MAURITIUS: How Nigeria Junior Athletes Conquered Africa

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My Dream Is To Break Egbunike’s Record, Says Omeiza Akerele

HE was full of smiles, posting in different photographs with athletes and officials from other countries at the Stade Germain Comarmond, Bambous, venue of the just concluded 11th African Junior Athletics Championship.

The volunteers lined up to take their turns. For them, having a group photograph with Nigerian 400m star, Omeiza Akerele was a thing of pride.

Two months ago, Akerele was in Team Nigeria’s U-17 team to the World Youth Athletics Championship in Ukraine. He made a great impact, running a personal best time of 47.23 seconds in the 400m, though it could not fetch the country a medal.

He was moved to the U-20 squad for the trip to Mauritius and many felt it was a ‘wasted’ ticket. He proved them wrong, as Akerele became the saving grace for the 4x400m team in the final, rescuing the gold in the most sensational manner that was reminiscent of the heroics of Enefiok Udo-Obong at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Team Nigeria had increased its gold medals’ haul to six, with south africa and Ethiopia giving a hot pursuit. It was the third day of competition and all hopes were on the boy’s 4x400m team to pump up the gold medals for Nigeria.

But midway into the 4x400m final, the Nigerian quartet found itself playing second fiddle to Kenya and Gambia after the third leg runner, Ugbochukwu Ottah, failed to maintain the tempo Adedamola Adeniyi and Charles Okezie had started with.

A resilient Akerele, who picked a silver in the 400m flat a day earlier, came to the rescue with a big fight. He chased down the Gambian athlete, Tijan Keita at the 200m curve and narrowed the gap. Keita was the African youth champion at Warri 2013,

With much determined push at the home stretch, Akerele changed gear, overhauling the Gambian in the process of negotiating the curve. In a manner reminiscent of the great come back by Innocent Egbunike at Nairobi ’87 All African Games in Kenya, the entire stadium was in uproar, as Akerele anchored at 3.14.50 to win the race. He became an instant hero and was carried shoulder-high by Team Nigeria’s officials round the stadium. His opponents came to congratulate him soon after the race for his doggedness and never-say-die attitude.

Like Oliver Twist however, the young Akerele was not satisfied with his fate yet. “I wanted to run 46 seconds this year. That had been my target,” he told The Guardian. Akerele, who is the son of a professor at the University of Benin said; “I never dreamt of winning a medal in Mauritius. I came to the competition just to gather some experience since I am still in the youth category. But having made it to the final, I felt it was an opportunity to write my name in gold. I am so happy I got it. Though it came in a very hard way.”

Akerele started his career at the Uniben Demonstration Secondary School as a sprinter, but was converted to 400m by Coach Chime Oswegu because of his height and stride.

After running a new personal best time of 47.23 seconds in Ukraine two months ago, the young Akerele became the most sought-after athlete by coaches from America and many European countries. He was offered a scholarship by Ken Turkey State University in USA.

With a gold and silver medal to his credit in Mauritius 2013, the Igarra, Edo State-born Akerele says the future looks very bright. “My dad is a professor in Uniben and I am the one among the children who is interested in sports. My parents give me money to train and attend competitions. I am glad I have gotten something to show for their support.

“But I won’t stop until I achieve my major aim in athletics. I will do everything humanly possible to break Innocent Egbunike’s record. It will happen one day,” he said.

In his youth days, Egbunike set many records in athletics. He was a bronze medalist in the 4x400m relay at Los Angeles ’84 Olympic Games and the 400m title at the 1987 All-Africa Games in Kenya, beating homeboy, David Kltur in a dramatic final watched by the country’s president, Daniel Arap Moi. Egbunike had a personal best of 44.17 seconds in the 400 metres in 1987.

To the young Akerele, that record of 44.17 seconds set by Egbunike since 1987 has stayed too long in Nigeria’s athletics and it is time to retire it.

“My aim in track and field is to be the best. Money is not everything in life. The determination to represent my country has brought me to this stage and now, it is time to move ahead. I will do everything to break Egbunike’s record. I am so determined to do it and I know it will happen.

“Breaking Egbunike’s record means I have to put in extra effort. I am ready for the challenges ahead. All I need from the federal government is more competitions and sponsorship to international events. I want to say that the little experience I got at the World Youth Championship in Ukraine added to my performance in Mauritius,” Akerele said.

Looking back to the 4x400m final race, he said: “This is one race I won’t forget in my life. When Ugochukwu was overtaken in the third leg, I told myself that I could still do something since the gap was not too wide. So, when I collected the baton with two athletes already ahead, I had to double my effort. My coach usually tells me that for you to be a champion, you have to put in extra effort and that was exactly what I did. Thank God it paid off,” Akerele said.

Every medal won by Nigerian athletes at Mauritius 2013 was so vital, but some were more ‘precious.’

After Akerele rescued the gold medal for Nigeria on the third day of competition to take the country’s gold tally to seven, many jumped into conclusion that the championship was already won and lost. But Team south africa, who came into the championship with the largest contingent, had their plans.

The 11th edition of the African Junior Athletics Championship was first awarded to South Africa by the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA), but a crisis arising from power play between South Africa’s Athletics and the country’s Sports Ministry forced CAA to move the competition to Mauritius, an island located deep into the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius with a population of 1.2 million people is an African country, not by geographical location, but by adoption. It is four and half hours journey by air from the city of Johannesburg. While South Africa is one hour ahead of Nigeria, Mauritius, a Francophone country, is four hours ahead, but they see themselves more as Indians.

Mauritius prides itself as the city of paradise, being a destination place for tourists around the world.

The earlier plan to host the championship made the South Africans to prepare their athletes more than any other country for the competition.

According to an official, the people wanted to host and win after the unimpressive showing by the country’s football team, Bafana Bafana at the 2013 African Nations Cup in January, which South Africa hosted. They lost to Mali in the quarterfinal in the competition won by the Super Eagles.

“Since then, we have been looking forward to this athletics championship to prove a point that what our football team lacked, we have in abundance in our junior athletes. Even when we lost the hosting right due to the crisis between our Athletics Association and the sports ministry, we went ahead to give our athletes the best of preparations, thinking that we will come to Mauritius and pick the title. I am sad we lost it,” the official told The Guardian during the closing ceremony at the Germaine Comarmond Stadium, Bambous.

Team Nigeria athletes, who had their preparation in Sapele, Delta State, had projected 10 gold medals. That was before the leadership of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) came up with the decision to decamp nine athletes for age related issues on their international passport.

To avoid an international embarrassment, the AFN President, Solomon Ogba, ordered the decamping of nine athletes, a decision some coaches felt would affect the general performance of the team in Mauritius.

But Ogba stood his ground, saying it was better to compete fairly and lose than to win with ‘over age’ athletes. He was proved right.

At the end of the second day of the competition, Team Nigeria jumped to the top of the medals’ table with four gold medals with South Africa and Ethiopia close on its heel. That was aside the girls’ 100m, which was lost to South Africa.

By the end of the third day, Nigeria increased its gold count to seven with South Africa and Ethiopia tied on four gold medals. But the South Africans with more silver medals of six were in the second position.

By this time, the South Africans were of the view that Nigeria had almost completed its areas of strength, which are the short sprint events. The South Africans are very good in the throws and their calculation was that no matter what happened on the final day, they would catch up with Nigeria on the medals table. It nearly came to pass.

The final day of competition began well for the South Africans when Megan Wilke captured the gold medal in the girls’ javelin event. It took their gold to six. Nigeria was still ahead with one gold.

The women triple jump event was next and Team Nigeria’s hope was on Ese Brume, who had won two gold medals in the 4×100 relay and long jump. Brume was so sure of the gold in the triple jump.

The South Africans had no athlete competing in the triple jump event, but decided to move their drums and banners to the venue. Their support was for Lerato Sechele of Lesotho to beat Brume. It worked. Only one jump, the Lesotho athlete found herself in the lead. She leaped 12.62 metres, while Brume leaped 11.93 metres.

With the drum-and-banner-waving support coming from the South Africans, Sechele jumped 12.39m in the second attempt, while Brume put aside the pressure to increase her leap to 12.35m. The South Africans were not done yet, as they increased their support for Lesotho.

In their third attempt, Sechele leaped 12.30metres, while Brume jumped 12.52 metres, a new personal best record. All the five athletes completed their six jumps and none could surpass Sschele. She won and Brume was second.

A disappointed Brume wept like a baby, seeing her dream of emerging as the tournament’s best slip away narrowly. When she summoned the courage to speak, Brume told The Guardian that apart from not competing with Sechele in the past, the Mauritius 2013 Games was the first time she would venture into the triple jump event since Eko 2012 National Sports Festival.

Nigeria picked another medal, a bronze, in the boy’s 400m hurdles final, but the pressure from South Africa was still mounting.

The girl’s 200m final was next and Nigeria’s Nkeiruka Uwakwe wasted no time. She won the gold to take her medals tally to three gold, the best by any athlete in the championship. South Africa’s Der Merve Philippe Van was fourth. The medal by Uwakwe increased Team Nigeria’s gold to eight. There was still hope for South Africa to level up.

The South Africans relied so much on the ability of Mokofeng Fana James in the boys’ 200m event. To them, no other athlete would outclass James, so their supporters moved to the finish line drumming for the anticipated gold. It didn’t come their way. A divine intervention from Divine Oduduru rescued the gold for Nigeria.

The Urhobo-born Oduduru knew that the expectation was much. Losing the 200m gold would mean Nigeria losing the title. On the other hand, the South African athlete (James) was fully prepared for the battle to take his country to the top of the medals table. The race started and the South African took to the lead. But a resilient Oduduru did a wonderful job at the curve and took control with the taller and much bigger James pushing. The Nigerian continued with the pace and crossed the line first, though the opposition from Mauritius and South African athletes was so much.

If Oduduru had lost the gold in the 200m, the hope of winning the title would have slipped, after South Africa picked two more gold medals in the women shot put and boy’s discus.

Then, both countries would have tied on eight gold and with South Africa having the highest number of silver medal of nine against Nigeria’s seven; the title would have eluded Team Nigeria.

While Nigeria topped the medals’ table with nine gold, South Africa and Ethiopia had seven gold each, but the South Africans had more silver of nine against Ethiopia’s seven. Egypt was fourth with five gold and Kenya sixth with four gold medals.

After the championship, AFN Technical Director, Navy Commodore Omatseye Nesiama, was full of praise to God for the victory.

Under his tenure, Nigeria won the continental championships at the senior (at Porto Novo), junior (Mauritius) and youth levels (AYAC in Warri).

“It cannot be a fluke that this has happened within the space of one year,” he told The Guardian shortly before leading the victorious team back home.

“There is something that is definitely good in what we are doing, whether we want to accept it or not. We also recognise that there is still a lot of room to further improve on our performances in all departments of the sport, hence the coming in of the High Performance System in our sports is commendable. That will further raise the stakes in our processes of development and performance,” Nesiama stated.

He commended the AFN President, Solomon Ogba, for his ‘zeal and dogged determination’ to succeed. He also praised the Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, as well as the Director General of the National Sports Commission (NSC), Gbenga Elegbeleye, for their renewed support for athletics.

Source: Guardian News


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