The athletics event of the 2018 Asian Games had Nigerian-born athletes winning medals for their adopted Asian countries, thus highlighting the loss of Nigeria’s best talents to these countries, reports Idris Adesina
There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the talent drain that has hit Nigerian athletics in recent years as the country’s sporting talents keep leaving for other countries and shining for their adopted countries – as depicted in their performances in the athletics event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.
After the country hosted the 2018 African Senior Athletics Championships in Asaba, Delta State, where Team Nigeria finished third behind Kenya and South Africa, Nigerians watched in agony as the country’s home-grown athletes, who dumped their fatherland for greener pastures, won medals for other countries at the 2018 Asian Games, which ends in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sunday (today).
Nigerian-born Edidiong Odiong of Bahrain beat India’s Dutee Chand twice in three days to win the women’s 100m and 200m gold to claim the prestigious sprint double at the Asian Games.
Odiong, a former African junior champion, became the fourth woman to win the sprint double in a single Asian Games. In the 100m, the 21-year-old won in 11.30secs to become Asia’s fastest woman while she clocked 22.96secs in the 200m.
Odiong is one of the most talented young athletes discovered and groomed by the defunct Cross River Athletics Grassroots Developmental Initiative. She was regarded as a great asset for Nigeria in the women’s 400m and 4x400m events after representing the country at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Oregon, where she got to the final of the 400m, finishing 6th, and the 4x400m where she anchored the team to 5th place.
But in 2015, she joined a growing list of Nigerian athletes who ditched their country for oil-rich Bahrain and have excelled for their adopted nation.
Since joining Bahrain, Odiong has switched from the quarter mile event to the sprints and has excelled in them. The medals she won in Jakarta brought her haul for Bahrain to four within three years – she also won gold in the 200m and bronze in the 4x400m at the 2015 Military World Games in Mungyeong, South Korea.
In comparison, the last time any Nigerian senior athlete – male or female – won a sprint double at any international event was at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, when Blessing Okagbare won the women’s 100m and 200m.
Another Nigerian-born star that won a medal for Bahrain at the Games is Salwa Eid Naser (Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu), who won the women’s 400m gold after finishing in 50.09secs to set a new Games record in the event.
The 20-year-old, who recently set a new Asian record in the women’s 400m in July at the Monaco Diamond League, has been blazing the trail for Bahrain since she dumped Nigeria for the Asian country.
The athlete, who is emerging a force to reckon with in the event, was born and raised in Nigeria before switching allegiance to Bahrain in 2014. She was a school sports champion in the 400m before her movement to Bahrain.
Having won medals at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, the 2015 Asian Youth Games and 2015 World Youth Championships, she capped a remarkable journey that started in Nigeria at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, where she won silver in the event, after beating former world champion and now 14-time World Championships medallist Allyson Felix and Shaunae Miller-Uibo.
The achievement made her the youngest ever woman to reach the podium in the 400m at the IAAF World Championships. She had won gold at the 2015 World Youth Championships and the 2015 Military World Games for her adopted nation.
In the mixed 4x400m relay, Bahrain claimed gold and set a world record of 3:11.89. The team had Nigeria-born Kemi Adekoya, Naser, Abubakar Abbas and Bahraini-born Ali Khamis.
Bahrain were not the only ones to benefit from the Nigerian drain in Jakarta. Qatar had a silver medal in the men’s 100m after Tosin Ogunode finished in 10secs.
Tosin, the younger brother of Femi Ogunode, followed the footsteps of his brother and dumped Nigeria for Qatar. He won two gold medals at the 2010 Asian Games and made his debut at the start of the 2014 season, when he set an Asian indoor record of 6.50secs in the 60m event at the Northern Arizona University in the United States.
Other athletes of Nigerian descent, who have switched nationalities are Precious Moses, now known as Moussa Ali Issa, Iman Isa Jassim, Basira Sharifa Nasir (Lolade Shodiya), and Aminat Yusuf Jamal. They now compete for Bahrain.
The most recent of the switches came in February, when Emmanuel Bamidele went missing from the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games camp in Abuja a few days after winning the national trials. Having yet to compete internationally for Nigeria, which made him eligible to compete for Qatar, Bamidele, who runs in the 400m, surfaced in Qatar several days later. He has however yet to compete for the Asian country.
Athletics coaches and administrators have attributed the continued loss of home-grown talents to the failure of the country to cater adequately for its athletes.
Bahrain’s sprints coach John Obeya, who also dumped Nigeria for the oil-rich Asian country, said he was left to suffer by Nigeria before he switched over to the Asian country.
Obeya, who is a former Nigerian athlete and coach, left the country for Bahrain in 2010 after the World Youth Championships in Italy. He trains Naser, Abbas and Odiong.
“Nigeria never cares for its athletes until they switch over and begin to excel in other countries. Nigerian athletes discover what they are losing and contact friends and colleagues in Bahrain before they switch over,” he told Making of Champions.
“Most of them come before they have the chance to represent Nigeria and as such they change their names to Bahraini names. That is the case of Salwa. She changed her name with her parents’ permission and she is a Muslim today. We don’t force them to change names. Athletes like Kemi Adekoya, Edidiong Odiong and some others who have represented Nigeria before still keep their names and religion.
“Bahrain is not all about coming out to poach athletes from Nigeria but because their athlete welfare schemes are good and there is no way that is hidden; athletes want a good life, they switch over themselves. I was a coach who had done a lot for Nigeria but at a point, I was jobless and was heading to a life of suffering before I came here (Bahrain). I had been with the Nigerian team to several Olympic Games but I have nothing to show for it.
“Nigeria needs to make the welfare of its athletes the most paramount of its programmes and also develop these talents to ensure they stay in the country.”
Veteran athletics coach Tobia Igwe agreed with Obeya. He told our correspondent the drain was an advantage to the athletes but to the detriment of the country.
Igwe, who is popularly called Toblow, said, “Athletes and coaches will move to where they can get money to meet their daily needs. Gone are the days when sports was seen as a way to keep fit only – it’s now big business.
“We cannot blame the athletes for moving to where they will get better training facilities and conducive conditions to train and compete. We should rather focus on how to ensure that we give them what they need to stop them from switching nationalities. It’s a different case to discover the talent in an athlete and leave him or her to wallow in poverty and lack of care.
“The athletes who switch will continue to do well because they have the motivation and the right things to excel.”
Another athletics coach Solomon Aliyu said the athletes went in search of a better life.
He said, “The athletes have families and the conditions here at home are not too good. A lot of things are wrong and the home-based athletes will go to other countries when they get offers to switch.
“They also see what is happening to other athletes who have left previously and they hear the stories of good things happening to them.”
Also, a former athlete and board member of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, Brown Ebewele, said the switch was not peculiar to sports. He said the situation of the country encourages Nigerians from all walks of life to dump the country for others with better opportunities.
“Athletes are not the only ones switching allegiance to other countries. On a daily basis, several Nigerians from different fields move to other countries where their services will be appreciated,” he said.
“That of sports and athletics is peculiar because that is where we choose to focus on. However, the switching is a pointer to the fact that things are not going well with the country. Looking at the current state of athletics in the country, athletes will keep moving until things get better at home.
“The home-based athletes gave their all to put up an impressive performance at Asaba 2018. Many of us were only expecting a medal from (Tosin) Amusan given the state of the sport before the competition but the athletes went all out to stand against the best on the continent and won medals. It showed that Nigeria can really do well in athletics if the right things are in place.
“The athletes who switched allegiance to other countries will win honours because apart from their talents, they have facilities to work with and many other things that will help them to be the best they can be.”
Ebewele said the country needed to monitor the athletes and cater to their needs to put an end to the drain.
He said, “The country needs to do a lot to stop the trend – because it is worrisome – and also return to the glory days of athletics. The athletes need to be discovered early and put in camp for a long time and catered for. The camps are not those organised with 100 athletes prior to competitions; they are specialised camps for each event with not more than 20 athletes – across all levels – who could be called upon ahead of competitions.
“Athletes need basic amenities to excel – an athlete finishes training and would not find water or light to aid his or her rest. They need to be free of these basic worries to allow them to focus on the sport.
“Also, coaches are needed to be up-to-date in their knowledge. What we currently have are people managing to be athletics coaches. Good coaches will produce good athletes and world-class coaches will produce world-class athletes.
“Next year is another year in athletics. There should be adequate planning ahead of the competitions for the year. Adequate planning allows room for proper evaluation of mistakes and plans.”
Toblow stated, “The country should place premium on its athletes and coaches. These are citizens of the country and they need to be treated as such to allow for an end to the drain. When conditions at home are conducive and attractive, only a few athletes who may not be good enough to get national team places will leave for other countries.”
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