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Nigeria’s chances on eve of the strangest Olympics

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[FILES] Ese Brume is new record holder in African women long jump<br />

The world of sport has been agog with action this past week. As much attention is being paid to the Games as to the resurgent Coronavirus.

From the ongoing Wimbledon Tennis championship to football across 11 European cities for Euro 2020, to athletics meets all over the world, to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the COPA America, to qualifying events in different parts of the world, and protests in Japan against going ahead with the Games in the midst of rising cases of the pandemic, it has been an explosion of sports everywhere.

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It is hard to imagine that in the middle of all that, an NFF-selected national team (for it is not the Super Eagles as we know Nigeria’s ‘first eleven) of hurriedly assembled home-based players in the domestic league went to the United States of America to take on the full national football team of Mexico in what the NFF says is ‘exposure’ for faster development of Nigerian football.

Many Nigerians that went through the agony of a humiliating 4-0 defeat in a match that the Nigerian side did not make a single serious incursion into the Mexican goal area, not to talk of scoring a goal, suggest it may have been more foolish than wise to have thrown rookies into the deep end of international football. Only time will reveal the gain or the psychological damage of such an experiment.

Meanwhile, the biggest events in football in the world this season, the COPA America and Euro 2020 going on in Brazil and in 11 European capital cities come to an end this weekend in Rio De Janeiro and in London respectively. South America’s biggest rivals, Brazil, led by Neymar, and Argentina, led by Messi, are set for an explosive night of football with ‘history’ written all over it, whoever wins. The match will be played without an audience!!

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Meanwhile, at the other end of the world, in London, the Wembley Stadium will be electrified with a 60,000 crowd of fans eager to see a new chapter written for English football. There is the possibility of a victory for the Three Lions over the Azurris, to end the agony of a 51-year wait since England last won a major international trophy, the World Cup of 1966.

If how England ‘fought’ bravely and went past Denmark in the semi-finals last Wednesday night is anything to go by, the world should be poised for a global orgy of celebrations when they subdue the Italians. That is my prediction.

On the same day and in a different part of town, London will also be hosting the final match of the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Tennis Championship.

I am writing this before the semi-final matches are played, but my heart tells me to look forward to a final match between two new finalists. I am getting bored with Djokovic in the absence of either Federer or Nadal. Tennis surely needs new faces and a new generation.

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After this weekend, all attention will be riveted on Tokyo 2020. Without the usual throng of international sports tourists, and an absence of local fans at most venues, it is going to be the strangest Olympic Games ever.

Those lucky enough to be in Tokyo must document for posterity what is unlikely to be repeated ever again.

My take is that once the events kick-off, driven by television cameras such as the world has never seen before, the frenzy for medals will completely overtake the fear of the virus. ‘Corona’ will recede to the background of conversations and the world would have to live with the consequences for some time to come.

I believe that Covid-19 is here to stay with mankind for some time to come. Japan shall bear the consequences of this huge gamble when the dust from the feet of the last fans and competitors settles after the 8th of August.

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As for Nigerians, encouraged by the superlative performances of some of their top athletes in the trials held in Lagos (as well as some good results from basketball and wrestling), they have now started to dream big, and to see the faint possibilities of a haul of medals as being touted by the country’s sports officials.

The Nigerian Sports Ministry, without question, has worked hard and done very well to prepare Nigerian athletes for the games despite lacking a solid grassroots sports development programme to fertilise the abundant field of naturally gifted athletes all over the country.

As it should rightly be, the preparation and participation of the teams are the responsibility of the federal government through the sports development directorate of the Sports Ministry.

A few Olympics ago, the Ministry, with Patrick Ekeji driving the initiative, went creative by setting up ‘Team Nigeria’, a marketing concept designed to raise complementary funds to reduce the financial burden on the government. It did not sustain for more than a few years before it ‘died’. Whilst it lasted it did relatively well but was not allowed to germinate.

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So, the Olympic Games, the All Africa Games and the Commonwealth Games, exclusively, are all the responsibility of the Sports Ministry, through the Nigeria Olympic Committee that registers the country for those particular international competitions. The ministry takes full responsibility for the outcomes of the sport.

The question then arises: where do the national federations come into the picture?

The simple answer is that they have their own exclusive list of national and international competitions for which they are responsible. At the Olympics, they participate only to the level the Sports Ministry chooses to give them leverage. They can collaborate with the Ministry in all the processes leading to selecting the teams and the individual athletes, but without taking full, or partial, responsibility for the outcomes.

For all other domestic and international club and national team competitions like the African Cup of Nations, the National Leagues, the FA Cup, the World Cups for clubs and country, the World Championships, competitions owned and organised by international sports confederations that are not products of the International Olympic Committee, the national federations take responsibility to the extent to which they can successfully, independently fund the competitions on their own without government support. Once they require and seek government support, they mortgage some of their autonomy and rights to the Ministry.

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But that is a different issue for another day.

As Nigeria prepares for Tokyo 2020, of particular interest to Nigerians is their hope for medals. How realistic is it to expect more than a token number this time?

Two weeks ago, hopes skyrocketed after the Athletics trials held in Lagos, Nigeria.

Across some other sports also, hopes rose. The two basketball teams, male and female (going together to the Olympics for the first time in) are looking sharp and ready to roll, both populated with Nigerian basketballers born, or domiciled, and playing in the NBA. They present an interesting and formidable challenge for any opposing team at the Games. But a medal for either may still be ‘a bridge too far’, for now.

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The wrestling teams, with the women leading the charge, look set with, at least, a medal of any colouration.

Inspired by the performance of Odunayo Adekuoroye, ranked number 2 in the world now in her weight category, the team may shock the world and bring home one or more medals.

Table tennis, with its duo of Quadri Aruna and Funke Oshonaike, presents an interesting prospect. Now ranked 18th in the world, Aruna, attending his third Olympic Games, is in the zone where anything is possible on a good night.

Funke will definitely earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for her 7th attendance at the Olympic Games, the first African female in history to achieve that feat. She is unlikely to climb a medals podium.

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On paper, Nigeria’s best chances are in the female Track and Field events. The spirit of Nigerians was lifted following the wind-aided 10.62 seconds, 100 metres dash of Blessing Okagbare at the Nigerian trials, the best such time in the world.

There is some good and some bad news for Nigeria’s Okagbare.

The ‘good news is that the American sprinter, Sha’ Carri Richardson, touted as a potential Gold medalist only a week ago in the 100 metres after running the fastest time in the world this year, has been suspended from going with the team to the Olympics by the USA Track and Field Association, for use of an illegal substance. America’s loss appeared to be Nigeria’s gain until we watched Blessing’s race against three of the girls that have been her nemesis through the past decade at least.

They are still around. That is the ‘bad news. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryse of Jamaica, Marie Jose-Ta Lou of Cote D’Ivoire, and Elaine Thompson-Herah, the trio, are all heading to the Olympics. On the eve of the Olympics, the trio outpaced Blessing in the latest 100 m race between them last weekend during the Istvan Gyulai Memorial in Budapest, Hungary.

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In the 200 metres, Sherika Johnson of Jamaica is running some of the fastest times in the Diamond League in Europe. Dina Asher-Smith of the UK is very close behind her in the best times being recorded. That medals ‘shop’ may also be closed to Blessing.

This means that Nigeria is not an Island. Other countries and athletes are not sleeping. Nigeria must, therefore, re-evaluate her chances in Track, particularly.

In the long jump, there is more than hope. There is a probability of a medal. The longest jump by any female in the world this year belongs to a Nigerian, Ese Brume.

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The 7-metre mark has remained largely elusive for the present generation of global jumpers. Only Chantel Malone of British Virginia Islands, Brittney Reese of the USA and Mihambo Malaika of Germany have leapt over 7 metres this season. But none beats Ese’s new African record of 7.17 metres. Her chances are, therefore, very bright for a Gold or Silver medal.

0n paper, that is about it for Nigeria’s chances. There will be no medal haul from Tokyo. Between 3 and 5 medals at most, with the possibility of one Gold medal by Ese Brume, or Odunayo Adekuroye. That may be Nigeria’s haul of medals when they return home.

Having said that, you never say never at the Olympics. On a good night, anything is possible. That is what Nigerians should pray, as usual, for – some good nights in Tokyo.

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