By Yemi Olus
The 2018 Asian Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia, ended on Thursday, and one of the dominant countries in Athletics at the competition, was Bahrain. Back in the day, not many people associated the oil-rich Arab country with Track and Field, but in recent times, Bahrain is now becoming a rising force in world Athletics, thanks to the presence of a growing number of African-born athletes within its fold, Nigerians inclusive.
Bahrain placed 2nd on the medals table in Athletics, with only China finishing ahead of them with a total of 33 medals (12 Gold, 12 Silver and Nine Bronze), while Bahrain followed with the same 12 Gold medals, Six Silver and Seven Bronze medals.
Four of the 12 Gold medals secured by Bahrain were won by Nigerian-born athletes in individual events, while they also played a pivotal role in the three relay medals – two Gold One Silver – won by Bahrain at the championship.
Edidiong Odiong won the 100m (11.30secs) and 200m (22.96secs) to become the fourth woman in the history of the Games to accomplish that feat after Mona Sulaiman (1962), Esther Rot (1974), and Chisato Fukushima (2010).
Salwa Eid Naser (formerly known as Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu) broke the Games Record twice, first setting a time of 50.86secs in the semis, before bettering the mark to 50.09secs in the final to win the women’s 400m title.
Kemi Adekoya won another Gold for Bahrain in the women’s 400m Hurdles where she stormed to a Games Record of 54.87secs in the qualifiers, improving the mark to 54.48secs in the final. Interestingly, another Nigerian-born athlete, Aminat Jamal, won Bronze in the same race, also for Bahrain.
Another Nigerian-born athlete Salem Eid Yaqoob, took the Bronze medal in the men’s 200m behind Japan’s Yuki Koike (20.23secs) and Yang Chun-han of Chinese Taipei who clocked a time of 20.23secs.
Adekoya teamed up with Naser, Abubakar Abbas – another Nigerian-born athlete, and Ali Khamis, to gift their adopted nation a Gold medal in the 4x400m mixed relay. Not only did the quartet win Gold, they also raced to a World Record of 3:11.89 to finish ahead of India (3:15.71) and Kazakhstan (3:19.52).
In the women’s 4x100m where Bahrain also won Gold, three Nigerian-born athletes, Iman Essa Jasim (formerly known as Endurance Essien Udoh), Odiong and Naser teamed up with Hajar Alkhadi to win Gold with a Games Record and NR of 42.73secs, while China and Kazakhstan settled for Silver and Bronze respectively.
The 4x400m Silver-winning team in the women’s 4x400m was a Nigerian-born squad: Jamal, Jasim, Odiong and Naser clocked a time of 3:30.61 to finish behind India (3:28.72), while Vietnam won Bronze with an SB of 3:33.23.
These athletes have been achieving milestones in Track and Field for their adopted countries, and one wonders if they would have gone this far in their careers had they remained in Nigeria. Consider for instance, the incredible mark Naser has made in the few years of her Athletics career. At the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, she became the youngest medallist in the women’s 400m in World Championships history at 19 years, 2 months and 17 days, crossing the finishing line ahead of the more experienced Allyson Felix, to win Silver in the keenly contested race!
Naser is the second fastest woman in the world in the 400m this season, and only suffered her first defeat in 2018 at the IAAF Diamond League in Monaco last month where she finished 2nd to Olympic Champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas. Nevertheless, she still managed to set a Personal Best (PB), National Record (NR) and Asian Record of 49.08secs, which surpasses Falilat Ogunkoya’s NR and African Record of 49.10secs set at the Atlanta ’96 Olympics.
What about Adekoya who won Gold (in the 400m) at the 2016 World Indoor Championships in Portland, USA, a feat no Nigerian female athlete has achieved at the World Indoors? The closest we’ve come to that are the Silver-winning feats of Chioma Ajunwa in the Long Jump (Paris 1997), Ogunkoya in the 400m (Maebashi 1999), and Glory Alozie in the 60m Hurdles (Maebashi 1999, Birmingham 2003 and Moscow 2006).
While many may term the switch of allegiances of these athletes as being unpatriotic, it will be very difficult to blame these athletes for this decision when one considers how their counterparts back in Nigeria are faring, enjoying little or no support from the government and corporate sponsors in a system that is lacking in proper structures, yet are being expected to suddenly perform wonders on the world stage.
2018 NCAA 200m Champion Divine Oduduru was recently in the news, decrying the poor treatment meted to Nigerian athletes during the 2018 African Championships in Nigeria in August, where the athletes were deprived of their full allowances as they were eventually paid less than half of the money due to them.
In an interview with The Guardian, Oduduru said, “You don’t treat athletes this way and expect them to honour your invitation next time. Before my season got to this stage, no official of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) called me. They will only reach out to you when it is time for competition. Nobody cares how you are surviving, and how you are taking care of your career.
“Next year will be very important in my school Athletics career, and I don’t think I will be available for the National Trials in Nigeria. I think our government should have a rethink on how to reposition Athletics. The various corporate organisations have a role to play too because you cannot go to a river without a hook or a fishing net, but expect to catch a fish. Our government is paying lip service to Athletics, and it must change before serious preparation starts for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”
Considering the above scenario, little wonder then that talented quartermilers Emmanuel Bamidele, Prosper Ogbonna and Peace Nwalehia, as well as jumper Theddus Okpara, all left the country earlier in the year with plans to transfer their allegiances to Qatar and Bahrain respectively. It’s Nigeria’s loss no doubt, but countries like Bahrain are definitely the better for it.