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Nairobi 2021 boosts Nigeria’s quest for new generation of athletics stars

By Gowon Akpodonor
27 September 2021   |   4:15 am
Over the years, expectations were high in the quest for a new era of performances by youths at major junior international competitions.

Nigeria’s 4x400m mixed relay team set a new championships record of 3:19.70 seconds at the Nairobi 2021 World U-20 Championship<br />

Over the years, expectations were high in the quest for a new era of performances by youths at major junior international competitions. A country reduced to reminiscing on past glories, always finds itself hoping that things would soon change with the arrival of a new set of youth stars.

But such expectations, unlike in developed climes with shorter gestation period, end in disappointment. New, talented youths take time and resources to nurture.

However, it seems things are about to change for better with the recent crop of youth internationals, who performed excellently at the just concluded World Athletics’ U20 Championship in Nairobi.

Thirty-one years ago, Nigeria’s junior athletes finished seventh on the medals table at the end of hostilities in Bulgaria’s city of Plovdiv, which hosted the third edition of the biennial World Athletics U20 Championships. That was in 1990, and young Nigerian track and field stars won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. The record stood as the highest for Nigeria for three decades.

But the 2021 edition held in Nairobi opened a different chapter in the history of Nigeria’s participation in the championships, with the nation finishing third on the medals table, bringing home four gold and three bronze medals.

For former African track queen, Endurance Ojokolo, the quality performance by Nigerian junior athletes in Nairobi, Kenya, is a pointer that the nation has the ‘strong army’ to compete among top athletics nations.
Ojokolo, one of Team Nigeria’s coaches to Nairobi 2021, is of the opinion that the junior athletes stand the chance of taking the nation’s athletics to where it was in the mid 1980s and late 1990s.

“If Nigeria can build on the success we just recorded in Nairobi, I see these set of junior athletes taking us to the top at the senior level,” Ojokolo told The Guardian on transit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

For over a decade, Ojokolo dominated Nigeria and Africa’s athletics scene, winning the National and African 100m titles on several occasions, including Tunisia 2002 African Championships and at Brazzaville, Congo in 2004. She also won the sprint gold at the Afro-Asian Games in 2003, a few weeks after she helped Team Nigeria to top the medals table at Abuja 2003 COJA Games, where she was part of the 4x100m relay gold medal winning squad. She placed second behind Mary Onyali in a tight 100m race.

Ojokolo said athletes like Udodi Onwuzurike, Imaobong Nse Uko, Bamidele Ajayi, Favour Ofilli, Chidera Johnson and Nnamdi Nnamani, among others, have proven their worth as the next generation of Nigerian athletes going by their display in Nairobi.

At the Kasarani stadium in Nairobi, Nigeria’s 4x400m mixed relay team began the medals haul with its historic, championships record-setting performance (3:19.70 CR) on the opening day.

Thereafter, reigning fastest U17 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. The win made her the fourth Nigerian woman to win the event after Fatimah Yusuf (1990), Bisi Afolabi (1994) and Folashade Abugan (2008).

USA-based 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 winning time for Onwuzuike, a Personal Best and a National U20 record, effectively broke the 25-year jinx in the 200m event since Francis Obikwelu won in 1996 in Sydney, Australia.

The women’s 4x400m relay team came with their dominant display, winning Nigeria’s first relay gold medal in the history of the championships. The quartet of Opeyemi Oke, Ella Onojuvwevwo, Imaobong Nse-Uko and Favour Ofili, produced a new World U20 lead of 3:31.46 to crown a golden outing for Nigeria.

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.

Chinacherem Nnamdi set a new 78.02m national U20 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, however, could only finish with bronze behind Namibia’s duo of Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi in the women’s 200 meters. She set a new 22.23 seconds personal best and National U20 record.

Praise Ofoku, Favour Ofili, Anita Traviore and Tima GodBless dipped a time of 43.90 seconds to win bronze in the women’s 4x100m relay event.

Nathaniel Ezekiel also set an impressive personal best (49.89 seconds) in the men’s 400m hurdles to finish fourth, Nigeria’s best in the event. He also becomes 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.

Perhaps, one Nigerian athlete the people of Kenya will not forget in a hurry as far as Nairobi 2021 World U20 Championships is concerned is Udodi Onwuzurike. It was his first outing for Team Nigeria, and the young lad lowered his personal best from 20.78 to 20.47 in his heat, and then clocked 20.13 in the semifinals, which would have been a championship record but for the wind (2.4m/s).

Onwuzurike, a product of school sports in the United States, came to Nairobi with his father as his coach. He became the most sought-after athlete at the Kasarani Stadium when he recorded gold with a national U20 record of 20.21seconds on Day 4 of the championship. He told The Guardian that his dream is to become an NCAA champion in USA, an Olympic champion and a world champion.

Nigeria’s 400m speed star, Imaobong Nse Uko, left Nairobi as the only athlete to win three gold, which she secured in the women’s 400m, 4x400m and the mixed 4x400m. She set a championship records in both relays. Her gold-winning time of 51.55 in the 400m, a personal best, is the second fastest by a Nigerian this year.

Former Athletes Representative on the board of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), Charles Himah, was part of Team Nigeria’s trip to Nairobi 2021 World U20 Championship.

He told The Guardian just before the team departed the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi that the future looks very bright for Nigerian athletics. “I am happy for these new crop of junior athletes because they came at the right time we are having a new AFN President, Tonobok Okowa, who is fully set to nurture them to stardom. I can boldly say we have some wonderful champions among these young stars.”

Apart from praising the medallists for their efforts, Himah described Opeyemi Oke as a die-hard athlete.