Unsung road to Birmingham … hard-won victory
William Shakespeare’s popular saying, ‘all is well that ends well’ best captured the feeling for Team Nigeria to the 22nd edition of the Commonwealth Games, which ended in Birmingham, England, on Monday, August 8, 2022.
The team went unsung, but came home celebrated. Nigeria not only was the top-performing African country in Birmingham, following a record haul of 35 medals, the country won 12 gold medals, a feat it had not achieved in over 72 years participation.
Africa’s most populous nation had also topped the continent’s medal table in 1994, with South Africa second and Kenya third.
First held in Hamilton, in the province of Ontario in Canada, from August 16 to 23, 1930 as British Empire Games, over the years, the multi sport fiesta had metamorphosed into Commonwealth Games.
In 1954, the word ‘Commonwealth’ was added, and by 1970, it had come to be called the British Commonwealth Games. Finally for the 1978 event, the word ‘British’ was dropped, resulting in the Commonwealth Games, as it is still known today.
Nigeria made its debut in the Games in 1950, winning silver in the Men’s High Jump competition. Medal success has been achieved in every Games that they have taken part in.
Though in terms of number of gold medals won, the 2022 Games has been the country’s most successful, the 1994 Games was one that Nigeria won more medals, 37 in all. The country also placed fourth overall.
In 2018, Nigeria placed ninth, with nine gold, nine silver and six bronze medals. The country had ended the Games behind South Africa, the continent’s most successful team since the end of apartheid.
Everything went so well from the moment Nigerian weightlifter Adijat Olarinoye won the country’s first gold medal in Birmingham, in the women’s 55kg event, setting a new Games record in the process, on her debut. There was no stopping for the country.
Birmingham 2022 became the first major multi-sport event to hand out more medals to women than men.
Roadmap to success
THE road to success by Team Nigeria at the just concluded Games did not come without the efforts of the athletes, the vision of the sports ministry and the tenacity of some sports federations.
Sports commentators and analysts had lamented what has been the country’s bane in major events is, lack of preparation. But immediately he became the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, Sunday Dare, quickly went into action and eventually arrived at a sports policy to help athletes achieve their potential and to prepare well for global sporting fiestas.
The policy, tagged, ‘adopt an athlete’, required that athletes should be supported financially, by either individuals or corporate bodies to help them reach their set goal in their chosen sports.
The policy encouraged individuals and corporate bodies to commit $20,000 for a foreign-based athletes and $10,000 for a home-based athlete to prepare well ahead for international championships.
The minister disclosed that the sports ministry was forging a working partnership with the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) to ensure that individuals and corporate organisations get value for whatever they put in sports, adding that the collaboration with the NESG would eventually birth the Nigerian Sports Industry Policy (NSIP).
He stated that the idea behind the adopt an athlete policy is to boost the support that the ministry and the country gives its athletes.
The adopt campaign focused on providing targeted support for each of the potential medal winning athletes. “Whatever the athletes get from this adopt campaign will create an organic relationship between the athlete and the organisation or individual adopting him,” the minister had said.
After the policy was launched, the Deputy Governor of Edo State, Phillip Shaibu adopted Nwokocha Nzubechi, while Halogen adopted Odunayo Adekuoroye, as the Ogun State government took charge of the sponsorship of world record holder in the women’s 100 metres hurdles, Tobi Amusan; Blessing Oborududu by the Bayelsa State government, Favour Ofili, Blessing Okagbare, Divine Oduduru, Raymond Ekevwo, Itsekiri Usheorise and Ogho-Oghene Egwero and Brume by Delta State government among others adopted by various individuals and corporates bodies.
At the launch of the policy, the Nigeria Wrestling Federation President, Daniel Igali, said it would boost the country’s medals prospect and also enable the athletes to work harder to reach the pinnacle of their careers.
“We have three medal prospects in the Nigerian wrestling team that on a good day can stand on the podium. My belief is that if we do the right thing, Nigeria stands a very good chance of winning medals at international competitions, especially in wrestling,” Igali said.
Verve at Edo Sports Festival
MEANWHILE, the Edo 2020 National Sports Festival held last year in Edo State provided some of the athletes at 2022 Birmingham opportunity to gain the needed exposure for future international championships.
Apart from providing insight into the qualities in sportsmen vis-à-vis their ability to compete, national championships also help measure the efficacy of certain developmental programmes over a given period. The athletes, who had opportunity to experience this lift at the sports festival, which culminated in the accomplishment of the country at the Commonwealth Games, were wrestlers’ Odunayo Adekuoroye, Blessing Oborududu, Mercy Genesis, Ese Brume, among others.
The Kenyan experience
AT the biennial World Athletics U20 championships in Kenya, the country’s U20 track and field athletes re-wrote the history of Nigeria’s participation at the biennial World Athletics U20 championships, finishing third on the medals table with an unprecedented haul of four gold and three bronze medals.
The four gold medals won in Nairobi, Kenya, was the highest the country had achieved, two more than the country ever won in any edition of the championships. Nigeria’s 4x400m mixed relay team began the unprecedented haul with its historic, championships record-setting performance (3:19.70 CR) on the opening day of the championships.
Fastest U-17 quartermiler in the world, 17-year-old Imaobong Nse Uko, added the second in the women’s 400m with a new 51.55 seconds personal best, a day later.
The win made her the fourth Nigerian woman to win the event after Fatimah Yusuf (1990), Bisi Afolabi (1994) and Folashade Abugan (2008).
United States-based speed star, Udodi Onwuzurike, gave Nigeria the third gold in the men’s 200m, also setting a new 20.21 seconds personal best in the process.
The half-lap gold was Nigeria’s second since Francis Obikwelu won it in 1996 to successfully complete his sprint double down in Sydney, Australia.
The women’s 4x400m relay team put the icing on the cake with their dominant display on their way to winning Nigeria’s second gold medal in the relay in the history of the championships. The quartet ran a new World U-20 lead of 3:31.46 to crown a golden outing for Nigeria in Nairobi.
In addition to the four gold medals, the team also picked three bronze medals with one coming from an unfamiliar territory, the men’s javelin.
Chinaecherem Nnamdi set a new 78.02m national U-20 record in the qualifiers for the javelin, but couldn’t replicate the feat in the final, which could have given him the gold. The 19-year-old’s 74.48m throw landed him in the bronze medal position, a first-ever for Nigeria in the event.
Favour Ofili added the second bronze medal in the women’s 200m, also setting a new 22.23 seconds personal best and National U-20 record before helping the women’s 4x100m team to a bronze medal finish in 43.90 seconds.
Quartermiler, Nathaniel Ezekiel, also set an impressive personal best (49.89 seconds) in the men’s 400m hurdles to finish fourth, Nigeria’s best ever position in the event. He has also become the 13th Nigerian to break the 50 seconds barrier in the event, and has moved up to number 12 in the Nigerian all-time list.
IN her run-up to winning gold medal in the 100 metres hurdles and creating a new Commonwealth Games record and also winning the 100x 4 relay team, Tobi Amusan won a gold medal in the 100 metres hurdles final. The Nigerian sensation had earlier set a new World Record of 12:12s in the semifinal of the women’s 100 at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Amusan, whose personal best time of 12.40s set three years ago fetched her fourth place in Doha, Qatar, her new record made her Nigeria’s first-ever world champion.
Amusan’s time of 12.12s in the semifinals broke Keni Harrison’s world 100 metres hurdles record of 12.20. At the end of the championships in Oregon, Nigeria ended the World Athletics Championship in 13th position after Amusan’s gold and a silver medal won by Ese Brume in the Long Jump women’s event in a distance of 7:02.
Brume, who was the only Nigerian to win a medal at the last edition of the world championships in Qatar, Doha in 2019, achieved the same feat as the only Nigerian medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, as well as the last World Indoor Championship in Belgrade in March this year in athletics.
Following the feats of Amusan and Brume in Oregon, the likelihood of what to expect in Birmingham, became clearer as Team Nigeria with high hope of a good outing in Birmingham, was expectant of a great outing at the Commonwealth Games. And that eventually became, as the country’s best exploit at the Commonwealth Games was achieved in Birmingham 2022, with medals won in 100 metres women’s hurdles; 4×100 relay; female freestyle wrestling events in 50kg, 57kg and 68; women’s weightlifting: women’s heavyweight para powerlifting; women’s shot put and women’s discuss.
REACTING to the achievement of Team Nigeria in Birmingham, United Kingdom, a sports journalist, Godwin Enakhena, said: “It’s not easy to be a Nigerian athlete; nothing comes easy, you have to give 120 per cent or more to achieve success and to get to the pinnacle of your career.”
While commending the minister, he said, “the fact we can’t run away from is that we still have a long way to go in getting the best out of our athletes and most importantly in developing our home based athletes to aspire to become the best they can be.
“I bet you, with standard facilities, we will be competing and winning more laurels at the world stage. Let’s start early so that we will finish better than we did in Birmingham. The world will be at our feat if we so do.
“Enough of individual talents pushing Nigeria all the way, let’s have collective talents that can push the country, which is blessed with unbelievable talents, let’s make conscious effort at giving them reasons to be proudly Nigerians.”
THE Commonwealth Games, no doubt, has provided opportunity for Nigeria’s anthem to be played over and over, but sports enthusiasts are looking forward to a step up of this achievement and being top of the podium in Paris, 2024 Olympic Games.
In Tokyo, the country claimed a silver medal and bronze in wrestling and athletics, nothing will make Nigerians happier if there is an improvement in Paris. But with so many talented athletes making their mark in Birmingham, the future is bright – and Paris is just on the horizon.
The minister, who described the team’s feat, as excellent, inspirational, phenomenal, commendable and commanding, said: “This is a performance like no other. Many new records were set, old records broken, long-standing jinxes of not getting on the podium in some sports were destroyed.
“This signposts a brighter and better future for Nigerian sports development. I congratulate all our sports men and women, not just those that won medals but all those who competed. I appreciate their sacrifice, commitment, confidence and patriotism.”