By Dare Esan:
Sprinter Blessing Okagbare-Ighteguonor and Shot Putter Stephen Mozia will spearhead Nigeria’s challenge for medals as the track and field event of the 31st Olympic Games starts on Friday at the Estádio Olímpico João Havelange in Rio, Brazil.
Okagbare is Nigeria’s sole hope for a podium finish on the track while Mozia looks the most promising in the field events.
The double Commonwealth Games sprints queen is however up against a very quality field in the 100m event including defending champion Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who is bidding to become the first woman to win a hat-trick of blue ribband gold at the Games following her wins in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.
While Fraser-Pryce’s historic bid looks a herculean task going by her pre-Games performances in the circuit where she has only managed a legal run inside 11 seconds (10.93 seconds at the Jamaican trials) due mainly to a toe injury, it is much more for Okagbare who is also bidding to become the first Nigerian to win a 100m medal at the quadrennial event.
Since she made a bolt out of the blues emergence into the sprints stage in 2010 when she ran 11.10 seconds and below seven times before joining the sub-11 seconds club the following year, this is Okagbare’s worst pre-major championships/games season as she has legally failed to break 11 seconds this year, only bandying the wind-aided 10.92 seconds she ran in Székesfehérvár, Hungary on July 18 as her only claim to that efect.
With her rivals such as world leader Elaine Thompson (10.70 seconds personal season’s best, SB) of Jamaica, the American trio of English Gardener (10.74 seconds SB), Tori Bowie (10.78 seconds SB) and reigning world long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta (also 10.78 seconds SB) as well as new African record holder Muriel Ahoure (10.78 seconds SB) and the flying Dutch woman Dafne Schippers (10.83 seconds SB) red-hot in the pre-games circuit, Okagbare will need to not only legally duck inside 11 seconds in Rio, she also needs to break her 10.79 seconds personal best to be sure of an historic podium appearance.
While a podium finish in the 100m looks like an impossible task to accomplish by the beautiful, seven-time Nigerian blue ribband queen, the half lap even looks more herculean if she chooses to remain on the track at the expense of the long jump pit due to the clash in the schedule. Both the 200m and long jump events fall on the same dates.
Okagbare’s love for the 200m event seems to have diminished since she finshed third at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow three years ago as she rarely runs it. With a 22.58 seconds personal season’s best,the best she can hope for will be to just be among the eight women that will line-up for the final on the night of Wednesday August 17.
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Holland’s reigning world champion,Schippers,with a 21.93 seconds world lead looks the hot favourite to add Olympic gold to the world title she won last year with Bowie,who won bronze in Beijing last year and Thompson who raced Schippers to the finish line in second place at the Worlds favoured to share the remaining space on the podium.
Is the long jump event where she won a fortuitous bronze eight years ago then the best bet for Okagbare to return to the podium?
With the unpredictability of the event,this may seem so but a look at the quality of competitors and the Nigerian’s less than inspiring performance in the event pre-Rio do not paint a very positive picture.
Defending champion Britneey Reese who won every available global title from 2009 to 2013 is back to form and leading the pack with a huge 7.31m world lead.It is safe to bank on her to retain the title she first won four years ago in London where she equalled Chioma Ajunwa’s 7.12m mark as the third joint longest winning mark at the Games.
Following on Resse’s heels are Sosthene Moguenara of Germany who set a personal best of 7.16m in Weinheim,Germany last May to jump to number two on the top list for the year and Aussie’s Brooke Stratton who also set a 7.05m personal best in Perth,Australia in March.
The trio have jumped above 7m this year and should be challeneged by Serbia’s Ivana Spanovic of Serbia (6.95m SB,) who has been very consistent in the circuit this season jumping 6.90m and more.
Okagbare holds a personal season’s best of 6.73m which is 10cm outside the 6.83m her compatriot,Ese Brume jumped in Akure on June 6 at the final of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria Golden League.
Both Okagbare and Brume will need to jump farther than their present bests.The former will need to at least equal the 7.00m personal best she jumped on July 19,2013 at the Herculis Zepter IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco to stand a chance of making the podium while Brume will need to make history as the third Nigerian woman to hit the 7m mark in the event to also wear the tag of a contender.
For Mozia,the coast seems clearer if only he can dorn the big occassion temperament.The Engineering graduate of Cornel University,USA is the third best athlete in the world coming to the Games following his national record-shattering 21.76m heave on July 21 in Ústí nad Labem,Czech Republic.
Critics will however argue the young man who switched allegiance to Nigeria from USA in 2014 has,in the two years he has been dorning the green and white colours of Nigeria only flattered to deceive.
Early this year,Mozia became the first Nigerian,dead or alive to hit the 21m mark when he threw,as it were 21.11m in Nashville,Tennessee.But at the biggest indoor stage barely two months later,he could only manage a 19.84m heave to finish 12th at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland,Oregon.
Only two athletes,USA duo of Joe Kovacs (22.13m) and Ryan Crouser (22.11m) have thrown farther than the Nigerian.
Outside the duo of Okagbare and Mozia,triple jumper,Tosin Oke can be relied on to make it to the final.Oke seems to have the big occassion temperament lacking in Mozia but unlike Mozia,Oke has never rated among the top three in his event.That honour belongs to defending world champion Christian Taylor of the USA who not only won the world title last year but moved just 9cm short of the 18.29m world record set by Jonathan Edward at the Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg in 1995 at the IAAF Worlds;his fellow American Will Claye whose 17.65m personal season’s best is only bettered by Taylor’s 17.78m and India’s Renjith Maheswary who is coming to the Games with a 17.30m personal season’s best.
The Nigerian is ranked 12th best in the world coming to the Games with his 17.13m personal season’s best,his longest jump since he hopped,stepped and jumped 17.23m personal best in 2012 at the National Trials in Calabar,Cross River state.Like he did in Beijing last year at the Worlds,Oke looks good to end up among the best eight.
Nigeria’s other entrant in the event,Olu Olamigoke will surely succeed Oke as Nigeria’s best but that will be after the Olympics.It will be a massive achievement for the USA-based athlete if he makes it to the final.He holds a 16.70m personal season’s best which ranks him the 55th best in the world coming to the Games.
In the 110m hurdles,American-Nigerian Antwon Hicks will want to make the most of his first and definitely final Olympics a memorable one by racing to the final where making the podium will be the only focus.
Hicks holds a personal season’s best and new Nigeria record of 13.27 seconds which he achieved to win his first national title in Sapele,Delta state last month and believes he can still scale the hurdles faster than the 13.09 seconds personal best he ran in Eugene,Oregon,USA eight years ago.A repeat of this will certainly get him into the final.
He will need to race inside 13 seconds or at worst 13.05 or under to stand a chance.
The former USA hurdler can however make history as the first Nigerian man to run in the final of the event at the Olympics.
In the high jump Doreen Amata will hope to make history not only as the first Nigerian to win a vertical jump medl but also the first to hit the 2m mark.
Amata has never cleared higher than the 1.95m national record she holds but will have to dig very deep to find the form that will propel her high enough to hit above 2m.
This,going by her injury-induced inconsistent form looks like a mission impossible.The mother of one can however be relied upon to make the final like she did just 12 months ago in Beijing.
In some of the other events,Patience Okon-George will strive to make it to the semi-finals of the women’s 400m like she did in Beijing last year.Ranked the 23rd best in the world with a personal season’s best of 51.06 seconds,Okon-George’s aspiration looks a cast iron certainty.But that is where her journey will end.
For sprint hurdler Tobiloba Amusan,the Rio Games will only serve as an experience garnering one,especially after failing to make the podium at the IAAF World Juniors in Poland last month despite her number one pre-championships ranking.
The 4x100m women’s relay team to be led by Okagbare will certainly be Nigeria’s last hope for a medal if the Nigerian sprint queen and Mozia fail to hit the right chord for the Games but the quality of other runners and Okagbare’s indifferent form this season may scuttle whatever hopes of a redemption.