World Championships – Where Are Nigeria’s Male Athletes?

The dwindling fortune of Nigeria’s male athletes has become the topic of discussion among track and field buffs at the ongoing 14th World Championships in Moscow, Russia, ending Sunday. DURO IKHAZUAGBE who is covering the championships filed this report

The near-absence of Nigeria’s male athletes is no longer the concern of Nigerian track and field officials alone any more. It has now turned a continental embarrassment. And those who relished Nigeria’s numero uno position in athletics in the continent can no longer keep quiet. They are asking questions everywhere here in Moscow at the 14th IAAF World Championships ending Sunday.

Apart from Ogho-Oghene Egwero, who ran and crashed out of the first round of the 100m; Leoman Momoh whose 1:min 49.25secs could not also take him beyond the first round; Tosin Oke, a former British junior champion whose dwindling fortune continued here in Moscow and the men’s 4x400m team that could not make the podium, the steady decline in the quality of Nigeria’s male athletes at global competitions is again very evident at this edition.

Ironically, of the three silver and three bronze medals that Nigeria won before coming to Moscow, save for Glory Alozie’s in the 100m hurdles in Seville, Spain, it has always been the men dominating the show.

Ajayi Agbebaku won the country’s first World Championships medal, a bronze, in Helsinki, Finland in 1983.

Innocent Egbunike followed up with 400m silver at the 1987 edition in Rome, Italy. The men’s 4x400m relay quartet of Udeme Ekpeyong, Kunle Adejuyigbe, Jude Monye and the late Sunday Bada picked bronze at the Gotenburg edition in Sweden in 1995.

It was again the relay team, this time, the 4x100m relay quartet of Osmond Ezinwa, Olapade Adeniken, Francis Obikwelu and Davidson Ezinwa, who added silver in 1997 in Athens, Greece.

Alozie’s silver medal restored the pride of the Nigerian ladies before Obikwelu capped the standing with an individual bronze medal of the 200m at the 1999 edition.

Thereafter, the drought began for both the men and female Nigerian athletes.

But the lack of winning mentality of the men has not been as embarrassing as the quality of athleticism that Nigerians, nay other Africans, who take pride in the country’s track and field, had to put up with.

“Where are the Nigerian male athletes? What is going on with your men? Of late, we have not been seeing the type of quality that we know Nigeria of,” queried President of the Confederation of African Athletics, Col. Hamad Malboum Kalkaba on meeting with the African journalists covering the Moscow edition during the week.

Nigeria’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) representative, Habu Gumel, also re-echoed Kalkaba’s concern for the country’s male athletes.

“In the past, it used to be our male runners dominating not just their events in Africa but at global competitions. We had the Ajayi Agbebaku’s, the Innocent Egbunikes, the Fasuba’s and several others who were world-class athletes. I don’t know what has happened to them,” observed Gumel who once presided over the Nigeria Olympic Committee as president before moving up into the IOC Council.

The slide in the fortunes of the male athletes has not only resulted in the country missing from the podium of the World Championships for 14 years, it has created a rippling effect that ‘small’ countries in the continent have crept into the traditional stronghold of Nigeria.

The sprint, quarter mile and the jumps are no longer Team Nigeria’s ‘exclusive’ forte anymore. Even long distance running countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are beginning to turn power-houses in these events.

Unlike before when Nigeria used to have two or more sprinters in the final of the worlds, we barely can boast of one meeting the ‘A’ qualifying standard of the IAAF to be at the World Championships.

Since the Osaka, Japan, edition in 2007 when Olusoji Fasuba flew the country’s flag in the 100m and finished fourth in the final, the best appearance of any Nigerian in the event is now a mere first round crash out like Egwero did here last Saturday.

Noah Akwu, who met the qualifying standard for the 200m, could not run because of a mix-up of the time recorded for him by the AFN secretariat staff that sent his entry to IAAF. Even at that, Akwu may not have gone beyond the first round considering the time clocked by the half-lap runners.

Sadly also, Tosin Oke who once raised the country’s hope in the men’s triple jump has since lost form, barely jumping 16.5m that is not enough to hit the final of the hope and jump event.

To make matters worse, the former British junior champion came to Moscow a half-fit athlete, struggling with a recurring injury. His story remains the same since his debut at the Berlin edition in 2009. He could not make the final in Daegu two years ago.

We have completely disappeared from field events like the throws and jumps.

Most track and field followers argue that the steady decline is as a result of several factors, the major of which is the poor quality of coaching in the home front. They also point at the lazy attitude of most of the athletes to training.

Blessing Okagbare who won a silver in the women’s long jump here was handled by American John Smith as a result of the contract the Delta girl has with sportswear giant, Nike.

Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo insisted that there is no short cut to winning.

“Any athlete desirous of getting to the podium to collect a medal must be ready to work hard under a good coach with a world-class experience. This is the new drive of the present board of the federation. After our outing here, we are going to call a board meeting to review our performance, not just that of the men alone, but the overall performance to chart the way forward for athletics in Nigeria.”

Some of the coaches here like Tony Osheku, Yusuf Alli and Gabriel Okon, however see it differently, insisting that the problem should not be limited to coaching alone. They point at poor funding and the complex problem of always believing that foreign coaches are better than the indigenous ones.

“We know the problem of athletics in Nigeria. The solution goes beyond merely blaming the local coaches for the rot.

“Have those in authority been giving the local coaches the opportunities to excel like they do for foreign coaches? Has the environment been conducive for the athletes to excel? Are they getting enough training grants to enable them focus on their training? If you must know, most of our athletes are bread winners who have several brothers and sisters they are supporting education wise. Until we do a holistic over-view of these problems, I am afraid, we may not achieve much beyond what is happening now,” said Alli whose national long jump record remain unbeaten for over two and half decade.

THISDAY learnt during the week that there are plans to hire a foreign head coach to help reverse the trend. A top level National Sports Commission (NSC) official said during the week here in Moscow that before the hiring of the coach, a high performance director would be contracted to oversee the elite athletes training expected to begin to yield result at the Commonwealth Games scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland next year.

“What we are planning is a total overhaul of sports not just track and field in the country. We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag yet until we are through with talks currently going on,” stressed the source.

The National Youth Games planned for December is part of the project to fish for fresh, young talents in the various sports to be groomed.

Also speaking on the issue, veteran sports journalist, Onochie Anibeze of Vanguard say it’s as ridiculous for Nigerians to be expecting medals from athletes whose daily camp allowance of $50 is far below what footballers get for their stay in camp locally.

“Super Eagles players get $10,000 winning bonus for all victories and daily camp allowance of $100 during competition; how much do we pay athletes for qualification from every stage of a competition like the World Championships like this? Nothing. Until we begin to really motivate our athletes, I am afraid, we may turn out to be like Mozambique and Namibia who relied on Maria Mutola and Frankie Fredericks respectively. It is embarrassing that Nigeria is turning into a one-athlete nation with just Blessing Okagbare as our standard bearer,” concludes Anibeze whose passion for track and field remains strong even after covering five Olympic Games.

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