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Sometimes I really think about running for another country, says Oduduru

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Before the official postponement of the Olympics on March 24, Divine Oduduru had an inclination his dream tournament was going to be moved. The announcement was more of a confirmation of what was clear as day as the novel coronavirus continued its spread across the world.

“I wasn’t really surprised when the Olympics was postponed because it needed to be postponed due to the situation the world is passing through,” Divine says from his base in the United States of America.

Had the games not been postponed, the Delta state-born athlete would have been three months away from making an impact on the world stage. It would have been a showing from a more mature and experienced athlete, aeons away from when he raced at the Rio 2016 Olympics where he finished seventh in the 200m semi-final.

His growth as an athlete has been impressive. There was clearly talent when he was spotted at the Dr. Awoture Eleyae U-15/Open Athletics Championship held in Delta, Nigeria.

However, his ascent to the top of Nigeria’s sprinting cadre was borne of steely determination and hard work. He has gone from the excitable lad that belted the eternal words “I never expected it” in a truly remarkable twang to becoming a four-time NCAA champion in the USA.

The sprinter is in his Texas home with tufts of hair on his face. The kind that shows he hasn’t had a shave or a haircut in a while due to the lockdown. He tries to work the camera angles to avoid a glare from the window that is the primary light source for our Skype interview.
“Can you see me clearly?” he asks as the video feed shows him in his green Puma hoodie.

Oduduru still goes to the track but can’t access the gym and weight room due to the lockdown rules in his city.

“We can’t really do much training to get us ready to compete. That’s why the competition needed to be postponed. You can only go the track and have some runs. We are only doing the little we can in our homes. I jog in my home and have sit-ups.”

He had qualified for the 100m and 200m events after ruling the collegiate circuits. He turned professional and was eager to make a mark on the world stage professionally after becoming the ninth Nigerian to have ever run a sub-10. And the first since Olusoji Fasuba in 2006.

When I asked his target for the Olympics, he was coy, preferring not to reveal what target he had set for himself in the races. Mistaking his reluctance for a lack of confidence would be a faux pas of grand proportions. Oduduru hardly strikes you as lacking in self-confidence. Pressed hard, his response might be a deflection to the divine.

“When it comes to my target I don’t really tell people. I keep it between me and God.”

He is deeply spiritual. He speaks of his faith openly and it’s tough to get an answer out of him without a namedrop of the Almighty.

His announcement to go professional after his NCAA win was opened with a passage from the Bible. When I asked if the pandemic could force another reschedule. He is bullish in his answer stating that everything is going to be fine before the rescheduled date.

“My level of faith is different and there is nothing God cannot do,” Oduduru says with the assurance of an Ecclesiastical priest. “I believe before the time of the Olympics, God is going to show himself.”

Between the lockdown and the new date, he has to navigate a host of things including training, finance and the Athletics Federation of Nigeria.

Oduduru isn’t always far from a row with the Athletics Federation of Nigeria. At the 2019 IAAF World Championship in Doha, he and Blessing Okagbare were initially disqualified from the 200m race after they didn’t compete in the 100m race they had registered for. It took an appeal for them to be reinstated to the competition.

“I was frustrated with my federation as IAAF has nothing to do with what happened to me because, if my country does what they are supposed to do, IAAF won’t have issues with us,” Oduduru said in Doha.

“Sometimes they should listen to us athletes because we are the ones that are doing these events.”

After the Asaba 2018 African Senior Athletics Championship, the Texas Tech University undergraduate also criticised the federation for neglecting athletes after they were paid less than their allowance.

When I ask if the AFN has reached out during this lockdown period and following the postponement of Tokyo 2020. He let out a chortle, almost stupefied I could think to ask that question.

“Really?” a befuddled Oduduru asks. He struggles to stitch the right words together before he lands on “this is crazy”.

“They don’t even care about you,” he says more lucidly. “They don’t care about what is happening to you. Even when your season is on, nobody calls to know how your season is going. Is it when there is a pandemic that they will pay attention to you? None of them reached out.”

His treatment by the Athletics Federation of Nigeria has forced him to consider running for another country.

“Sometimes I really think about it,” Oduduru says brooding. “You sacrifice your time and energy for something people don’t really see and when you make mistakes everyone wants to look at the mistakes you make and not look at the effort you’ve made to get to that stage.”

“It really gets to me. So, most times I think about it.

“Nigeria is my country. It is still going to be my country. I am going to represent my country, no matter what,” Oduduru concludes on a more encouraging note.

So has he been approached by any other country? Definitely they would have tried to get him.

“I think that’s a little private,” the 24 year-old says dismissively.


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