How Africa overtook Nigeria on the race tracks
It is always a thing of pride to tell people that Nigerians hold the records in men’s 100m, on three continents – Africa, Europe, and Asia. Francis Obikwelu’s 9.86s silver medal-winning race at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, remains the European record. Obikwelu, born in Nigeria, ran under the Portuguese flag. It has been tied twice by Frenchman, Jimmy Vicaut but not beaten. Femi Ogunode’s 9.91s at the 2014 Asian Championship is Asia’s record in the 100m. Ogunode, also born in Nigeria, competes for Qatar and holds the Asian 200m record as well.
For more than 60 years, Nigerians excelled in athletics on the continent and globally. Emmanuel Ifeajuna won Nigeria’s first Commonwealth gold medal in 1954, a feat British journalist Brian Oliver described in his book, The Commonwealth Games, as “something no black African had ever done: he won a gold medal at an international sporting event.” For many years, Nigeria dominated the tracks in the sprints and shorter distances, going on to win her first Olympic gold medal with Chioma Ajunwa’s 7.12m long jump at Atlanta ’96. That generation had talented athletes who, when they did not win individual sprints, went on to finish on the podium at several international events and still hold African records in 4x100m men’s relay, 4x400m men’s relay, 400m women, 4x100m women’s relay, etc.
While Nigeria’s success on the tracks has sadly become a thing of the past, other African countries are increasingly achieving international recognition. South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk broke the world record in the men’s 400m at Rio 2016. The women’s 100m African record is now held by Ivory Coast runner, Murielle Ahoure. Her compatriot Marie-Josee Ta Lou was the only African in the 100m women’s final at Rio 2016. South Africa’s Akani Simbine and Ivoirian Ben Youssef Meite, were the two runners from the continent to reach the 100m men’s final in Rio. No Nigerian was good enough to reach the finals. The time when Nigerians dominated the tracks is now a distant memory.
The athletics industry in Nigeria, like many aspects of our national life, has suffered neglect. The glamour that athletics once held has been lost to the growth of football, which itself has not fared greatly in an atmosphere where anything hardly works. Where good athletes used to be constantly churned out through school sports, there is now a wide gap between education and sport as the system focuses more on classroom learning and certificates. Young scholar athletes speak of being victimized and looked at as unserious.
One of Nigeria’s greatest ever sprinters, two-time Olympic bronze medalist in 1992 and 1996, and 200m African record holder, Mary Onyali, stopped lamenting about the failures of the system and started doing what she could to ensure that young talents are discovered and nurtured despite a system that stifles progress. Onyali, who enjoyed a scholarship to study as an athlete in the United States in the 1980s, tells me that the present Nigerian educational system ‘stigmatizes student-athletes’ instead of supporting them.
The failure of Nigerian athletics has been linked to the lack of investments in school sports. Where there used to be several important local competitions that led to the discovery of talents, those competitions disappeared. And while the few ones that survived trudged on, the attention of the governmental agencies that are responsible for grooming them into elite athletes has been found wanting.
Now, private organizations are taking up the gauntlet by investing in discovering, grooming and getting scholarships for talented young Nigerians, to ensure a new generation of track and field stars are produced for the country.
Onyali’s private efforts, like the BOOST facility in Offa, Kwara State, and other private organizations’, for examples: the Making of Champions and Skoolimpics, have begun to invest in producing Nigeria’s next generation of Olympic athletes. They are no longer waiting on the government. They are taking the future into their own hands to ensure that Nigeria can compete once again, even as Africa has overtaken us on the tracks.
Raising world class athletes is not cheap. There must be cooperation between private organizations, corporations and governments, to ensure that we find and groom the best. The industry needs to grow if it is to create opportunities for several groups of professionals nationwide. It is the only way we will be able to catch up.