In the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics, Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor was the talking point in world athletics, as she dominated major championships across the globe. She broke old records and set new ones. Among other things, she set a new African record of 10.79 seconds in the 100 metres and also defeated the reigning Olympic champion at the time, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica.
Then, Okagbare was so good on the track that many Nigerians began to count their chicks even before they were hatched. Some swore to high heavens that no matter what happened, Okagbare would be among the medallists at the Olympics, particularly in the 100 metres.
When hostilities began in London, the Delta State-born athlete raised the hope of millions of Nigerians back home by getting to the final of the 100m. But that was as far as she could go. She finished in the eighth position on a day so much was expected from her.
It was the same scenario at Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championship, where Okagbare also finished eighth in the 100m. Ditto for the London 2017 World Championships, where she occupied the same position in the Long Jump. She couldn’t make the 100m final at Rio 2016 Olympics despite her pre-Olympics performances.
Some athletics analysts were quick to point out then that Okagbare’s poor performances in those championships was as a result of ‘over loaded’ athletics programmes before the main event.
To some of them, if the Federal Government of Nigeria had taken a proactive measure by providing some form of financial support for Okagbare to take care of her basic needs, including paying of coaches, nutrition and medicals, the athlete would have stopped ‘jumping’ from one athletics competition to another in Europe and America in a bid to grab some quick money. That was then.
Another opportunity may have come for the Nigerian government to ‘save’ for the rainy day, particularly as the build up to the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha and Tokyo 2020 Olympics has began.
At the moment, a Nigerian sprinter, Divine Ejovwokoghene Oduduru is among the hottest legs in the world of athletics.
Oduduru, who is combining education with his athletics career in the United States of America, made history recently by winning his first NCAA 100m title, clocking 9.86 seconds to become the second African runner to achieve such feat. His 9.86 seconds was the second-fastest time in NCAA history. About 45 minutes after his heroics in the 100m, Oduduru won the 200 meters in 19.73 seconds, the second-fastest in NCAA history.
Oduduru, who competed alongside legendary Usain Bolt at Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championships, is now the second Nigerian after Olopade Adeniken in 1992, and third African after Namibia’s Frankie Frederick in 1991 to successfully complete a sprint double at the NCAA Division 1 Championship in USA.
His time was just a 100th of a second off Olusoji Fasuba’s 9.85-second African record set 13-years ago in Doha. Fasuba is the fastest African athlete of all time, while Oduduru is just a 100th of a second behind him.
The time is third joint fastest in the world, as Oduduru equaled Noah Lyles and Christian Coleman’s runs recently in Shanghai at the IAAF Diamond League meeting.
“This is the best time for Nigerian government to invest heavily on Oduduru and other athletes who are doing well in athletics,” former Nigerian hurdler, Gloria Alozie told The Guardian in a telephone chat yesterday. “As a former athlete and now a coach, I know that Nigeria will have a lot to gain from Oduduru going by his current form in the 100m and 200m. He has what it takes now to grab a medal for Nigeria at the World Championships in Doha and even at the 2020 Olympics, if the government deemed it fit to put in place a measure that could aid him financially.”
Continuing, Alozie, who won a silver medal for Nigeria at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, said: “An athlete has a very short time because the more you age, the slower you become on the track. That is why majority of them have to go into various competitions to make some money for themselves and also save for the rainy day when they are active.
“An athlete has a lot of things to take care of. And in a situation where help is not coming from your government, Olympics Committee and the Athletics Federation, so many of them are forced to look somewhere else for money. That is why they go into so many competitions, and in the process are burnt out before the main event. But also remember that an athlete needs to compete to be in form. But after hitting great form, a government that cares for its athletes will take over the financial responsibilities. In that case, the athlete will have to select the competitions he or she needs to compete to maintain the form.
“In the case of Oduduru and other Nigerian athletes who are in superb form at the moment, I think our government must act fast. We can’t afford to waste this golden opportunity,” Alozie, a coach with the Making Of Champions (MoC), stated.
Oduduru, a student of Texas Tech University in USA, was among athletes discovered at the Dr. Awoture Eleyae U-14 and U-15 Athletics Championships in Delta State in 2014. He is the youngest of 10 children and grew up in abject poverty in the small rural village of Ovworo near Ughelli in South South Nigeria.
In an emotional interview with the IAAF website recently, Oduduru revealed his grass to grace story, starting with how he had to help out his father (now late) on the small farm to cultivate crops.
He said: “Life was really tough. For everyone, it was a struggle to survive. We walked to and from school and some days I didn’t eat, I was starving. It is only when I came home to the farm I get something to eat like Garri.”
Determined to help himself to a better life, Oduduru vowed as a youngster, to one day haul himself out of the poverty trap.
“I knew that I wanted to create a platform for myself and I was determined not to end up the same way as others,” he stated.
Oduduru has indeed created a platform for himself, hugging the headlines each time he stepped on the tracks.
While he is now a legend in collegiate athletics, Oduduru is already aiming high at the World Championships billed for Doha later this year.
It will not be surprising if Oduduru, just like Fasuba over a decade ago, set another African record in the oil-rich city (Doha).
“I’m definitely thinking of a medal (in Doha) and I’m working towards that goal,” 22-year old Oduduru stated.
One of Africa’s most decorated female athletes, Falilat Ogunkoya, feels Oduduru has done enough for his college in USA and should now think of joining the professional rank in order to reap the benefits of his career.
Ogunkoya was one of Nigeria’s female athletes to rule the Colligate Games in the 1980s, while combining education with athletics for her school at Mississippi State. Like Oduduru, Ogunkoya was on a scholarship at Mississippi then. She graduated from the college in 1992.
Speaking with The Guardian, Ogunkoya said: “I agree the government has a role to play in Oduduru’s career, but honestly speaking, at this stage, he needs to think very fast between his NCAA career and his future. Oduduru has done so much for his school from last year till this moment, and this is the time for him to be properly managed. I think he needs to be bold enough to tell his school that he has done enough. He needs to rest because he does not have anything to prove in colligate games any more.
“As a student who is still competing for his school, it will be difficult for money to roll in for Oduduru because the school won’t allow it. As I said, he needs to be managed properly at this stage.
Oduduru needs a psychologist and a physiotherapist now. He needs a good manager, not a manager who cannot put him in Meets. I read his interview with IAAF website, where Oduduru said he is the last born in a family of 10, and that he has a lot of responsibilities on his shoulder. Yes, he needs money, but for him to get it, Oduduru needs to look in and go professional. If he remains in NCAA, it will be difficult to get the money because the school will stop it,” she stated.
Ogunkoya revealed that Oduduru’s achievements in the NCAA would attract a lot of attention from many athletics super power nations like USA, Jamaica, England and Canada in this year’s IAAF World Championship in Doha. “Oduduru has shown the entire world now that he can run. So, he should be fully prepared for the challenges in Doha because the big guys will be coming for him. Oduduru is from Delta State, and I believe Governor Ifeanyi Okowa can lead the way by providing his financial needs the same way Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan helped Blessing Okagbare some years ago.
“But it depends on who takes Oduduru’s matter to the governor. That does not mean that the Federal Government cannot help. My prayer is that Oduduru should be injury free for him to reap the benefits of his athletics career.”
On his part, former Nigerian jumper, hurdler and sprinter, Seigha Porbeni said if Oduduru could be properly managed, he would be the athlete to beat, particularly in the short sprints in this year’s African Games in Morocco. He also sees Oduduru as Nigeria’s biggest athlete going to the IAAF World Championships in Doha, as well as next year’s summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Porbeni, a former Director of Sports at the University of Ibadan (UI) and Delta State, wants the Federal Government to set aside a special fund to take care of Oduduru’s immediate needs to save him from burning out his energy before the Africa Games in Morocco and the World Championships in Doha.
“Athletics is quite different from football. It is an individual sport. Oduduru has proven beyond reasonable doubt that he has the energy and courage to make Nigeria proud on the track. By taking charge of his finances, we can control the number of competitions he will participate.
As it stands now, Oduduru will receive many invitations from all over the world because everybody wants to see a 9.8 seconds runner after the legendary Usain Bolt. He needs money to pay his trainers, physiotherapist, take care of his nutrition and purchase his training kits. We need to prevent what happened to Blessing Okagbare in 2012, when she ran in so many invitational Meets just to make money,” Porbeni stated.
Oduduru may still be angry with Nigeria over the treatment he and other foreign-based athletes received from the government at the end of Asaba 2018 African Senior Athletics Championship. Till date, Oduduru alongside other foreign-based stars like jumper Ese Brume and hurdler Tobi Amusan are yet to forgive Nigeria after they were paid a ‘paltry’ N107,000 allowance at the end of Asaba 2018, which they rejected.
Oduduru’s father died while he was competing at Asaba 2018, and as an athlete running for Nigeria, members of his family were expecting him to assist them financially in the burial plans.
He sounded a note of warning to the government then saying: “Our government has to sit up before the country loses more talents. You don’t treat athletes this way and expect them to honour your invitation next time. The Asaba 2018 Championship was an international event and we were supposed to be treated that way.
“We were given just N107,000 as allowances for the duration of the championship. It was an insult. I, Ese Brume and Tobi Amusan had to reject it. Before my season got to this stage, no official of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) called me. They will only reach out to you when it is time for competition. Nobody cares how you are surviving, and how you are taking care of your career. It is not so with athletes from other countries.
“Next year (referring to 2019) will be very important in my school athletics career, and I don’t think I will be available for the national trials in Nigeria. I think our government should have a rethink on how to reposition athletics because you cannot go to a river without a hook or fishing net but expect to catch a fish. Our government is paying lip service to athletics, and it must change before serious preparation starts for Tokyo 2020 Olympics,” Oduduru told The Guardian then.
Two other Nigerian sprinters, Usheoritse Itsekiri and Raymond Ekeovwo are also making waves in the short sprints. Itsekiri, who is also a product of the Dr. Awoture Eleyae U-14 and U-15 Athletics Championships in Delta State just secured qualification for Doha 2019 World Championship, blazing to a Personal Best of 10.07 seconds to win the men’s 100m at the 55th International Whitsum Festival in Rehilingen.
On his part, Raymond Ekevwo broke his Personal Best record in the 100m with a big Lifetime Best of 10.02s to finish second in the men’s 100m final at the 2019 South Eastern Conference (SEC) Championships in USA on May 11. Like Oduduru and Itsekiri, Ekevwo has also qualified for the IAAF World Championships in Doha.
Some athletics followers are of the view that if the trio of Oduduru, Itsekiri and Ekevwo can maintain their current form before the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Nigeria will pick a medal in the 4x100m relay for men.