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Blessing Okagbare: Anti-climax for a ‘quintessential track queen’

By Gowon Akpodonor
24 February 2022   |   4:15 am
From the middle of 2000 till July last year, there was, perhaps, no more beloved and famous Nigerian athlete than Blessing Okagbare.

Okagbare

From the middle of 2000 till July last year, there was, perhaps, no more beloved and famous Nigerian athlete than Blessing Okagbare.

The Delta State-born sprinter was almost the sole reason many people cared about track and field events. She rose so fast in the field to become queen of the track, winning medals as if there were no tomorrow.

Okagbare announced her presence at the Olympics level by grabbing a silver medal in the long jump event at Beijing 2008. She also won several medals at the African Games, as well as World Championships in long jump and 200 metres race. Okagbare also holds the women’s 100 metres Commonwealth Games record for the fastest time at 10.85 seconds.

But her legacy in athletics, years of labour and good name has been stripped off her, courtesy of a ban that has effectively nailed her career.

A doping scandal, which revealed that Okagbare had been taking banned substances to enhance her performance, earned her a career-ending 10-year ban last Friday.

The news of Okagbare’s fall from grace came as a big shock, not only to the athlete, but also to her fans, family members and many followers of athletics in Nigeria. It has been described as one of the unpleasant moments in Nigeria’s sports history.

On June 3, 2021, Okagbare wore a luminous smile in the city of Samorin, Slovakia, when she set a new meet record of 10.98 seconds to win the 100m event at the P-T-S Meeting, the first ever by any woman in the Eastern European country. It was one of her build up races for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

A few weeks later in the middle of the Olympics Games, Okagbare became the subject of attention for the wrong reasons and gloom enveloped Team Nigeria’s camp. The triumphant Blessing of Samorin, Slovakia, suddenly became a tainted Okagbare in Tokyo.

It began on October 7, 2021, when the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) pressed charges against Okagbare in relation to separate disciplinary matters. First, for the presence and use of multiple (two) prohibited substances (human Growth Hormone (hGH) and recombinant erythropoietin (EPO)) for which, Okagbare was provisionally suspended on July 31, 2021, a day she was scheduled to run the semifinals of the 100m event at the Tokyo Olympics.

That was in July last year, and what followed was months of apprehension and uncertainty, with Okagbare, in her usual character, threatening fire and brimstone, claiming innocence.

The waiting game ended on Friday, February 18, 2022, when Okagbare was added to the list of Nigerian athletes banned for doping offences.

The Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that Okagbare was handed five years for the presence and use of multiple prohibited substances and another five years for her refusal to co-operate with the AIU’s investigation into her case.

Though, some other Nigerian athletes had paid the big prize for doping offences in the past, Okagbare’s case appears different.

She is a first-time offender, but unless a miracle happens, as Okagbare has the right to appeal against the Disciplinary Tribunal’s decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) within 30-days, she would not get close to any athletics event until 2031.

Okagbare can’t be a coach, mentor, club owner, train in athletics facilities with any one, and won’t attend athletics Meets or participate in any athletics talk show either for rehab or otherwise. The U.S.-based sprinter can’t watch athletics in any capacity until her ban is fully served in the next ten years.

As typical of her, Okagbare won’t go down without a fight.

Taking to Twitter, the 2008 Beijing Olympics long jump silver medalist acknowledged that she has seen the statement by AIU, but added that her lawyers are working on it.

“My attention has been drawn to the statement issued by the AIU regarding its disciplinary panel decision. My lawyers are currently studying it for our next line of action, which we will inform you soon,” she tweeted.

As soon as the news of Okagbare’s 10-year ban broke out on Friday, some Nigerians took to social media to express their reaction according to Naija News reports.

teedeeswag wrote; ’10 Years. Hoping this is not the end of her career?’

attih soul simply wrote; ‘Her career as an athlete is over.’

daisyije wrote; ‘A Sad way to end a career she worked so hard to build for a Nation that didn’t deserve her…. All the best champ”

olaedo_melissa wrote; ‘They stay doing the most to people of color. What of the Russian girl?”

chiblue0202 wrote; ‘Oh my God …. Her career is over’

Ultra sleem wrote; ‘Wow!!!!! Her career is over’

swaptrexdotcom wrote; ‘Nigeria heading for the vanishing’

__milayo wrote; ‘Invest in crypto sis, you got a chance there as you no fit run again.’

Could Okagbare’s career-ending 10-year ban have been avoided?

Vivian Chukwuemeka…banned for life

An official close to World Athletics (WA) revealed to The Guardian shortly after the news of Okagbare’s ban broke last Friday that the athlete was the architect of her misfortune. He said: “When the result of Okagbare’s A sample came out, she had the option of accepting it, which could have seen her ban reduced to three or four years, but she insisted on her B Sample. Now, Okagbare has gotten what she wanted.

“I pity her though, but this lengthy ban goes to show that there is great penalty an athlete has to pay for disobedience,” the official stated.

Before Okagbare’s big fall from grace to grass last Friday, she had played into the bad books of some people, including her fellow athletes and managers of athletics in the country.

Okagbare was relatively an unknown athlete in Nigeria prior to the Gateway 2006 National Sports Festival in Ogun State, where she represented Team Delta for the first time.

In 2005, Okagbare, who was then a student of Delta State Polytechnic, Otefe, Oghara, participated in the maiden West Africa Polytechnic Games at Yabatech, Lagos. She won two gold medals for Otefe Poly.

A lead story by The Guardian on Okagbare’s exploits at the Games in Lagos caught the attention of Chief Solomon Ogba, who was then Commissioner of Sports in Delta State.

A wise Ogba, who was scouting for young athletes in readiness for the Gateway Games, quickly dispatched some coaches from Asaba to Oghara to fetch Okagbare to be part of Team Delta’s selection process. She distinguished herself and that marked the beginning of her rise in athletics. Okagbare soon moved to Delta State University, Abraka, from where the state government bankrolled her scholarship to the United States of America.

Despite the fatherly role Ogba played in her career, Okagbare had several clashes with him during his tenure as President of AFN.

On several occasions, Okagbare withdrew from events at major competitions claiming that the Ogba-led AFN board, and Nigerian government did not care about her.

It got to a point when former AFN Technical Director, Navy Commodore Omatseye Nesiama (retired), could no longer tolerate the insults from Okagbare. “I feel embarrassed by Okagbare’s comments,” Nesiama said after the athlete renewed her battles against the AFN at the 2015 IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas.

“It is totally out of place for her to accuse the AFN and the Federal Government of total neglect. I never expected Okagbare to throw such a bombshell considering the fact that she has been one of Nigeria’s most pampered athletes. Her comments show lack of respect for order, structure and authority. It must be placed on record that no athlete is bigger than the Federation and the AFN would deal with the issue appropriately.

“We have given Blessing the due regard she deserves as an elite athlete, but we will not because we need her services, fail to do the needful to checkmate acts of insubordination from her,” Nesiama threatened then.

Before then, at London 2012 Olympics, Okagbare shouted at one of Nigeria’s greatest athletes, Innocent Egbunike, who was then Head coach of the nation’s athletics team. He told Egbunike: “I don’t take orders from you.”

At Beijing 2015 World Athletics Championship, Okagbare was tipped to win the 200m gold medal, but suddenly, she decided not to participate in the heat. It generated a lot of controversy back home.

In 2020, Okagbare’s marriage with former Super Eagles player, Jude Otegheri Ighoteghuonor crashed, which some people attributed to attitude problem.

Before Okagbare’s drugs saga, some other Nigerian athletes had served various punishments over the use of banned substances.

Oludamola Osayomi…also banned for drugs

One of the greatest sprinters Nigeria ever had, Osmond Ezinwa, tested positive for ephedrine in February 1996, and was banned for three months. He came back to continue with his career until he retired.

Clement Chukwu was banned from 1992–1996 for a positive drug test. He reemerged at Atlanta ‘96 Olympics Games, where he was part of Nigeria’s 4×400 silver winning team. The silver medal was later converted to gold. Chukwu later won gold medals in 400m event at the 1997 Universiade and the 1998 African Championships, as well as a silver medal at Jo’burg ‘99 All Africa Games.

Mary Onyali’s image appeared larger than life to some Nigerians in those glorious days of track and field, when, in the final of All Nigeria Open, she battled with Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara, Faith Idehen, Tina Iheagwam, Rufina Uba and later against Endurance Ojokolo and Mercy Nku.

Onyali and ‘the gang’ produced that unforgettable bronze medal winning performance that attracted global attention more than the gold winners at Barcelona ’92 Olympics Games.

She allegedly tested positive to a banned substance known as Ephedrine and was banned, but came back to win medals for Nigeria before she retired from athletics.

Chioma Ajunwa was banned for four years in 1992 after failing a drug test for anabolic steroids despite maintaining her innocence.

Ajunwa completed her suspension, and returned to the track to become Nigeria’s only individual Olympics gold medallist, which she won in the long jump with a leap of 7.12 metres at Atlanta ’96. She failed another drug test and was handed a life ban.

Till today, Ajunwa, a top police officer in Nigeria, still expresses regret over her life ban. “The person that wears the shoe knows where it pinches. I believe that if I could be banned for the mistake I made, any other person can also be banned. So, it is better they do away with drugs. Cutting corners doesn’t pay.”

Oludamola Osayomi won the 100m gold medal for Team Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games in London, but was stripped of the medals some days later after she tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a banned stimulant.

Another female athlete, Folashade Abugan, was also stripped of the silver medals she won in the 400m and 4x400m relay after testing positive for drugs.

In 2010, female thrower, Sorochukwu Ihuefo, was banned for eight years. Two years later (2012), one of Nigeria’s celebrated female athletes, U.S.-based thrower, Vivian Chukwuemeka, was handed lifetime ban by the IAAF.

Chukwuemeka, born on May 4, 1975, ruled the Shot Put event for several years. She was to Shot Put what Blessing Okagbare was to the sprints.

She was miles ahead of her contemporaries, especially on the home front, and that explains why she still holds Nigeria and African records in the event. Her 18.43m mark set almost 20 years ago has not been matched.

However, those exceptional performances by Chukwuemeka were rubbished after she was pronounced guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and banned by the IAAF in 2012.

After failing a drug test at the 2009 Nigerian Championship, Chukwuemeka fought fiercely for two years. But there was no coming back for the towering thrower when she again failed a second drugs test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol – shortly before the London 2012 Olympic Games. Subsequently, she was given a lifetime ban.

Among other ‘accomplishments’ Chukwuemeka had a combined six gold medals at both the African Games and African Championships.

Also in 2012, another Nigerian athlete, Azike Henry, was given a life ban after failing drugs tests. Born on January 7, 1989, Henry, a relatively unknown sprinter, bagged a life ban after testing positive a second time for NR-AAF-Methenolone. The date of his infraction was December 5, 2012.

Another promising female athlete, 400m runner, Tosin Adeloye, was added to the growing list of banned athletes a few years ago following a confirmation of the doping ban on 12 athletes by IAAF.

The 20-year-old Adeloye was banned for eight years after an in-competition test she took at the Warri Relays on July 24, 2015, turned out positive.

Adeloye, who was born on February 7, 1996, tested positive for the anabolic steroid Methenolone at the National Sports Festival in Lagos in December 2012, at the age of 16. She was subsequently banned for two years. The ban ended on January 6, 2015.

As the case with some other athletes, who failed to learn from their mistakes, the Ekiti State-born Adeloye, a one-time African junior 400m champion, was caught a second time, using exogenous steroids.

She bagged an eight-year ban for her second offence in July 2015. It will elapse on July 23, 2023.

Adeloye represented Team Nigeria at the 11th African Games (AG) in Brazzaville, Congo, and was part of the gold-medal-winning quartet in the 4x400m women’s relay event.

Adeloye had also represented Nigeria at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China.

Another promising Nigerian athlete, Glory Onome Nathaniel, also paid the big prize for her involvement in doping offences.

Born on January 23,1996, Nathaniel is a specialist in the 400m hurdles event. The 26-year-old represented Nigeria at different competitions, including the 2017 World Championships, where she made it to the semifinals.

She later won three silver medals at the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games.

However, Nathaniel’s athletics career came crashing after testing positive for stanozolol and metabolites on October 25, 2018.

On April 2, 2019, a hearing was held and a four-year ban was slammed on her.

The hurdler is only six months away from completing her ban and is eligible to return to action from August 29, 2022.

Another promising athlete, Odele Tega, born on December 6,1995, came into the limelight when he won the 200m gold at the 18th National Sports Festival at the age of 16 years.

A year later, the 26-year-old narrowly missed out on a podium finish in the 200m at the African Junior Championships held in Mauritius.

But he made up for it by combining with the 4x100m relay team to grab a gold medal on the last day of the championship to take Team Nigeria to the top of the medals table, beating South Africa in the process.

Odele went on to represent Team Nigeria at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, as well as the Rio 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Odele failed a drug test in 2019, was banned and would only be eligible to compete from May 19, 2023.

Last year, five other Nigerian athletes, who also participated at the Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville, tested positive to banned substances.

The affected athletes are Deborah Odeyemi, Chinaza Amadi, Samson Idiata (athletics), Sunday Eze (Para athletics) and Thomas Kure (Power lifting). Long jumper, Amadi won a gold medal for Team Nigeria in the event in Congo Brazzaville.

All 12 athletes were handed bans ranging from six months, as the shortest, and eight years (longest).