Anthony Joshua and other painful misses for Nigerian sports
The victory of Anthony Olaseni Oluwafemi Joshua over Ukranian veteran world champion, Vladimir Klitschko, which saw to his retention of the International Boxing Federation (IBF) heavyweight title, as well as the addition of the World Boxing Association (WBA) belt to his medal chest came as good and bad news to Nigeria and Nigerians.
It was good news for Nigeria because an athlete whose origin is traced to her just earned another diadem in boxing’s most glamourous division, (the heavyweight category), while it was bad news because the honour is going to Britain, which nurtured the dude to stardom, after Nigerian officials and the system rejected him, as they almost, always do.
As a country, Nigeria is heavily endowed with world-beaters as far as sports is concerned. Sadly, the country renowned for losing her homegrown sportsmen/women to other countries, is also famed for her failure/inability to attract world-class athletes of Nigerian origin in the Diaspora.
In international sports, changing nationalities by athletes is commonplace, but while the world’s football governing body FIFA strictly regulates the process, it is a different kettle of fish in athletics and many other disciplines of sports.
Over the years, uncountable number of athletes have either abandoned their countries of origin to fly the flags of their adopted countries, either out of frustration, poor incentives, nepotism, or the inability of their home countries to take the right steps towards securing their services.
This scenario, usually present the right atmosphere for ready foreign countries to swoop on African athletes with mouthwatering remuneration and motivational packages.
Nigeria, self-acclaimed giant of Africa, appears to be the worst hit country on the continent as far as this unfortunate development is concerned.
For starters, names like Francis Obikwelu, who won silver medal for Portugal at the 2004 Athens Olympics features prominently on the list of athletes that abandoned the country for greener pastures.
Gloria Alozie, who represented Nigeria and Spain, Oluseyi Smith (Canada), Tiffany Porter, Marilyn Okoro, Cindy Ofili (Great Britain); Ayodele Ikuesan (France); Samuel Francis (Qatar) and Josephine Nkiruka Onyia (Spain) are some athletes that got better deals from foreign countries and switched allegiance, and were never approached by Nigerian authorities, or were frustrated by the country’s sporting authorities and so decided to pitch tent elsewhere.
During the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, it was always a sad spectacle to see athletes of Nigerian descent doing great things in the colours of other nations.
Among them were the likes of Christine Ohuruogu, and Ezinne Okparaebo, who competed for their adopted countries, Great Britain and Norway respectively.
The others are Edidiong Odiong and Oluwakemi Adekoya of Bahrain; Keturah Orji, Morolake Akinosun, Barbara Nwaba and Courtney Okolo all of USA, Femi Ogunade (Qatar), Ayomide Folorunsho (Italy), Anyika Onuora (Great Britain) and Paola Ogechi Egonu (Italy) just to mention a few.
Joshua’s victory over Klitschko has come with immense talking points. For instance, the thriller has been dubbed the greatest fight Wembley Stadium, which was witnessed live by 90,000 boxing fans and enthusiasts ever hosted.
In addition to this, the victory also lifts 27-year-old Joshua to 19-0 wins, with 19 of them being knockouts.
However, for his home country, all these pale into insignificance when placed pari passu with the circumstances that led to Joshua lacing gloves for Britain instead of Nigeria. As a matter of fact, torrents of odium have been poured on the country’s sporting authorities, specifically erstwhile boxing officials, who were alleged to have made it impossible for Joshua to represent Nigeria when he showed interest.
It was in the wake of the fight that stories began making the rounds of how boxing officials mishandled the situation when Joshua indicated interest to represent the country. Expectedly, local boxing buffs called for the head of Coach Obisia Nwankpa, whom they accuse of frustrating Joshua’s efforts to join Team Nigeria to Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Nwakpa, who was the chief coach of the boxing team in 2008, was quick to defend the decision of not taking Joshua to the Olympics, claiming that he was not good enough.
“We made the right call then, because he wasn’t good enough and we picked someone who was much better,” he was initially quoted as saying. He later told ESPN that Joshua refused to appear when he was told to come for trials.
“He reached out to us, asking to be part of our Olympic team, so we invited him to come down and take part in trials ... unfortunately, he did not appear when we asked him to and came down only when we had finished our trials, finalised our team and were about to travel for a training tour. Maybe other coaches would have accepted it, but I could not.
“It’s a pity he did not get his chance at that time, but the two boxers we selected then, Durodola Olanrewaju and Onorede Ohwarieme, were outstanding and experienced and there was no way I was going to drop them for somebody I had not even seen.”
Joshua went on to win the heavyweight gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
But Nwankpa, 1973 All Africa Games and 1974 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, as well as, African Boxing Union light welterweight title, in another recent interview denied ever standing in the way of Joshua’s aspirations.
“I was surprised that some Nigerians are making such accusation against me. What happened was that Joshua actually contacted us that he wanted to represent Nigeria at the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing. We agreed that he should come down to Nigeria to join other boxers in our camp so that we could examine him properly. But he refused. And as at that time, we had three good boxers in the heavyweight category, who were doing very well. I doubt if Joshua could have won a medal for Nigeria at that time. So, it is wrong for anyone to say that we frustrated Joshua from representing Nigeria,” Nwankpa told The Guardian recently.
The veteran added: “But I want Nigerians to learn some lessons from this. Today, everyone is celebrating Anthony Joshua because he has become a world champion. Nigerians should stop this attitude. We don’t like investing in our children or giving them the support they need to become successful persons in the future. It is not so in other countries.”
Born in Watford, England, to a Nigerian mother and a British father of Nigerian and Irish descent in 1989, Joshua grew up in his early years in Nigeria and returned to the UK halfway through ‘Year Seven’ to join Kings Langley Secondary School.
Growing up on the Meriden Estate in Garston, Hertfordshire, Joshua excelled in football and athletics and broke the Year Nine 100m record with a time of 11.6 seconds.
Despite being a late starter in the sport, as he only began boxing in 2007, aged 18, when his cousin another boxer suggested he take it up, he went on to win several amateur titles and later turned down £50, 000 to turn professional.
During the 2011 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, Joshua marked his sudden arrival on the world scene when he beat Italian reigning world and Olympic champion, Roberto Cammarelle, and went on to stop Erik Pfeifer of Germany in the semis before losing by a single point to local boxer, Magomedrasul Majidov winning a silver medal.
En route to the final, Joshua secured his place at the 2012 Olympic Games in the 91 kg+ division as a relative new-comer to the elite level of the sport.
Another star athlete that found solace in another country, where his talent was appreciated even as they did everything to ensure that he succeeded and rose to become an Olympic gold medalist and a world champion is Baraladei Daniel Igali.
Born on February 3, 1974 in Eniwari, Bayelsa State, Igali, a freestyle wrestler represented Nigeria at amateur level in boxing and even captained the country’s wrestling team to the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada.
After the Games, the immediate past President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation (NWF) remained in Canada, and went on to acquire the country’s citizenship in 1998.
Before acquiring this, Simon Fraser University, where he had gained admission, wrote to Nigeria in 1996, 1997 and 1998, stating its desire to foot Igali’s bill to and from Nigeria for national trials, so that he could represent the country at different international competitions, having been exposed to world-class facilities that radically improved his performances. The university had no response from the country’s sporting authorities on the three occasions. Left with no other choice, Igali went on to represent Canada.
At Simon Fraser University, Igali won 116-0 consecutive wrestling matches from 1997 to 1999. He placed fourth at the 1998 world championships and finished second at the 1998 World Cup, and won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games.
At the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Igali won a gold medal in the Men’s 69 kg freestyle wrestling, and at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, he won a gold medal in the Men’s 74 kg freestyle wrestling.
Before bidding farewell to wrestling, the graduate of Simon Fraser School of Criminology, four-time Nigerian national champion in both Greco Roman and freestyle; two-time African champion (1993/94); he also was seven-time Canadian champion; 1999 world champion; two-time Canadian athlete of the year 1999-2000; Lou Marsh Athlete of the Year 2000.
For his services to the sport, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, as well as inducted as the second Canadian ever accepted into the World Olympic Wrestling Hall of Fame at the London Olympics.
International Rugby Board (IRB) Educator for Nigeria, Ntiense Williams, is pained that Nigeria made little efforts to bring Joshua, a willing athlete to compete for the country even when the signs of greatness were there.
“Truth be told, Nigerian boxing officials saw Joshua as a rookie and so failed to notice his potentials. If Nigeria was keen, and if we had a system in place to monitor the performance of young athletes of Nigerian descent, Joshua would today be wrapped in Nigerian colours. Those that were preferred in place of Joshua won no medals out there, but Joshua did and continues to. Today, we are struggling to celebrate him because he has a Nigerian name, while the honour is going to Britain,” said the veteran rugby official.
Insisting that the country runs a defective system of sports, Williams who is the Edo State rugby head coach said the need to follow-up on the performance and progress of budding Nigerian athletes both within and outside the country was important if we do not want other countries to be taking the glory.
The former technical director of the Nigeria Rugby Federation (NRF), said: “The Sports Ministry, the National Sports Commission, and the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC), should be equipped to spot these talents, keep tabs, and follow up on them because there are so many of them out there.
Ex-international, Fatai Amao shares Williams’ views on keeping tabs on young Nigerian athletes abroad, and so wants dedicated departments to be set up in the country’s embassies and high commissions across the world.
“Much as the loss of Anthony Joshua remains a very shameful development, we should learn to be proactive as a country because other countries are constantly eyeing some of our young athletes. It is important for us to always reach out to these young people before they pledge their allegiance to foreign nations,” said the head coach of Shooting Stars Sports Club.
He stressed that while making conscious efforts to develop sports locally, effective and efficient departments should be created in our embassies and high commissions to begin to collate our youngsters that are willing to represent their fatherland.”