For athletes of any sport discipline, winning a global honour remains the ultimate pursuit of excellence and self-fulfilment. This explains why athletes go to the ends of the earth, not just to participate in global showpieces such as the World Cup and Olympic Games, but to also excel. To many, the joy goes beyond mere participation; it is about winning.
Unfortunately, that philosophy does not strike any chord with Nigerian athletes. Rather than strive for glory in such competitions, Nigerians, of recent, have become more complacent, feeling comfortable with just settling for places among the also-rans. This was the case with the 15th IAAF World Championships held recently in Beijing, China, where, after nine days of intensive competition in track and field events, the Nigerian contingent returned home empty-handed. No medals of any hue.
It was a perfect reenactment of the woeful performance of three years ago at the Olympic Games in London, where the country failed to place among the medal winners. Two years ago, at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Russia – which preceded the Beijing championships – Nigeria’s lot was only marginally better, as the team had just a solitary bronze medal to show for her participation. At the 13th edition of the competition in Daegu, South Korea, back in 2011, Nigeria was also missing on the medals table. Winning for Nigerian athletes is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Nigeria’s failure in Beijing was put in an even sharper relief by the fact that Kenya, a fellow African country, topped the medals table of the competition ahead of major world powers such as the United States of America, Russia, China and Britain. Kenya dazzled the world after an impressive medals haul of seven gold, six silver and three bronze medals. Ethiopia also finished in a respectable fifth position, with three gold, three silver and two bronze medals, while South Africa picked up one gold and two bronze medals to place 13th.
Nigeria’s dismal outing did not come as a surprise to keen followers of the sport. It is what should be expected when a country that once mass-produced high quality athletes suddenly finds itself relying almost entirely on the performance of just one person. When that person fails to deliver, then there is a problem. Nigeria has been too reliant on Blessing Okagbare to haul in the odd medal at the highest level of competitive athletics. So, when she failed to medal in the women’s 100 meters event, after so much promise in the qualifying rounds, it was obvious that Nigeria had reached a dead end.
Hope in the relays, which usually come to the rescue when all else fails, also fizzled out rapidly. Again, the reason was not far-fetched – Okagbare was not available to run the anchor leg, having been ruled out by injury. Her absence in the long jump, where she has always been able to come up with a bronze or silver medal, did not help matters either. It seemed as if everything had conspired against Nigeria.
This is not only embarrassing, but a clarion call to face the challenges head-on. For a country of 170 million people, it should not be too difficult to produce a handful of world beaters. Many times, the country has been lulled into sleep after what looks like excellent outings at the Commonwealth Games and African Championships. At such competitions, it is easy for Okagbare to win both the 100 metres and 200 metres events before anchoring the female relay teams to gold. The truth however is that these are inferior competitions that either do not include countries such as Russia, China, Germany and Ethiopia or are even shunned by top athletes from Jamaica, Canada and some other strong Commonwealth countries. Victories in such competitions, as is likely to happen in Congo at the ongoing All Africa Games, should therefore be celebrated with caution.
With the next Olympic Games due in the coming year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, only a miracle can see Nigeria coming back with a medal. Perhaps the talismanic Okagbare would be in the right frame of mind to conjure up one and send sport lovers into a frenzy, the type witnessed when Chioma Ajunwa, in Atlanta ‘96, leapt 7.12 metres to win Nigeria’s first individual Olympic gold medal in the long jump event. But a country with a great athletics tradition cannot continue to build its fate on happenstance; the situation requires drastic actions.
Since it takes at least four years of preparation to challenge for medals at the Olympic Games, the country has to start looking beyond Rio and start preparing for Tokyo 2020. Apart from working with the present set of athletes, there is the need to take the battle for sport revival to schools. The Sports Ministry should be ready to partner the Ministry of Education to revive inter-secondary schools competitions at the national level. It is the channel that served the country so well in the past.
The government, through the school system, can rekindle interest in sport and ensure that approvals are not given for the establishment of new schools if they lack playgrounds where children can engage in sporting activities. Aside from inter-school competitions, there should be meets at the local government and state levels. These are where hidden talents can be discovered and sent for nurture at the national level.
In the past, athletes who excelled in competitions were rewarded with scholarships. Most of the Nigerian athletes that did so well in the late 1970s up to the 1990s were beneficiaries of such scholarships to American universities, where they took advantage of the excellent facilities and coaching available there to hone their skills and challenge the best from other parts of the world. It is time to return to that system.
The only way to get the best out of Okagbare is to relieve her of the pressure she is currently facing. And what better way to achieve this than to produce more world class athletes like her? This will only come to pass through adequate funding by both the government and the private sector.