Earlier today, Sunday August 11th 2013, in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Blessing Okagbare came as close as any Nigerian has ever come to becoming a World Champion in Athletics, when she finished 2 centimetres behind the unpredictable, yet ever-present Brittney Reese in the Long Jump – unpredictable because Reese sneaked into today’s final in 12th place of 12 athletes and on countback against her American teammate Funmi Jimoh who also jumped only 6.57m in qualifying on Saturday, but ever-present because the Olympic Champion won an unprecedented 3rd World Championship GOLD medal in a row. Blessing gave it her all with her 6.99m jump, only 1 centimetre behind her personal best, but she was always likely going to have to jump a new PB and go over 7 metres to win the GOLD. As I mentioned in my previous post on Blessing’s chances at the World Championships, my heart said GOLD, but my head said that Brittney Reese would take some beating!
Reese, despite an indifferent season that had somewhat gone downhill since she jumped 7.25m in the Doha leg of the Diamond League in May, produced the goods when it mattered the most with her 7.01m jump in Moscow. In contrast, since Blessing’s wind-assisted 7.14m jump in Doha, she’s been the most consistent jumper throughout the season, winning at the Diamond League in Lausanne and Monaco in new PBs of 6.98m and 7.00m respectively. So Blessing maintained that consistency, but just was not able to produce another PB today – even if she had improved it by 1cm, she would have won on countback (due to her next highest jump of 6.96m being better than Reese’s next highest of 6.95m). Amazing how a centimetre or two can decide championships!
Blessing’s momentous achievement cannot be understated – it is Nigeria’s first World Championship medal of any colour in 7 attempts, since 1999, when Francis Obikwelu won a 200m Bronze and Glory Alozie won the Silver in the 100 metre hurdles, equalling her African Record of 12.44s (for a third time) which still stands until today! Nigeria must not waste this opportunity to use Blessing’s exploits from these Championships, starting with this Long Jump Silver, as a springboard to propel the nation back to Track & Field reckoning on the global stage. Most importantly, we must learn from the mistakes of the Obikwelu and Alozie era that eventually led to them switching nationalities to represent Portugal and Spain respectively instead of Nigeria. I blogged about Obikwelu’s story after going to meet him in Portugal in May, and we also visited Glory Alozie in Spain last month to get her story for the documentary – it goes without saying that we must learn how to treat our best athletes to make sure that they never have to go elsewhere to realise the full potential of their athletic talents! Any whispers that Blessing could one day be poached by the US should be dispelled and dismissed once and for all. She is needed to spearhead Nigeria’s return to global reckoning!
One athlete that went in the other direction is Regina George, who competed as a junior for the US where she was born, but switched to Nigeria at the first opportunity she had, when she met Nigerian officials while competing for the US at the World Junior Championships a few years ago. Regina, at just 22, is already the current two-time Nigerian 400m Champion, was a semi-finalist at the Olympics last year, and has been consistently lowering her PB since then. She went under 51 seconds at the Nigerian Championships in June with a new PB of 50.99s, and once again lowered it to 50.84s in Moscow today behind the highly impressive Amantle Montsho, but just missed out on a fastest-loser spot in the final again. Setting a new PB at a major championships is all you can really ask of any athlete, so she must be applauded and encouraged to continue her upward trajectory – she is a fantastic athlete who could well be in medal contention by the Rio 2016 Olympics, if she is given the right support starting NOW, to achieve that. Maybe one day she can get close to Falilat Ogunkoya’s 400m African Record of 49.10s set when Ogunkoya won Bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Though from the way Montsho is running in Moscow at the moment, that record may well be under threat right now – we’ll only have to wait until tomorrow to find out!
Back to Blessing – she goes again in the 100m semis and finals tomorrow, where she’s a good bet for at least another Silver medal. But can she upset the double Olympic Champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, whom many commentators have already handed the race, and win the 100m GOLD? We don’t have long to find out – either way, let the Nigerian Revolution begin!