By Yemi Olus
The 2019 National Athletics Championships comes to a climax on Saturday, July 27th, having commenced on Thursday, the 25th. However, even a blind person can see (pardon the contradiction) that the buzz usually associated with a competition of this calibre, has been missing for some years now.
It would interest many to know that the All-Nigeria Athletics Championships is in its 75th year, having commenced in 1944, and for a competition that has spanned over seven decades, it should only get better. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the case, as is the case with many projects and initiatives that once used to elicit fond memories.
My experience covering Athletics has only spanned a decade, so I belong to the generation who only used to hear about the ‘good old days’ from the older generation of athletes, journalists and administrators.
I started to cover the National Championships at the time the Cross River State Government hosted the competition for four consecutive years (2011 to 2014) after Mobil pulled out from sponsoring the championship.At the time, foreign-based athletes like Seun Adigun, SelimNurudeen, Gloria Asumnu, Regina George, TosinOke, Amaechi Morton and UgonnaNdu used to turn up for the championships.
The 2019 edition of the championships is being staged at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna, which has a fantastic track by the way. The home-based athletes turned up in their numbers for the championship, and the likes of three-time 100m men’s champion – SeyeOgunleye, and UsheoritseItsekiri who both spent the season competing in Europe, are in Kaduna as well.
By the way, Itsekirihas already qualified for the forthcoming IAAF World Championships in Doha, after clocking a Personal Best (PB) of 10.07sec earlier in the season.Home-based Enoch Adegokehas a PB of 10.12sec, and so the competition in the men’s 100m is quite stiff. Both Ogunlewe and Adegoke are still in search for the World Championships qualifying standard.
However, other than Ogunleye and Itsekiri, and then KelechiNwanaga who is the National Record holder in the women’s Javelin, the foreign based athletes are conspicuously missing. Divine Oduduru, Blessing Okagbare, Tobi Amusan, ChukwuebukaEnekwechi, TemilolaOgunrinde, ChinweOkoro, ChidiOkezie, Ese Brumeand many others didn’t make it to the championship.
For the home-based athletes who do not have the opportunity of traveling out to compete and have only had a total of four competitions this season (including the national championships), this would have been the best opportunity for them to compete with their better exposed counterparts who come with better performances, which would have raised the stakes at the competition.
I remember that the fierce rivalries between the home-based and foreign-based athletes back in the day, used to provide the major highlights of the national championships, especially the upsets that occurred as a result.
Prior to the championship, the AFN had stated that only athletes who met the World Championships qualifying standard at the national championships, would receive ticket refunds. Over the years, there has been some mistrust on the part of foreign-based athletes who claim that they were promised ticket refunds but never received the money, and so are not willing to take such risks.
On the other hand, a good number of the foreign-based athletes have already met the World Championships standard: Okagbare, Oduduru, Amusan, Enekwechi, Ekevwo, Brume, EdoseIbadin(National Record holder in the men’s 800m).These athletes may feel that there would be no need to come for the National Championships since they have already qualified for the World Championships, and even the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the case of Okagbare, Oduduru, Amusan, Ekevwo and Brume.
Unfortunately, only one home-based athlete has qualified for the World Championships, and many would consider that an indictment on the AFN. Emmanuel Arowolo last weekend at the Cameroon Grand Prix, won the 200m with a new PB of 20.37sec; the entry standard is 20.40sec. Hopefully, a few others may meet the qualifying standard before the end of the National Championships. Others hope to attain those marks at next month’s African Games.
Going forward, I think a resolution needs to be reached with regard to the National Championships. The US National Trials are also being held this weekend and all of the top American athletes are in attendance.
What makes the Americans’ case different is the depth of their squad. For instance, imagine that almost 10 athletes meet the qualifying standard for the World Championships in one event, yet only three can be selected to represent the country. The National Championships then serve as the last resort to pick only the Top 3 that emerge at the Trials, so nobody is promised anything; each person that makes the team has to prove themselves.
Nigeria used to be in that position where we had several athletes qualifying for international competitions per event, so everyone needed to show up at the national championships to earn their selection into the team. We need to return to those glorious days!