Categories: General, Sports Development
Written By: Segun Odegbami
Until this week I had never watched Blessing Okagbare in any athletics event. Not even on television. I knew about her, of course, through media reports. No Nigerian can be totally oblivious of her achievements even through the dark years of Nigerian athletics after Atlanta ’96! Although she has been impressive I mentally did not realise that the depth of her accomplishments in Track and Field. I did not think they amounted to much in the absence of resonating victories at the major international meets outside Africa that I followed half-heartedly. So poor was my impression and so bad the public perception of Nigerian athletics generally that I did not even realise any Nigerian athlete achieved anything at the Beijing Olympics. I have been very wrong!
On Tuesday, I ran into a local programme on Nigerian television, and was lucky and surprised to have seen Blessing Okagbare’s long jump that won her the Olympic Bronze medal in Beijing four years ago. Not only was I shocked at my own ignorance, I could really not believe my eyes. I never even knew she was that good in the long jump. All I remember ever reading about were her exploits as a sprinter not a jumper. Yet, it was in the long jump that she brought back the only Nigerian medal from Beijing.
For some years I had lost some of appetite in Nigerian athletes in competitions at the highest levels. The country’s poor handling of grassroots sports development did not instil any confidence that anything that special was sprouting in the country. My own interpretation of an authentic grassroots sports development is a return to school sports and to the boarding house system. Seeing the poor state of school sports and the fruitless effort of a few persons in the country to resuscitate it, my expectations for success in track and field were very economical. So, I did not place a bet on any Nigerian winning anything tangible at the Olympics for many years to come. This feeling was a far cry from the 1980s up to the early 1990s, from shortly before the Barcelona ’92 Olympic games in particular, when my interest in athletes management was ignited by circumstances that would make for a great book one day when the stories of Chioma Ajunwa-Opara and Charity Okpara-Asonze would be written. Working closely together we all rose from the pits of despair and hopelessness to the pinnacle of Olympic Gold and Silver medals.
So, from 1991 to early 1997 I was an active athletes representative and manager. My work with the athletes involved making arrangements for their training abroad, securing quality meets for them in Europe, negotiating and hiring good coaches, sourcing for and securing endorsements and sponsorship deals, and, generally, being responsible for their welfare. I followed the stories of the world’s best athletes and made friends with a few of them, friendship we still maintain till this day. In short, I was very conversant with the subject of track and field.
But all of that is in the distant past. When I met Blessing Okagbare some three years ago although I had heard about her it was very faint. It was at a time when I believed the burst of athletics genius in Nigeria had faded and slowed down to a trickle. I met her in Abuja during the preparations for the last World Athletics Championship. She was introduced to me by my American friends, legends of track and field, Lee Evans and Roy Davis who were in the country chasing the possibility of working again with the National Sports Commission in athletes development in the country. Lee had worked previously in the country in the early to late 1970s, and was most instrumental to the emergence, at the time, of the largest number of the best athletes in Nigeria’s history. On Blessing he simply told me she was a great prospect for the future. I wish I was listening perhaps I would not have been as shocked as I was this week when I saw her last jump at the Beijing Olympics 4 years ago played back on television.
I was watching closely this time. I had met her some two weeks ago at the media conference organised by First Bank Nigeria Plc to unveil her as the bank’s Ambassador to the London Olympics almost here upon us. I sat close to her at the conference. I noticed her determination to do well, expressed confidently in her choice of words about her hopes at the games. It was revealed to me there that she had actually just won the long jump event at the African meet in Cotonou and that she was looking forward to doing well in both the sprints and the long jump. I wished in my heart that her talent matched her words, but then, I chose to be philosophical when I was invited to make a few remarks.
I spoke directly to her. I told her about my story with Chioma Ajunwa. How we had prepared for 4 years in the hope she would re-enact in 1996 her feat of 1991 when she ran the fastest 100 metres in the world on the eve of the Barcelona Olympics and was banned for drugs before the games. Although she was Africa’s best in the long jump no one had given her any chance or even a serious consideration in the long jump. Blessing is like Chioma in that regard. Even she herself was humble in her expectations in the sprints. She would be happy to get to the last 8 and hopefully get a medal, any medal! I told her I was believing her words with her, and that she would return to Nigeria with a medal even if I did not know, as was the case with Chioma, how it would happen. Now I know. I saw it this week. I watched her jump in Beijing.
I tell you this. Blessing is a tall girl. She is beautiful. She has a great running style and elegant strides. She is well built and her muscles, nicely toned. I watched her that evening in Beijing. I observed her total concentration and elegant run up to the launching board. It was beautiful, her jumping technique straight from the text book. She lifted like a plane and hung in the air for an eternity. When she finally landed she did not fall back as most jumpers do. I watched in awe. Believe me that was one of the best jumps I have seen in a very long time in athletics. Everything about it was near flawless. Yet, that was 4 years ago. Her first Olympic games! She had very little experience!
This is now. The wine has matured very well. On the eve of London 2012 she is sprinting faster and better than at any time in her life. She is jumping better too! Lee Evans tells me she is very well coached these days by one of the best coaches in the world, the one that coached Maurice Green, Jon Drummond, and co to become the best sprinters in the world several years ago – John Smith.
Thats where I am going. I am putting my neck, as I usually now do on the eve of championships, on the chopping block. I am making a prediction. Blessing Okagbare will do very well in the short sprint event. She will achieve her dream and possibly get to the finals. She may even win a medal.
But in the long jump I see something different happening. I have seen a preview in a jump 4 years ago. I see the prospect of a jump that would take place at this summer’s Olympics in the wonderful city of London. It is going to be a giant leap that will lift, suspend and land her at a point in the sand well beyond the magic 7-metres mark. It will take her to an Olympic Silver medal for sure. With a little bit of luck she would upstage Reece, the best jumper in the world in the past several years, and bring home the Gold to Nigeria. Mark my words, or I eat humble pie after the Olympics! Either way, enjoy the games and watch out for the girl called Blessing Okagbare!