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Okagbare Leads Nigeria’s Medals Quest, As Beijing 2015 Begins


Doreen Amata is Nigeria’s hope in the high jump

Doreen Amata is Nigeria’s hope in the high jump

Africa and Commonwealth reigning track queen, Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor, carries the hope and aspirations of millions of Nigerians, as the 2015 IAAF World Championship begins today at the Beijing National Stadium, popularly called Bird Nest.

But the Sapele-born track queen, who is the captain of Team Nigeria, does not cut the picture of an athlete on whom the hope of over 150 million Nigerians rest for medals.

Since she arrived in the Chinese capital over a week ago, Okagbare is said to be all smiles, exchanging banters with all and sundry, an act an official of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), who is on ground in Beijing, described as ‘wonderful.’

“It is good to see Okagbare blessing athletics fans and buffs with smiles and greetings,” AFN board member, Olukayode Thomas said. “The only time you see a stone-faced Okagbare is when it is time for her to work out. Just passing by Okagbare revealed an athlete who has subjected herself to all the rigorous training one needs to be the best in the world.”

For Okagbare, the Bird Nest Stadium in Beijing holds a special memory.  At 19, when many other Nigerian young athletes were still looking for direction, Okagbare was already on the world stage.

She became a celebrity after winning an Olympic medal in front of a 91,000 capacity crowd at the Bird Nest Stadium during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Though Okagbare won a bronze medal in women long jump, she treasures the medal and the stadium that launched her on the global stage.

Seven years on, Okagbare is back at the Bird Nest Stadium, this time, for the IAAF World Championship, which begins today.

As she stepped on the track yesterday for training, Okagbare looked up to the fans and said: “The stadium in Beijing means a lot to me because, this is the track I won my first and most priceless medal some years ago.

“Before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, I never understood what it meant to be an Olympian and a medalist, but I was able to achieve that at the age of 19, which makes it a very great memory.’’

In sports, an unknown athlete sometimes springs surprises, beating established stars because they are not under pressure. Now, Okagbare is not the same athlete of 2008, but a big name in track and field. She is already a global brand.

She says her new status will be an advantage in this championship: “I will say it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage because, over the years, I have learnt so much and that has really made me the woman I am today.

“I do not see any disadvantage being a global star. It only proves to the world that you are simply moving forward, improving and getting better at what you do.’’

The bronze medal she won in 2008 may be special, but in this 2015 IAAF World Championship, Okagbare’s target is the gold. “My dream for Beijing 2015 is to win that gold medal that is missing in my profile.”

Since the first IAAF World Championships in Helsinki, Finland in 1983, Nigeria has never won a gold medal. So, the prayer on the lips of AFN officials in Beijing is for God to crown Okagbare’s hardwork with a gold medal this time around.

To make it a reality, Okagbare has to overhaul a strong field that includes 28-year-old Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who has posted the fastest time in the world in the women’s sprint this year.

Fraser-Pryce recorded a blistering 10.74 sec in Paris, before running a joint second-fastest time with a 10.79 sec in her native town, Kingston.

There is the American trio of Tori Bowie, who emerged as a world-class sprinter in 2014. The 24-year-old blitzed to a 10.81 sec to win the American title in Eugene in June within 0.01 of her lifetime best.

There is also English Gardner, the second-fastest woman in the world this year at 10.79 sec.

The third American is little known Jasmine Todd, who proved she is no slouch by running a personal best of 10.92 sec to qualify for Beijing 2015. Moscow 2013 Silver medalist, Murielle Ahoure of Cote d’Ivoire, will also pose a serious threat in this contest.

Other athletes seen as contenders for the top prize is flying Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers, old warhorse, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Pan American Games champion, Sherone Simpson and Natasha Morrison.

There is also Trinidad and Tobago’s 2011 word bronze medalist, Kelly-Ann Baptiste and compatriot, Michelle-Lee Ayhe.
But AFN is banking on Okagbare as a top contender for the 100m title.

Okagbare is also expected to lead the Nigeria 4x100m team that includes Gloria Asunmu, Stephanie Kalu, Cecilia Francis and Deborah Odeyemi. The team alongside Jamaica and America is a strong contender for medals.

Nigeria 4 x400m women team of Patience Okon George, Regina George, Oluwatosin Adeloye, Rita Ossai, and Funke Oladoye is also a medal favourite, but it has to contend with a strong American team of Francena McCorory, Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross
Phyllis Francis and Natasha Hastings.

The Jamaican team that finished second at the World Relays and, with Russia, may be another threat to Nigeria.

Britain finished third at the IAAF World Relays and three members of that team – Eilidh Child, Anyika Onuora and Seren Bundy-Davies – are also in this team with the inclusion of Christine Ohuruogu.

Outside the relays, Doreen Amata will carry Team Nigeria’s flag in the high jump, while Miles Ukoma and Tosin Oke also have a chance of making it to the finals.

Nigeria’s 100m hurdler, Weyinmi Lindsay, Amaka Ogoegbunam (400m hurdles), Tega Odele (200m), and Uhunoma Osazuwa are contending with a very strong field.

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