Tracing Okagbare’s Route To Blessing

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VENTURES AFRICA – She has won the attention of the world, the admiration of Africans and the adulation of Nigerians; Blessing Okagbare is indisputably a giant shining star in the universe of Athletics.

The fastest woman in Africa and the Commonwealth, Blessing brought life to the just concluded Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow, Scotland with breathtaking performances that saw her win two Gold medals – in 100 metres (in which she set a new Commonwealth record of 10.85) and 200 metres Sprint – both titles making her the first Nigerian to win double sprint gold medals in the Commonwealth Games. She also remarkably helped Nigeria to silver in the 4X100 category.

At 25, with an Olympic bronze medal – which she won at age 19 – and several other medals (7 Golds, 5 Silvers and 2 Bronze) won mostly at the All Africa Games where she’s the regarded the undisputed champion, Okagbare holds Africa’s hope of conquering the world of Athletics.

But this hope nearly blew before it even blossomed, something Okagbare says would have happened had she not left Nigeria for the United States. “I would not have come this far if I had remained in Nigeria”, Blessing says in her IAAF biography, “It is not as if I’m trying to talk against my country, but it lacks the right facilities and these things limit us.”

Therein lies Nigeria, and to larger extent, Africa’s problem, the oft-inability to turn potentials into success no thanks to poor sports-grooming investment. Blessing had from childhood been a sports prodigy, starting with soccer before switching to the track, which she says she fell in love with while in high school.

At age 16 she made her debut in jumping in 2004 winning a gold medal in long jump and bronze medal in high jump as a Junior athlete for Delta State at the 2004 National Secondary Schools Games in Owerri, Imo State. Later that year, Okagbare attended the 14th National Sports Festival held in Abuja and won a bronze in triple jump, which she originally began with. In 2006 represented Nigeria at the 2006 World Junior Athletics Championships in Beijing, China, however it was a disappointing outing as she did not make it past the qualifying round.

That low proved to be a brief one as Blessing In May 2007, announced her arrival on the national stage with a bang – at the All-Africa Games trials in Lagos. She won both long and triple jump at the trials, setting a new national record of 14.13 metres in the triple jump. Later that year, at the All-Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria , she won the silver medal in the long jump (6.46m [+1.8] ) and finished fourth (13.77m) in the triple jump.

In the same year Okagbare’s blessing came; she was offered a scholarship at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) in the United States of America; she took the opportunity because in her words, “it will be a great opportunity for me to get that (business) degree and also do track more effectively” “I really want to get better at what I am doing and so I got to be where I can achieve that”.

Blessing Okagbare is just one of several Nigerian Athletes who have had to move to US colleges or Europe to move their careers to the next level; it was the same with one of Nigeria’s greatest sprinters Mary Onyali-Omagbemi. The double Olympic medal holder was a budding athletic talent from a very young age but it was only after she moved to the US’s Texas Southern University, where she became an NCAA champion, that she became a world star.

The story is also similar for many of Nigeria’s successful athletes; Innocent Egbunike, Chidi Imoh, the Ezinwa brothers, Clement Chukwu, Francis Obikwelu, Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya, Fatima Yussuf, Charity Opara- they had to move to US colleges or Europe to make a successful leap to the world stage. The success of Nigeria’s only female Olympic gold medallist, Chioma Ajunwa, is in a large part attributed to her training with Cuban coach Jorge Diaz at Rice University Texas.

The problem is clearly the lack of an international standard of sports infrastructure and system at Nigeria’s schools, especially Secondary Schools and Universities, to aid the transition of these talents to winners. Mary Onyali admits freely that she had to leave Nigeria to have real hopes of pursuing a successful athletic career as the inadequacy of training and competition facilities would not allow her the success that she craved in the sport.

There was another incentive to it; she was also getting a scholarship, just like Okagbare did. It is almost in-existent to find scholarships at Nigerian and African schools for budding sports potentials.

Another determining factor is the standard of undergraduate athletics competition. While that of most of Africa, and Nigeria in particular is mediocre, to say the least, that of the United States, provided by America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), consistently churns out stars prepared for world domination.

Five Nigerians attending US colleges won gold medals at the 1983 World University games which took place in Edmonton, Canada: Sunday Uti (400m), Yusuf Ali (long jump), Ajayi Agbebaku (triple jump). Innocent Egbunike (200m), and Chidi Imoh (100m). Mary Onyali was a 200 meters champion at the NCAA in 1988.

Fast forward to Blessing Okagbare, enroute to world stardom was her domination of NCAA championships. In 2010, she won the US national Indoor titles in the 60 metres and long jump and grabbed top honours in the long jump whilst also breaking the NCAA record twice. And as she, three months later, took the NCAA crowns during the outdoor season in the 100 metres and long jump, she became the first in America’s collegiate history to go undefeated in all sprint and jump finals during a season.

Okagbare ended the 2010 NCAA season, and her collegiate career, with four national titles, 11 All-America honours and 15 Conference USA championships. For these achievements, she was named the 2010 Conference USA Female Athlete of the Year, awarded the USTFCCCA Mountain Region Track Athlete and Mountain Region Field Athlete of the Year during the indoor season, and the Mountain Region Track Athlete of the Year for the outdoor season.

Blessing’s coach at UTEP, Bob Kitchens, described her as “the best woman’s athlete I’ve ever been around my entire coaching career”. “There’s nothing mediocre about her,” Kitchens added.

There are many young male and female talents and potentials in Nigeria that could match and even surpass Blessing’s feat, but stuck to poor athletics-grooming systems and unlucky with gaining foreign scholarships have their highest success at the height of village champions.

Thus, as Nigeria and Africa celebrate Blessing Okagbare, it is important that they note why there are relatively few of her kind coming out of the country and continent. If we want to celebrate more, then definitely we have to invest more into our sports-grooming system.