of 11.25sec, which would have been a Personal Best had the wind been legal.
One wonders if fatigue is already setting in for these athletes who have to justify benefitting from Track and Field scholarships, which presents them with a lifetime opportunity of studying while doing what they love most, a key factor missing in the Nigerian system. However, this often leads to a clash in allegiances. Where should the allegiance of the athlete lie: with their country, or their school, especially in a situation where an international competition is taking place during the academic session?
Both Oduduru and Alphonsus could not make it to the Commonwealth Games in April when they were at their peak, because of school commitments. Kelechi Nwanaga was released by her school University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), while Amusan who eventually won Gold in the 100m Hurdles, could make the trip despite being an undergraduate at UTEP, because she now has a professional contract with Adidas.
However, considering that the Nigerian system makes it increasingly difficult to successfully combine education with an Athletics career, one cannot blame these athletes for wanting to do their very best for their schools. This is what we get for not creating a conducive atmosphere here in Nigeria for our athletes to thrive.
We must remember that Jamaica’s most recent array of stars comprising of Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson, Yohan Blake and a host of others, did not go to school in the US, but were raised and trained in Jamaica, and they went on to conquer the world.
Having said that, a few of these NCAA athletes can still make a difference for Nigeria at the African Championships. Awotunde for instance, is ranked No.2 on the continent in the men’s Shot put (20.77m), second only to his compatriot Chukwuebuka Enekwechi who won a Silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, making it a win-win situation for Nigeria.
Although Nigerian Record holder in the women’s Javelin throw, Nwanaga, may have finished 4th at the NCAAs, she is in a good position to win her first African Championships title as she is ranked 2nd to veteran, South Africa’s Sunette Viljoen, who is a five-time African Champion, two-time Commonwealth Games Champion, two-time World Championships Bronze medallist and Rio 2016 Silver medallist, and is not likely to compete in Asaba since she is approaching the twilight of her career. This should leave the coast clear for Nwanaga.