NIGERIA’s diminishing status as a major athletics force has been further reaffirmed by a shoddy performance at the just-concluded Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. The performance, defined by utter listlessness and downright mediocrity, could only fetch the country a solitary gold medal in the 100 metres hurdles, in which Oluwatobiloba Amusan breasted the tape in 12.68 seconds. Hers was the only spark of life in a largely lethargic and forgettable performance.
To complete the lean medal haul were another solitary silver medal from the women’s 4×400 metres relay team and a bronze medal in the 4×100 metres, also from the female quartet. The men’s team returned empty-handed. This is not only embarrassing, but a colossal waste of resources. How can it be explained that the country’s team of track and field athletes could only come up with a miserly collection of three medals?
For a country whose athletes were once among the finest in the world, respected even by the United States, the powerhouse of the sprints and the jumps, what is happening now is akin to a disaster. It calls for an urgent intervention to salvage what has become a slide into unremitting mediocrity. Gold Coast 2018 was a performance that has left many wondering what the future holds for the country’s sports in general and the track and field in particular. In fact, the disgraceful show calls for an inquest to unravel the remote and immediate causes of the embarrassing performance.
That Nigerian athletes can no longer hold their own in the Commonwealth Games, a mere regional competition in the mould of the All-Africa Games and the African Championships is indicative of the level of decline in the country’s sport. This is a competition that first shot the country into sporting fame when, even as a yet-to-be-independent country, Nigeria won a gold medal in the 1954 Games in Vancouver, Canada. In that competition, the late Emmanuel Ifeajuna, competing wearing only his left shoe, broke the then British Empire high jump record. He scaled a height of 6 feet, 8 inches to become the first black African to win a gold medal.
At the 2014 Games in Glasgow, Scotland, Nigeria did not only make her presence felt in track and field, but her golden girl, Blessing Okagbare, did a sprint double, pocketing the 100 metres and 200 metres gold medals. If Nigeria can be found so miserably wanting in the Commonwealth Games, then there should be no basis for competing at the global stage where stiffer competition is expected from countries such as the US, China, Russia and Germany with strong athletics tradition. It is also not surprising that the country could not medal in any single athletics event during the last Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil.
For keen followers of athletics, Nigeria’s decline could not have come as a surprise. The country has been returning home empty-handed from global athletics competitions for close to a decade now. Curiously, nobody has taken notice enough to try to address the slide. For instance, at the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China, in 2015, Nigeria did not win a single medal, just as was the case in the London 2012 Olympic Games. While Nigeria’s single bronze medal meant a marginal improvement in the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Russia, the competition in Daegu, South Korea two years earlier also saw the country drawing a blank.
The conveyor belt that delivered athletes like Innocent Egbunike, Sunday Uti, Sunday Bada and Falilat Ogunkoya in the quarter mile; Chioma Ajunwa, the multitalented athlete and Olympic gold medallist in long jump; Chidi Imoh, the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond), Mary Onyali, in the sprints; and Yusuf Ali, Ajayi Agbebaku and Joseph Taiwo in the jumps; can no longer churn out world beaters. In fact, the fad now is to see estacode-chasing administrators jumping on the plane and scouring the global space for any athlete with Nigerian name that fails to make the grade in their countries of birth; is that not disgraceful for a country of close to 200 million people?
Gold Coast 2018 was an event that makes the heroics of Nigeria’s past athletes look like folklore from a distant past. While Nigerians now find it difficult to go past the semi-final stages of global competitions, in 1992, Nigeria and the US had three finalists each in the Barcelona Olympics men’s 100 metres event, condemning the rest of the world to sharing the remaining two slots. That same year, after picking her Olympics team, Nigeria sent those who failed to make the grade to the African Championships in Mauritius; and still came out tops.
Nowadays, while Nigerians are just comfortable with the also-ran tag, South African athletes won the gold and silver medals of the 100 metres in Gold Coast, among several other athletics events. A South African, Wayde Nierkerk, holds the world record of 43.03 seconds in men’s 400 metres event, having earlier erased Egbunike’s African record of 44.17 seconds. The Kenyans have also held on tightly to their traditional areas of competence, namely the long and middle distance races.
Where did it all go wrong? Nigeria has abandoned the grass roots, especially the school sports, which used to produce the top athletes. Most of Nigeria’s most successful athletes like Onyali and the late Abdul Kareem Amu, were still in secondary schools when they were discovered. Inter-schools and inter-divisional competitions no longer hold. Both the Folawiyo under-16 and MKO Abiola under-20 that produced Nigeria’s brightest athletes have died with their sponsors.
Until the age grade competitions are revived all over again, the country will continue to play second fiddle to other African countries, let alone the global actors. Coaches should be dispatched to all the nooks and crannies of the country to ferret out the hidden talents. Provision for playgrounds in schools should be a must so that children could go out and play at appointed periods. And when talents are discovered, there should be adequate investments to train them to the level where they can compete favourably with the best in the world. Production of world beaters in athletics, or any sport for that matter, does not come cheap.
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