Achieving Nigerian excellence, one hurdle at a time
When Oluwatobiloba Amusan was younger, an athletics coach sized her up sneeringly and declared, with contempt, that she would never make it as a professional athlete. She was a little too short to compete in the sprints that favoured a longer stride; she was too tiny to challenge in the jumping events and not strong enough to participate in the field.
At that moment, the diminutive Tobi could have decided to call it quits and instead focus on her studies. Thankfully for her and for the world of sport, she decided to knuckle down, overcome the obstacle of her physique and use it to her advantage. She has been jumping over all of life’s hurdles ever since.
The newly crowned world record holder’s story is one of resilience, perseverance and unshakeable focus. Regardless of what the cynics may say, it is a story that underlies Nigerian excellence and one that every single Nigerian should be inspired by.
Born 25 years ago in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, the world was unaware of this petite athlete who was playfully called “Shanko.” Her parents were both teachers and understandably there was an acute emphasis on academics above anything else.
The last of three children, Tobi always had to work a little harder to make her voice heard and she showed a prowess for exceeding expectations from an early age. She displayed a prowess for sports from her primary school days and would often improvise and use any makeshift space available to her to run, to jump and to throw.
By the time she started secondary school at Our Lady of Apostles in Ijebu-Ode, she was something of a local champion. The school had no track of its own so Tobi’s skills were honed on a grass field in a nearby public school. She announced herself as the fastest girl in the school when she won the school inter-house competition at 15.
Ayodele Solaja, founder of the Buka Tigers athletics club that Tobi would later join, said she had many detractors but was always “jovial” and “very determined.”
“I have many challenges but I do not allow them to get me down. In fact, I love challenges because it is under that kind of heat that I do excel. I have faith too and very positive. I don’t for once lose faith in God and I never quit,” Tobi once said.
Even after her first major success in 2013, at the African Youth Championships in Warri, picking up a silver medal, she was met with obstacles on her athletics journey. She was disqualified for a 200m event in Donetsk for lane infringement and later failed to make the cut for the 4x100m relay team in the 2014 Africa Youth games. It was this disappointment that led her to explore other events that she could register for and thus her hurdles career began.
In 2016 she got a scholarship to attend the prestigious University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP). Travel funds were a huge challenge but her participation in the All Africa Games eventually secured her transfer to UTEP. She has spoken about how 5 students who attended the US visa interview before her were all met with rejection until it was her turn.
The move to UTEP has been a fruitful one for Tobi, allowing her to compete at a variety of events across the world. There was disappointment for her at the last Olympics in Tokyo but as is customary, she shook that off and broke the world record the following year.
Sporting achievement has always been the one great unifier in Nigeria. With success comes many progenitors. Many have spoken about how they broke into tears in solidarity when Tobi mounted the podium to pick up her gold medal at the Athletics World Championships. Others have said never had they quite soaked in the impact of the words of the National Anthem as it blared triumphantly into the Oregon air.
Tobi’s victory comes at an auspicious moment for Nigeria. It is a reminder that what truly unifies us are a shared purpose to be better than we are, an indefatigable spirit to nullify our tribulations and a natural propulsion to scale every hurdle that is strewn in life’s path.
We are bigger than the sum of our parts. When we all rushed to claim Tobi’s success, no one cared if she was a Muslim or Christian. No one cared if she was a girl or boy, man or woman. No one cared that she came from a town in the South-West. What mattered was that she was a Nigerian. Her success was our collective pride.
It is a pride which can be harnessed and exported because success loves company. One of Tobi’s fellow contestants, Danieelle Williams, a Jamaican, spoke about how proud she was of Tobi. People in the audience have played our Nigerian songs for her to dance to.
In April this year, Tobi Amusan is reported to have received $10,000 from her state governor, Dapo Abiodun, in the Adopt A Talent initiative a brainchild of Sunday Dare, Minister for Youth and Sports. The Nigerian Dream is codified in this context. Our music, our sports, our films, our food, our language and culture have never been more marketable or more fashionable. We must embrace all that is good about our nation and use it to find solutions to overcome our differences.
“Unknown now, but I will soon be unforgettable… I will persist till I succeed,” Tobi tweeted in 2016. We must persist until we succeed. This might as well be the credo of the Nigerian Dream.
Olorunnimbe, creative agency executive/ founder, The Temple Company Group, wrote from Lagos.