July 31, (THEWILL) – In the annals of Nigeria’s participation in sporting events, both continental and international, July 2022 will go down in history as one of the most truly unforgettable months. In the unmistakably best ever performance by a Nigerian in an individual competition, Oluwatobiloba Ayomide Amusan, put previous massive disappointments aside to engrave her name in gold and bathe her country in glory when she to a semi-final World Record of 12.12 seconds in the 100 metres hurdle event at the just concluded World Athletics Championships in Oregon, United States. As an icing on her record-breaking feat, she topped get proud accomplishment with an eye-watering 12.06s, wind-assisted final to leave the rest of the field in her taillights as she claimed an unprecedented gold milestone for Nigeria. It was a moment of pride that was best encapsulated in the tears of joy she shed as she stood on the top podium while the Nigerian national anthem played.
It was also immensely consolatory for the majority of the country’s sporting fans in general and football fans in particular, who had been unfortunate to witness, in the same month of July, one of the worst ever performances of a Super Falcons side at the most prestigious football competition in the continent.
At the 14th edition of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, the biennial African international women’s football tournament organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and hosted by Morocco from the 2nd to the 23rd, the collection of stars in the Nigerian team made the Super Falcons top favourites to lift another African trophy, their 10th out of 12, further cementing their dominance of the competition.
With the highest goal-scorer in the Spanish Primera Ibedrola and Champions League finalist with Barcelona Femini Asisat Oshoala returning to the frontline and ably assisted by fellow Spanish League forward Rasheedat Ajibade of Atlético de Madrid, they were considered a formidable challenge for any defence.
Yet, the contrasting notions of Nigeria’s sporting fortunes this month could not have been any clearer when the Nigerian ladies opened the defense of their title shakily with a disappointing loss to eventual winners, Banyana Banyana of South Africa. The Super Falcons’ performance left more to be desired and ardent followers of the female game on the continent chorused the same complaint about the apparent lack of technical input to afford the team a tactical edge over their South African rivals. There were also issues raised about the wisdom of continuing to keep Oshoala in action after she had received an early knock and whose performance appeared to have subsequently dipped until what turned out to be a Grade 2 Medial Collateral Ligament Strain, which could sideline her for another lengthy spell after the two injury cycles she sustained last season. In her absence the Super Falcons recovered from the loss to South Africa in their subsequent matches but the decline in quality was evident as the most decorated female team on the continent could not finish with any accolade worth celebrating.
The answer to the query of why there exists a sharp and distinct contrast in terms of sporting accomplishments for the country, wherein, in the period of a month, has traversed the space between the unexpectedly average outing of the Super Falcons to the incredible record-setting hurdle-jumping feat of Amusan, comes down to certain factors top of which is consistency and preparation. These two factors had huge significances in the outcome of the Super Falcons performances at the Cup of Nations, which were a letdown for a team of their calibre, and the singularly sensational semi-final and final sprints of the new world record holder in the 100m hurdles women’s event, Amusan. The outcomes were not the result of only how they performed in July but a summation of everything that had come before as part of the regimen of preparation and training all targeted at emerging as the one above every other competitor. And, that is where every cadre of Nigerian sportsmen and women can take a page out of the Amusan manual for success.
Long before her exploits of July 25 at the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Oregon, the lady, who was to put Nigeria’s flag at the top of the podium and have the world sit and listen while the Nigerian anthem played to millions watching and streaming the competition, she had to scale what was her first hurdle. She had to go against her father’s wish to prevent her from taking to her dreams of becoming an athlete. It goes to show that her gifts of overcoming hurdles is innate and required the steadfastness of dedicated grooming and disciplined determination to carry her to the glory of the present. Her father’s refusal to allow her waste time running around the stadium had to potential to derail her ambitions from the onset but for her supportive mother that abetted her in escaping to practice as long as it did not impede get academic work. From that strict upbringing, she began to learn the value of time management and the priority of a good education alongside the progress of her talents and gifts. Although these talents first turned to football, it was when she began to sprint faster than well-coached contemporaries that she turned her full attention to the tracks.
Glimpses of her pace continued to flash with every appearance she made on the tracks at local competitions but it was her silver medal outing at the 2013 African Youth Championships in Warri that she began to garner attention all the more. However, she immediately faced a check on her progress and ambitions at the 8th IAAF World Youth Championships World Athletics Under-18 competition in Donetsk, Ukraine that same year. As she raced towards the finish line, she inadvertently infringed onto the lane of a competitor in the 200 metres sprint semi-final race and was forthrightly disqualified. That letdown was painful and hurt the hard-working athlete, who had invested so much into reaching that stage of the competition. She was one of the country’s medal hopefuls and was putting in a proper showing before being penalised with disqualification. What may have broken the spirits of others at her age and bearing only served to buoy Amusan’s determination to succeed. It was grists to her mill.
Having been in contention for medals in the sprints so far, Amusan’s switch to the hurdles also came circumstances that forced the decision. She was not included in the Nigerian selection to race the 4x100m relay at the trials for the African Youth Games the following year and not wanting to be completely removed from the trials, she entered the competition for representing the country in the Hurdles event. The events of July 25 prove how inspired a decision this turned out to be. There were signs from the start as she breasted the tape ahead of the field at the trials and finished second on the podium for Nigeria at the African Youth Games in Botswana. The diminutive girl from Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, was going places. She continued to do exploits with an African Under-20 gold in Ethiopia in 2015, and what truly was a significant accomplishment followed when she breezed to victory at the All-African Games in Brazzaville, Congo.
In 2016, the Ijebu-Ode athlete qualified for the Rio Olympics in Brazil, which was a fulfillment of another personal dream of becoming an Olympian and representing the country at the Games. She went as far as the 100m Hurdles semi-final but missed the cut for the final. Amusan shook off that disappointment at Rio and returned to training with her eyes on improving her results ahead of the 17th World Athletics Championships scheduled for Doha, Qatar, at the renovated multi-purpose Khalifa International Stadium.
Though her ardent efforts could only manage her a fourth-place finish and though it was tough to ingest given how close she was to bring on the medal podium, it was progress for Amusan. And, for the last child of three Amusan children, coming first was within her reach. It helped that she was incurably optimistic of her abilities and preponderantly self-motivated because her quest for Olympic medals ended up as another “almost there” as she finished fourth again at the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan last year. But, she dusted herself off and took the African record at the All Nigerian Championship in June this year.
The doggedness they has seen her surmount the odds stacked up against her is typified in one of her reactions to get world record feat where she said: “I was the ‘almost girl. I got fourth, fourth, fourth. Now I finally did it.” That is the story of her journey and it encapsulates what many have termed “The Nigerian Spirit” and have envisaged that country can continue to reap from if other sportsmen and women can tap into it to reach enviable heights of their own in their own specific fields of competition. Yet, it must be pointed out that Amusan’s never-say-die spirit alone could not have broken a world record and shave off extra time in the final all by itself. Amusan took advantage of every opportunity that came and with her positive attitude and determined focus on her goal, realised her set objectives. She was a scholarship recipient at the University of Texas, El Paso in 2016 and worked assiduously with Jamaican coach Lacena Golding-Clarke, three-time Olympian and the 2002 Commonwealth Games 100m hurdles winner to continuously cut down her personal best time.
The girl, who became the first Nigerian to win the Diamond League, when she ran ahead of the competition in September 2021, also benefited from the Adopt-An-Athlete intiative of the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development when in April 2021, the governor of her homestate, Dapo Abiodun, aware of Amusan’s potential and the challenges towards reaching the Tokyo Olympics, bought into the adopt-a-talent initiative of the Honourable Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, who had pushed for this outcome through regular visits to state governors, individuals and corporate bodies.
The governor said he found it expedient to adopt Amusan, not only because she is an indigene of the state, but also because she was a symbol of the Nigerian spirit of talent and hard work and there was a need to encourage that. All these put together helped to give Amusan’s drive a buoyancy to bring her goal to life.
This is what should happen at all levels of sports in the country. What was obvious at the Women’s Cup of Nations is that Nigeria’s dominance is history and will remain so until the country wakes up from the Dreamland of historical claims to superiority and, as other African countries, such as South Africa and Morocco, map out a realistic plan to improve football and other sports as well, with measurable benchmarks and milestones and an investment lever from the private and public sector working in tandem towards these goals, the country will see more of the same results that came out of the Women’s participation in the Cup of Nations and less of Amusan’s feats.
The coaching aspect of the women’s game in Nigeria benefited from ex-Super Falcons players and is suffering now under the guidance of a foreign coach not abreast with football on the continent but mostly college football in the US.
Although it was not all bad news for female football in the country, with Oshoala’s unprecedented fifth Africa Player of the Year title and two Super Falcons players, Rasheedat Ajibade and Osinachi Ohale named in the Team of the Tournament, there is a lot of work to do ahead of the Women’s FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Australia and New Zealand next year.
The adopt-a-talent initiative is highly commendable and will be a veritable support system for dedicated athletes barred from excellence by nothing other than financial handicaps. When adopted, these individuals can get the requisite training they need with facilities that are modern, can enter competitions that will aid their growth and can improve enough to be world beaters in the way that Amusan has proved. This practice can also be adopted for the national teams at all levels because such investment has been shown to reap dividends when combined with that famed indomitable Nigerian Spirit. It is necessary to begin as quickly as possible to give Nigerians more sporting moments to be proud of.