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Nigeria’s dwindling fortunes in athletics and how to sprint forward

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Mary Onyali-Omagbemi

Mary Onyali-Omagbemi

My early memories of sports growing up was watching Mary Onyali-Omagbemi anchor Nigeria’s women 4×100m relay team to a bronze medal and Olapade Adeniken’s lightening pace helping the men’s 4×100m team to silver at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

It was pure magic, an endearing image of the country’s dominance in sprint and athletics. Shockingly, two decades after – here I am assessing why Nigerian athletics has fallen from grace.

The 2016 Rio Olympic Games ended on a sour note for Team Nigeria. For the second Games running, Africa’s most populous black nation failed to make a meaningful mark, finishing with a meagre bronze in the men’s football event.

The sense of failure was particularly keen on the track, where there have typically been strong performances in green and white down the years. The achievements of the likes of Mary Onyali, a multiple African 100m champion and two-time Olympic bronze medallist; Olapade Adeniken, Nigeria’s first sub-10 second sprinter; Innocent Egbunike, then Africa’s record holder in the 400m; and Enefiok Udo-Obong, a gold medallist at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, marked Nigeria out as a force on the track at the turn of the century.

That sense of something building has now petered out, with the latest outing a source of worry, as well as a clear wake-up call for all stakeholders and sports enthusiasts in the country.

These concerns were echoed by 400 metres African women’s record holder Falilat Ogunkoya -Omotayo, a silver medallist at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

She is keenly aware that success at the Olympics is a culmination of rigorous preparation over a period of time, and expressed sadness at the dwindling fortunes of Nigerian sports.

“The Olympics is not a day job,” she said during our interview at the Nigerian Sports Awards event. “It takes a few years. One day, we’re going to realise that, and the day we put someone in charge who realises that it takes four to six years to win an Olympic medal is the day Nigeria will move forward.”

She decried the propensity for what she termed a ‘fire brigade approach’; of course, it will not be forgotten in a hurry the complete lack of long-term planning that preceded the Rio games, with most of the athletes beginning camping less than six months to the commencement of the Olympics.

Indeed, some athletes were forced to take to social media platforms to solicit donations and funding in order to procure training equipment. It is this vibe of levity and presumption that has led a once great country down the path of sporting irrelevance.

If the 1990s gave an indication that Nigeria would go on to become a major player in world athletics, the 2000s quickly quashed that notion. This was not, however, due to a lack of talent. The likes of African 100m hurdles queen Glory Alozie and Francis Obikwelu, expected to take up the mantle as it were, defected and opted to compete in foreign colours. A frustrated Olusoji Fasuba, the African 100m record holder, joined the British Royal Navy instead.

This was a direct consequence of the lack of athlete welfare and proper tournament preparations. Why would an Olympic bronze medallist and an indoor 60m world champion, one of the fastest men on the planet run to the Royal Navy?

“I had to provide a more settled life for my wife and baby daughter. It got to a point when I asked myself if Nigerian athletics was improving or deteriorating, it was the latter,” Fasuba, who took the gold medal at the Indoor Championships at 60 metres in 2008, told me.

Prior to this year’s Olympics, there were widespread reports of athletes not even having proper meals, and having to battle the elements in order to train. At the top level, professional sportsmen have a short window within which to maximise their abilities, and no one wants to waste their peak years wallowing in unproductivity. Ogunkoya admits there were overtures made to her during her career as well.

“It’s not that they didn’t try to convince us. We stayed because we love our country. However, I’m very keen that we appreciate and encourage our own. All those who have done well for Nigeria, the government has to step in.”

She is showing her patriotism in more concrete fashion too. The four-time African champion and 400m record holder is passionate about the development of the next generation of quartermilers, and to that effect holds an annual Falilat Ogunkoya Athletics Competition specifically targeting talent over 400m.

In 2010 the Oyo State Government financially supported her as she went across the state in south-western Nigeria in search of the next big star.What exactly would it take to produce another Falilat Ogunkoya for Nigeria in the near future? The African, World Junior Champs and Olympic medallists says it is determination and motivation.

“It’s [the 400m] a tough event. They have to believe themselves, and work hard,” she said. “They also need the support of the government and corporate bodies; they cannot go far without it.

“You don’t wait till they win a medal before recognising them. It’s a long, tough road to get there, and these athletes need to be paid monthly so they can train to a high enough level.”

The 2013 edition of the Falilat Ogunkoya Athletics Competition was supported by FCMB, as the Falilat Ogunkoya Foundation scoured the nooks and crannies of the country in search of talented boys and girls.

That 2013 event also produced Praise Idamadudu – Nigeria’s highly celebrated women’s 200m, 400m and 4x400m specialist. She is a multiple medallist for Nigeria at the African Junior Athletics Championships and tipped for success by the legend herself.

“She has the world at her feet, Praise is a bright and extremely talented young lady we need to encourage,” Ogunkoya added.“There are thousands of others like her in the country but we need to find them, nurture, support and appreciate them if we are serious about returning Nigeria to a greater height.”



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