By Yemi Olus
A few weeks ago, my piece titled ‘Returning to the glorious days of our National Championships’ was a lamentation of how our National Athletics Championships are now a far cry from what was obtainable in the past, where fans and athletes alike all knew they would be treated to the best of performances because Nigeria’s best athletes home and abroad would all assemble to fight for their spots on the National team.
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Because of the exceptional crop of athletes this country used to boast of, several of them could meet the qualifying standards for various international competitions and since no one was assured of a spot on the team, everyone had to turn up for the National Championships in order to merit a place on the team. That was how competitive the sport was back in the day, such that a company as prestigious as Mobil, bankrolled the National Championships for about two decades before pulling out, following a fall-out with the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN).
Reliving the former glorious days during an interaction on Facebook, the only male athlete from Nigeria to have won two Olympic medals, Enekiok Udo-Obong said: “The moment your best athletes are not mandated to compete in your Trials, it loses value. Everyone must compete in the Trials no matter how big a super star you are. Once that is not done, the trial is a mockery.
“In those days, when A.K Amu was Technical Director, no athlete can represent Nigeria if he or she did not compete in the Trials. Even Clement Chukwu came as NCAA champion. He was late and missed the 400m heats. He was made to run solo in his own heat to qualify for semis. If it was now, the superstar will have automatic qualification.”
However, in recent years, because of the level of decline in the sport, only a few athletes now get to hit the entry standards for top-level competitions like the World Championships and the Olympics, especially the foreign-based athletes, and once this happens, the motivation to attend the National Championships has been taken away because whether or not these athletes make it for the Trials, their spots on the team is more or less assured since only one or two of them are at such a level in their event.
The danger this poses though is that while someone, say a home-based athlete, wins their event at the National Championships, a foreign-based athlete who didn’t attend the Trials but probably has a faster time or better distance, gets to be picked ahead of the winner of the Championships, making a total mockery of the championships at the end of the day.
This is exactly what played out after the AFN released its list of athletes to compete at the African Games, which takes off this weekend in Morocco, following the conclusion of the National Championships in July. The controversy that trailed the release of the list would not have occurred if things were done transparently in the first place.
Take for instance the men’s 110m Hurdles event at the National Championships which was won by Martins Ogieriakhi, while Samuel Osadolor and Abejoye Oyeniyi finished 2nd and 3rd respectively. When the list was released, Oyeniyi who finished 3rd, made the team while Ogieriakhi who won, didn’t. The AFN’s argument is that Oyeniyi has a faster Season’s Best (13.67sec) than Ogieriakhi’s (14.02sec), which is true. However, of what benefit is it to win the National Championships if the winner will be bypassed in such a manner?
I personally believe that both Oyeniyi and Ogieriakhi should have been listed, especially as Osadolor who finished 2nd, is already on the team by virtue of being the country’s sole representative in the Decathlon.
A similar scenario played out in the men’s 400m Hurdles as well. Timothy Emoghene who is based in Nigeria, won the title at the National Championships by running a Personal Best of 50.45sec, surpassing the African Games standard of 50.94sec. Also bear in mind that a month before, the same Emoghene won the African Games Trials in Abuja with a then PB of 51.24s. However, he was initially left off the list while US-based Rilwan Alowonle, who wasn’t at the Trials and has a Season’s Best of 50.01sec, was picked ahead of Emoghene by virtue of having a faster time.
Nevertheless, when one compares the times both athletes have run this year, the difference isn’t much. I believe both of them ought to be on the team. Eventually, Emoghene’s kin and supporters had to escalate his case to the office of the Deputy Senate President, before he was reinstated. Imagine that he didn’t have anyone to fight for him; he would have missed out totally.
To avoid this sort of confusion in future, the AFN needs to be clear as to what the criteria for team selection entails. Would athletes be picked based on their performance at the National Championships alone, or would athletes with the overall fastest times/best distances be selected ahead of the winners of the trials? The rules need to be very clear or else we will keep moving in circles.