By Henrique Almeida
LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu, the fastest European sprinter in history, has had a fantastic career so far but he says the best is yet to come.
“I’ve had a great life and the best thing is: things can only get better,” he said. “I feel great and want to be in the top three at the world championships (in Osaka).”
The Nigerian-born sprinter is seen as the only man capable of challenging the Americans and Jamaica’s 100 meters world record holder Asafa Powell at the Osaka world championships from August 25, though he does not seem to feel any weight on his shoulders.
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“I’ll just go there and do my job,” Obikwelu, who became a Portuguese citizen in 2001, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Obikwelu, 28, was named Europe’s male athlete of the year in 2006 after becoming the first man to win both the 100 and 200 meters at the European championship since Italian Pietro Mennea at the Prague championships in 1978 – the year Obikwelu was born.
He plans to get married and start a family in 2008 and might quit running altogether two years later.
“When I get married I don’t want to be away as much. I want my children to know who I am,” Obikwelu said. “Maybe in 2010 I will stop running…who knows?” Continued…
As far as Obikwelu remembers, he was always faster than most of his friends but his sprinting career took off only when he decided to remain behind in Portugal after the world junior championships in Lisbon.
“Life in Nigeria was different, there were fewer opportunities, so I decided to stay in Portugal where I worked as a bricklayer and began learning Portuguese with a very special teacher,” he said.
The Portuguese teacher soon found out about Obikwelu’s running aspirations and introduced him to a coach at a club in Lisbon where he began competing.
“I broke the Portuguese 100-meter record in the first race I entered,” he said. “I was just 17 at the time.”
He decided to change his nationality to Portuguese after feeling disillusioned with the Nigerian athletics federation for failing to support him after knee surgery in 2000. [BOY, THAT SHOULDVE BEEN A MAJOR LESSON TO THE NIGERIAN FEDERATION, BUT SEEMS THEY LOST THE LESSON AS WELL AS THE ATHLETE BASED ON HOW THEY’VE TREATED THE CURRENT CROP OF STARS INCLUDING SOJI FASUBA. KK]
He won the hearts of the Portuguese when he finished second in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympics – the first Olympic medal for his adopted country in sprinting events.
His relaxed style and late starts have made him famous among fans in his adoptive country who refer to him simply as Chico.
“It’s been a great run,” he said. “I can tell you I have been one of the luckiest athletes in the world but I have always worked hard to get where I am today.”
When he does quit, Obikwelu says he plans to open a training center for athletes in Portugal to “give others the opportunity to also pursue their dreams”.