Monday, 4th December 2023

Tobi Amusan: Roses bloom even in adversity

By Gowon Akpodonor, Budapest
26 August 2023   |   4:05 am
Life is full of challenges, obstacles, and hardships, but one thing that gives us hope is the ability to overcome them.

Tobi Amusan (Photo: AFP)

Life is full of challenges, obstacles, and hardships, but one thing that gives us hope is the ability to overcome them. The ability to rise from opprobrium at the highest level of any endeavour is what makes the brightest of the world’s stars. That attribute was what Oluwatobilola Amusan demonstrated at the ongoing World Athletics Championships in Budapest.

Eleven years ago in London, Nigeria’s hope for a medal at the Olympic Games rested on the shoulders of one athlete, Blessing Okagbare, after all the nation’s flagbearers were eliminated in their respective fields. It ended in a nightmare, which hunted the country for over four years.

Okagbare’s era has since ended, no thanks to a doping saga, which earned her an 11-year ban from athletics.

Sport, generally, is like the barracks, where new set of military personnel emerges yearly. Even before the light finally dimmed on Okagbare’s era in Nigerian athletics, two promising stars had appeared on the scene.

While long jumper, Ese Brume, shot into limelight by emerging as Nigeria’s last athlete standing at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Amusan showed up in the 100m hurdles, and has been the most consistent hurdler the country ever produced.

Prior to the 19th World Athletics Championship, tagged Budapest 2023, Team Nigeria’s hopes of making it to the podium were pinned on the shoulders of Brume and Amusan. Brume got a silver medal in the long jump event at the last edition in Oregon, U.S., while Amusan scorched to a 12.12 world record before storming home first in the final to win a historic gold medal.

Here in Budapest, Brume came fourth in the long jump final on Day 2 of the competition to narrow Nigeria’s hope for a medal on Amusan. But everything came crashing on Thursday night at the National Athletics Stadium, where ‘Tobi Express,’ as she is fondly known, finished sixth in the 100m hurdles.

Of truth, not all Nigerians rallied around Amusan when she had her Whereabouts Failure charge with the World Athletes Integrity Unit (AIU). While some were in sympathy with her, praying daily for God’s intervention, there were others waiting for World Athletics (WA) to pronounce her ban.

A panel set up by World Athletics to review the AIU suspension eventually cleared her, and everybody suddenly became Amusan’s friend.

Amusan was a sure bet for, at least, a medal, even if she couldn’t do a world record performance. She came sixth in Thursday night’s 100m hurdles final on a time of 12.56 seconds, the same time she produced during the semifinal on Wednesday.

It was obvious the ‘whereabouts’ saga has taken a toll on the most consistent hurdler the country ever produced.

To many athletics followers, Amusan’s attitude to her travails shows that she is strong willed and should rise above the current situation if given the right support.

Speaking after her race on Thursday, the world record holder said it was quite a journey getting into the final despite all she had gone through in the last couple of weeks.

“I Just want to say a huge thank you to those, who have been supporting me through the ups and downs, Ya’ll stood by me, kept praying for me, God Bless you all, I am sorry I might have let you all down, but we will back stronger definitely.

“Yeah, it’s a tough one; nobody likes to lose but considering what I have gone through in the past couple of months, I’m so grateful that I came out,” she said.

Coach Kayode Yahaya, who is in Budapest with Team Nigeria, says Amusan remains one of the bravest women in the world.

“When you know within you that you are clean and you are being systematically accused by working around the angles of the law; it causes trauma and creates personal doubts on your ability,” Yahaya told The Guardian. “It causes social isolation and possibly loneliness and, in turn, leads to blurred mental vision. Also, discrimination and stigma fall in,” he added.

Explaining what could have happened to Amusan at the championships, Coach Yahaya said: “As a world record holder on top of her game, people do tend to make your performance look like a fluke, especially some of your contemporaries.”

He explained what severe and long-term stress could cause in athletics, just as he tried to comprehend and figure out what went wrong for Amusan and how to fix it.

“First, was the issue of mental strength depletion. She was trying to fight back with strength that should be used in focusing on performance. There was the issue of mental toughness reduction, the case of David versus Goliath kind of fight, where you are hoping some external energy will intervene.

“There was also mental health issues, where your peace and serenity are totally incapacitated. This will lead to a total breakdown of confidence and self-assessment.

“There is psychological break down, having the AIU taking a settled case back again to CAS (Court of Arbitration in Sport). This might play dangerously on her psychology. She had emotional breakdown, and this is exactly what might be going on at the moment if not properly managed.

“But I am so proud of Amusan that with all she passed through, she still went on and competed squarely and fairly and got to the finals of a world-class event, proving she is still among the best in the world. Indeed, Tobi is really a strong woman and one of the very best in her game,” Yahaya stated.

Former Nigerian sprinter, jumper and hurdler, Seigha Porbeni, is the Head Coach of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN).

He told The Guardian in a telephone conversation that several factors, including being burnt out for most of the athletes, who came to Benin City for the trials, and those that tried to make the required standards, might have played a role.  This inclement atmosphere, he said, affected all the athletes, including Amusan.

“Again, there was no organised training tour for the athletes. There was no incentive and the athletes were treated like they were on their own. I think the Federal Government has a major role to play in this regard. Everything must not be left for the AFN. The issue of Out Of Competition Test (OCT) also affected some athletes that were not in the pool,” Porbeni stated.

For U.S.-based AFN Performance Director, Victor Okorie, Team Nigeria’s failure in Budapest was purely caused by inadequate preparation.

“I think there is urgent need for the government to borrow a leaf from Jamaica and other countries while preparing for major championships. Jamaican athletes spent three weeks in Belgium for this championship and another 10 days here in Budapest before the opening ceremony. They had enough time to relax and plan ahead.

“Our government wants the athletes to do well, but no one cares about their preparation. You can’t leave everything to the AFN. It has to change. Tobi fought as a champion and as a patriotic Nigerian. We are proud of her,” Okorie stated.

Prior to Budapest 2023 World Athletics Championships, Amusan had ran 12.48 seconds in 2019, an African record, and setting 12.40 last year in Oregon, U.S.

She made her third straight final here in Budapest on Tuesday.  Last year, the reigning African and Commonwealth Games champion scorched to a 12.12 seconds world record run in the semifinal before storming home first in the final to become the first Nigerian to win a world outdoor title.

She was hoping lightning would strike twice to successfully defend the world title, after her success at the Nigerian and African Championships, as well as at the Commonwealth Games and the Diamond League last year. But that did not happen.

As many athletics’ buffs have advised the Federal Government, now is the time to pay attention to Amusan and other athletes’ welfare, provide everything she needs to concentrate on getting back to her very best if Nigeria truly desires an Olympics gold medal from her next year.