By Afolabi Oluwaseun
It was a weekend to remember for athletes in Nigeria and Eight other countries in the West African region under the umbrella of the Confederation of African Athletics Region II.
Athletes converged on the ancient city of Zaria for the National Trials, the Confederation of African Athletics Region II championship and the Grand Prix. – three major events in one City
Coming after more than a year of inactivity as occasioned by COVID-19 and its attendant effects which resulted in the global shut down, it was the perfect opportunity for athletes to come together, shake off their rustiness and show the world what they were capable of doing.
On Thursday, 28th, May, 2021, selected athletes from the 36 states of the country and the Federal Capital Territory participated in the National Trials organized by Athletics Federation of Nigeria.
This presented an opportunity for the Federation to select the best athletes to represent the country in future competitions.
Although, the global community and many Nigerians are focusing basically on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Japan, it is pertinent to note that athletics will not end after the Olympics.
After the Tokyo games, there will still be other regional, continental and world athletics meets which Nigerian athletes must qualify and participate in.
They say the future is now. If we are hoping, as a country, to return to our place of pride in the sprints and the relays at the global stage, we need to start preparing now.
The AFN needs to replace some of the ageing legs whose last Olympic appearance will be at the Tokyo 2020 games. Therefore, the national trials which had the U-20 and senior athletes challenging for honors and national reckoning, helped the federation to discover upcoming and young athletes who need more mentoring and follow up.
For example, to develop the next generation of athletes from Nigeria and have an opportunity of participating in the World Athletics U-20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya later in the year, the National trials presented the prefect platform.
Special thanks must go to the Emir of Zauzzau, Alhaji Ahmed Nuhu Bamalli who was on ground to flag off the 21km half marathon which heralded the National Trials.
The management of Ahmadu Bello University led by its Vice Chancellor, Prof Kabiru Bala provided the needed support, venue, subsidized hotel accommodations and other logistics for the AFN.
According to Engr Gusau, Zaria and by extension ABU was strategically chosen as venue of the 3-in-1 athletics competitions having actively participated in sports in the early seventies and eighties before fizzling out.
“One of the ways of bringing back sports in the city, the University and the Region is by bringing these events to the institution.
“While still counting the gains of the one-day National Trials, the Region II championship came on us”.
In the words of AFN President, Engr Shehu Gusau, exposure of the athletes is of more importance to their development than the immediate podium finish because of the psychological breakthrough of appearing in an international competition which is a working plan.
For him, the exposure of these young athletes to international competitions, whether hosted at home or abroad will motivate them to strive for greatness as they continue to grow.
For Gusau, the modest results posted by the AFN under his leadership were achieved as a result of a strong policy direction of exposing its young talents to quality competitions.
“We have a policy and drive. Going down memory lane, in 2019 when we went to Côte d’Ivoire for the junior championship, we took 115 athletes. We did not have money to fly them and we were criticized.
“What we were trying to do, was to expose them to international events. Today, go and check the names of those athletes that were there, they are the ones now leading in athletics not only in Africa but also coming up gradually at the global level”, Gusau told journalists in Zaria.
By creating more international competitions in line with World Athletics and CAA standards, it will speed up the growth of home-based athletes.
Check the nooks and crannies of Nigeria, from Lagos to Ogun, Edo to Delta, Kano to Zamfara, you will see a small group of young people training to become athletes or master their crafts.
These are being supervised by individual coaches or an athletics academy. The CAA Region II championship gave these raw talents who have distinguished themselves an opportunity to compete against other best athletes within the Region and have a feel of the international atmosphere.
We recently had the National Sports Festival in Benin, Edo State which had so many athletes from the various states. The Region II event provided an opportunity to assess their growth alongside their contemporaries within the region.
However, preparatory to the CAA African championship, the body released an official qualification standard for the event.
100m for men was set at 10.44secs while 11.94secs for women. In the 200m, men would have to run 21.24secs to qualify, while women must run 24.24secs.
The trio of Sarfo Ansah (Ghana) with a time of 21.33sec, Henry Bandiaky (Senegal) with a record of 21.46sec and Babatunde Samuel (Nigeria) who posted 22.15sec in the 200m for men narrowly missed out of African Championship.
In light of this, Bance Mariam from Burkina Faso who ran a time of 24.15sec alongside Blessing Ovwigloadgere from Nigeria with a time of 24.23sec have both qualified for the African Championship.
In the 400m, the men must run a time of 46.64secs while the women must clock 54.74secs to book a ticket for the championship that was slated for Algeria who later pulled out as host, citing COVID-19 effects.
In the men’s 110m hurdles, the qualification was set at 14.24secs while that of the women’s 100m was set at 14.24secs.
For the men’s high jump, they must at least meet a 2.12m standard while the women must go for 1.75m.
In the long jump, a distance of 7.80m and 6.15m was set for the men and women respectively while shot put was put at 16.80m for men and 14.50m for women.
If more competitions can be organized at the national and regional level, it will present the perfect opportunity for athletes to become better and qualify for major championships within and outside Africa.
The CAA Region II saw Sarah Ochipo wowing the crowd with her performance as they asked for more.
She went home with three gold medals in the 400m, U-20-400m hurdles and 4×400 mixed relay and one bronze in the 100m hurdles.
Personally, I was impressed to see Mariama Ibrahim from Niger republic running barefooted in the u-20 1500m race. She did not only complete her race, she won a silver medal to the admiration of the crowd who shared her resilience.
With some athletes meeting the qualification standards for the African Championship while others missed out narrowly, it afforded the AFN and other participating federations an opportunity to assess how far they have come in grooming their home based athletes for continental championships.
The Grand Prix was the last and maybe most rewarding for participating athletes within and outside the country.
Thousands of dollars were up for grabs in eight events competed for.
Winners of the 110 hurdles (women), 100m hurdles (men) 1500m (women), High Jump (men) Discuss (women) long jump (men) and 100m (men and women) smiled home with $1,200each while second placed athletes won $800 and third placed finishers each pocketed $500 for their efforts.
A total amount of $18,400 was doled out by the CAA Region II under the leadership of Engr Gusau.
The AFN through its partnership with the Ahmadu Bello University raised the funds to camp athletes, officials and feed them throughout the duration of the event.
No fund was approved or released by the ministry of sports for the events which was not only unfortunate but a selfish attempt to cripple the future of upcoming athletes.
At the end of the CAA Region II championship, Nigeria won 19 gold, 22 silver and 14 bronze medals and were presented with a giant trophy while Burkina Faso came second with 15 gold, 6 silver and 7 bronze.
Senegal went home with 11 gold, 17 silver and 12 bronze medals in the third spot while Ghana finished with 4 gold medals to end up fourth out of the eight participating nations in the combined senior and u-20 category.
On the flip side, according to information from the AFN, they had planned for more athletes but due to unhealthy politicking which is currently ravaging the federation, some athletes could not participate.
The AFN said some unscrupulous elements wrote to some state Directors of Sports and the Athletics Associations discouraging them from registering their athletes for the national trials which also robbed them of participating in the Region II event as well as the Grand Prix.
Nigerian High jumper Mike Edwards who would have emerged as the celebrity athlete at the Grand Prix and possibly qualified for the Olympic Games, chickened out of the competition after the first day.
Edwards was sighted warming up on the eve of his event, only to disappear on the event day proper.
No doubt, he must have been talked out of competing by the opposition group in order to take the shine off the event. However, Edwards is yet to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
As earlier mentioned, the Ministry of Sports in their wisdom deemed it fit not to release any funds for the event hosted in Zaria.
The face off between the Sunday Dare led-ministry and the duly elected Gusau led AFN board as ratified by CAA and World Athletics is well documented.
In conclusion, to sustain the recent rise of athletics in Nigeria, more local competitions must be organised. Kudos must be given to the President and the Technical Director Sunday Adeleye for putting up an exciting 3- in-one Athletics meet in ABU Zaria.