Nigeria: follow Jamaica

Nigeria: Athletics - Borrowing a Leaf From Jamaica

Daily Trust (Abuja)

28 September 2008
Posted to the web 29 September 2008

Abdulraheem Aodu

Following the near domination of Jamaica in the sprint events at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the Caribbean nation finally announced its arrival at the world athletics affairs.

Jamaica has never had it so good in the past in athletics, either at the World Championships or at the Olympics, but it swept six gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals with three world and Olympic records to its credit at the last Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

The land of Reggae even had the audacity to make it a one, two, three finish in the female 100m race leaving the Americans to lick their wound and wonder what went wrong or was it what went too right.

Though Jamaican born sprinters in the mould of Linford Christies in Barcelona 1992, Donovan Bailey in Atlanta 1996 and even Ben Johnson (despite tainting his 9.79secs performance with drugs) in Seoul 1988 have emerged Olympics 100m champions at different times, but they were in the colours of Britain and Canada respectively. And these countries are believed to have contributed to their training and upbringing since they grew up in there.

Only Ray Stewart and the evergreen Marlene Ottey, who ran World Athletics Championship final in 2007 for her adopted country Slovakia, at the ripe age of 42, truly flew the Jamaican flag at the top level until the coming of the current golden generation. The arrival of the likes of Michael Fratter, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell Brown and then Usain Bolt, on the block changed all the permutations and combinations for USA and other top athletics nation forever as events at Beijing showed quite glaringly.

Leading pundits to the question, considering the tiny size of the Caribbean nation and USA’s large size and huge financial outlay on athletics, how did Jamaica achieved the seemingly unachievable feat of upstaging the multitalented Americans from the pinnacle of world athletics.

Answering the question following the huge success recorded by her country’s contingent at the Olympics, Jamaican Sports Minister, Olivia Grange said they achieved the feat based on the triple Ts of tradition, talent and training that had been the cornerstone of her country’s athletics programme for many years. Using the school system to identify and nurture young precocious talents, form them into a pool for association and then groom them to stardom with further polishing carried out at the Jamaican High Performance Training Centre, where the stars are finally produced.

Applying the situation here in Nigeria, another question arises, what did Nigeria lack from the three Ts that have catapulted Jamaica to the top of world athletics where it now holds all the vital sprint world records and demoted Nigeria to the basement of world athletics where it now seem to reside?

Considering the way Nigerian athletes were held in awe and eyed with fear even by American athletes at major world events in the eighties and nineties, Nigeria has the tradition in athletics especially the sprint and jumps where it has not only dominated African and Commonwealth athletics but was also a major force in world athletics until the demise sets in.

The performance of the nation’s track and field athletes in major competitions like the All African Games, Commonwealth Games, Athletics World Cup, World Athletics Championships, Olympics and even major regional events such as the African Athletics Championships and the US Goodwill Games as well as the IAAF Grand Prix and Super Grand Prix have shown without doubt that Nigeria is well endowed with talented track and field athletes.

This must have led President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya to name the then starry-eyed Nigerian quartermiler Innocent Egbunike, the Egbunike of Africa following his fantastic performance at the 1987 All African Games held in Nairobi, Kenya. Egbunike, who had just won the 400m and 4x400m relay gold at the quadrennial event, was to later become the African 400m record holder in 44.17secs at the 1991 World Athletics Championship in Rome, Italy.

The likes of Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Olapade Adeniken and Davidson Ezinwa all in their teens and just discovered from their secondary schools through the National Sports Festival were unveiled at that particular competition. Chidi Imoh, who then was the 100m African record holder in 10secs,was part of the glory that Nigeria basked in at the tourney, as he won two gold medals in 100m and 4x100m relay.

Nigeria could however, be said to be lacking in the last T, as adequate training programme tailored to get the best out of its athletes and polished the gems unearthed at the various lower levels like the school system, the national competitions and even the military institutions are lacking with late preparation aptly named fire brigade approach the order of the day ahead of any and every competitions.

The administrators are wont to cover up their glaring and unacceptable inadequacies with untenable but well sounding excuses like late release of fund and inadequate government funding. But they conveniently covered their lack of programme, maladministration and technical ineptitude as well as corruption, which had fed through their skin to their bone marrow, making them incapable of fully implementing policies that would improve the standing of athletics in the country.

Nigeria as a country has always been well blessed with talented athletes in all events sprints, jumps and throws to the envy of other African nations and even the world at large but its inability to bring the best out of them through well planned training programme, has remained the major reason why it has failed to assume its place among top athletics nations in the world despite its irrefutable potentials and enviable prospects which makes other countries green with envy.

These young athletes, who are ready to do anything to make a success of a profession in athletics having realised that the needed administrative support is not there, eventually find solace in other countries, where they go on to blossom and shine. Examples abound here such as Daley Thompson, the decathlete who defected to Britain in the 80s, Charity Okpara who moved to US in the early 90s, Gloria Alozie who defected to Spain after the death of her quartermiler heartthrob, at the Sydney 2000 Olympics in Australia and Francis Obikwelu, the Nigerian sprinter now turning out for Portugal.

Nigeria used to be a nation to reckon with in track and field events in the 80s and 90s when the young Nigerian prospects were offered American university scholarship which opened to them a world of opportunities to study and train in American universities where they also have the added chance of honing their precocious skills through the NCAA competitions which runs through the season. The nation’s domination of world athletics was achieved through the likes of Chidi Imoh, the Ezinwa brothers, Olapade Adeniken, Seun Ogunkoya, Deji Aliu, Uchenna Emedolu and now Adesoji Fasuba who were forces to reckon with in the IAAF athletics circuits. Mary Onyali Omagbemi also led others females like Charity Okpara, Chioma Ajunwa, Airat Bakare, Endurance Ojokolo and Mercy Nku in the female genre where they also held sway in the African and Commonwealth scene.

The likes of Sunday Uti, Innocent Egbunike, Sunday Bada, Clement Chukwu, Falilat Ogunkoya- Omotayo, Charity Okpara Thompson and Bisi Afolabi ran the roost in the quarter mile event. While the hurdles event was dominated by the Akinremi sisters, Omolade and Omotayo, Taiwo and Kehinde Aladefa and Ime Akpan.

Nigeria also had a stronghold in the long jump pit where Ayo Aladefa, Yusuf Ali, Obinna Eregbu, and Chioma Ajunwa were well respected. Former triple jump African record holder, Ajayi Agbebaku for males and Rosa Collins for females as well as Olu Sule and Chinedu Odozor held sway in the triple jump, while Anthony Idiata ruled the African and Commonwealth high jump scene for years.

Sadly, the dominance has been erased as Nigeria can hardly present an athletes in the final of a world track and field event despite the increasing prospect, even as other countries are also improving while Nigerians performance kept on dwindling in geometrical progression.

This has led pundits to believe that since the drawing board must have been in tatters by now, (following uncountable belated retreats after every failure or poor performance in any competition) why wont Nigerian administrators and officials for a change learn or rather borrow a leaf from Jamaica on how the three Ts were made to work using Nigerian recipe and ingredients but global standards.

For a start, the school sports federation competitions for primary and secondary school pupils should be restarted and monitored by sporting authorities at the local levels. While the Nigerian University Games (NUGA), Nigerian Polytechnic Games (NIPOGA), National Colleges of Education Games (NATCEGA) and the private university games should be revived, upgraded and improved for better performance.

Though, most Nigerian athletes are now heading to Europe where they could partake in the European circuits and make foreign currency, Nigerian authorities could allow the established athletes to head to Europe, while the young talents discovered through school competition should be herded and taken to USA for American university scholarship and opportunity to train and study to become a better person and a better athlete.

Despite the cries of woes by former Nigerian football internationals many of whom are living in abject penury, only a few, quite a few former track and field athletes are complaining since most of them had scholarship opportunities to be educated and are thus able to fend for themselves and for their respective families. Though many of these universities may not be willing as before but a few of them could still be persuaded to take these prospects on according to former 400m Olympics champion and record holder, Lee Evans who is now an athletics coach of Southern Alabama University in USA.

Evans told SundayTrustsports in 2005 when he came to witness the AFN Mobil Athletics Championship in Abuja that though the American universities have streamlined their intake of athletes on scholarship, many of them are still willing to bring in talented athletes in particular areas like sprint and jumps which are the areas in which Nigeria is really endowed. He went to the extent of saying that some of his colleagues requested him to look out prospects for him from Nigeria.

It must be noted here that Blessing Okhagbare who won a silver medal in long jump at the Beijing Olympics is a student of University of Texas in El Paso USA where Olapade Adeniken graduated. While 100m hurdles runner, Toyin Augustine also studies in an American university.

Since the most vital requirement of government is to provide adequate sporting facilities and enabling environment, Nigerian government can make it a priority to co sponsor the proven talents, who are able to secure scholarship to study and train abroad, in order to help nurture the talents and improve on the nation’s moribund performance in world athletics fiestas.

Borrowing a cue from Jamaica is the only opportunity for Nigerian athletics to resume its place among the comity of top athletics nations in the world. Need we say more?