As a filmmaker, journalist and fan of Nigerian Athletics, I arrived at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz in July with two broad goals in mind.
Firstly, I wanted to assess first hand the performance of Nigeria’s Junior Team, most of whom I had met a year ago at Top Sprinter Genesis, the inaugural edition of a Reality TV Athletics talent search in Nigeria which my company, Making of Champions, had produced. Secondly, and most intriguingly for me, I was keen to investigate the growing trend of Nigeria’s best athletes pitching tent for other countries, particularly the Kingdom of Bahrain.
I was looking forward to seeing Precious Moses again, the best young quarter-miler we had discovered across Nigeria at our Top Sprinter “Auditions” in 2015. He won the 400m in Enugu in 48 seconds, the fastest time across all five Auditions we held nationwide. He had been on the cusp of Nigeria’s youth and junior teams, even being called up a couple of times, only to be dropped at the last moment.
At Making of Champions (MoC), we were quite excited about Precious, perhaps one of the most special talents we had identified while traversing the corners of Nigeria to find talent. We had hoped to recruit him into one of our MoC Track Clubs, to be trained by the likes of Olympic Medallists Deji Aliu or Uchenna Emedolu. Unfortunately, while we were still figuring out the logistics and funding to bring him in, we received word that Precious had relocated to Bahrain, and the rest as they say, is history.
Within a year of arriving in Bahrain, Precious had received his Bahraini citizenship and would compete at the World U20 Championships for his newly adopted nation, just as another Nigerian-born athlete, Abbas Abubakar Abbas had done two years ago, when he won 400m Bronze for the Kingdom of Bahrain.
After arriving at the media centre in Bydgoszcz, I picked up the entry lists for the 6-day event and looked for Precious’ name among the Bahraini Athletes. The only athlete that Bahrain had listed in both the men’s 200m & 400m was one Moussa Ali Issa, and it wasn’t until the athletes filed out for the 400m Heats that I was able to verify that Precious Moses and Moussa Ali Issa were indeed one and the same person!
Following my warm reunion with Moussa after his 400m race, it got me thinking – how many of Bahrain’s other athletes at these World U20 Championships could possibly be Nigerian? Surely not all of them? I looked at the other names on the entry list for Bahrain, and the easiest Nigerian to spot was undoubtedly Edidiong Ofonime Odiong – she was the 400m African Youth Champion in 2013 for Nigeria, and finished 6th in the 400m at the previous World U20 in 2014, where she also anchored Nigeria’s 4x400m team to 5th place.
Odiong’s transfer of allegiance to Bahrain was only ratified by the IAAF on June 11th, just over a month before the World U20 Championships. On July 23rd in Bydogoszcz, Odiong would go on to win a stunning GOLD in the women’s 200m for Bahrain with a time of 22.84s, faster than any other Nigerian woman apart from Blessing Okagbare, Senior or Junior, has run since 2012!
How on earth, I wondered, did Nigeria let a Junior Athlete of Odiong’s obvious potential, slip through her fingers, for Bahrain to turn into a World U20 Champion within 2 years of last competing for Nigeria? Odiong waxed philosophical about the departure of Nigerian Athletes like herself to other countries: “If God says this is not where your success is, it can never be there.”
I turned my attention to the other Bahraini Athletes on the World U20 Entry List. There were 2 other female sprinters listed in the 100m & 200m – Iman Isa Jassim and Basira Sharifa Nasir. On speaking to each of them in the mixed zone after their 100m races, I was greeted by the familiar warmth of their raspy Nigerian accents. Aminat Yusuf Jamal, an imposing figure in the 400m Hurdles who was ironically camera-shy, seemed like a dead certainty for a medal but for an unfortunately bad race in the final. She like most of her fellow Bahrainis in Bydgoszcz arrived in Bahrain at some point in the last couple of years from Nigeria.
Iman, previously known as Endurance Essien Udoh, along with Odiong was another product of the once strong Cross River State Athletics programme in Nigeria. Despite never making the National team at any level in Nigeria, she left for Bahrain determined that her Athletic talent would not go to waste, given how difficult and competitive it was to make the National team in Nigeria:
Basira tells me that her Nigerian name is Lolade Shodiya. She used to run for Lagos State at some Secondary School meets and other junior competitions. Similar to Iman, she was under the radar of National Team selectors in Nigeria, and was never called up to represent her motherland before leaving African shores for the Middle East.
The name changes to represent the Arab nation made complete sense to me. If Nigeria wasn’t going to look after the obvious talent in it’s fold, Bahrain could swoop in, look after them properly, touch them up a little and give them new identities that properly reflected the brand, culture and religion of Bahrain.
When the athletes have never represented Nigeria at any level, a switch of allegiance isn’t even needed – all they need is a year living in Bahrain to receive the nationality, and if they’ve never been registered for any IAAF competition with their Nigerian names, even better – a Bahraini name ushers in a whole new identity on the world stage.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Bahrain’s drain of Nigeria’s athletic talent pool is that they haven’t even needed to recruit the very best Nigerians to make a major impact on the World & Regional Junior levels – even those who never made the cut for any Nigerian team such as Iman and Basira are already Arab Junior Champions, in the 400m and 100m respectively. Moussa was a double Gold medallist at the same Arab Junior Championships earlier this year.
The impact of Nigerian-born Athletes on Bahraini Athletics already extends well beyond the Junior level. Kemi Adekoya, who announced her arrival as a Bahraini Athlete with a stunning victory at the Doha Diamond League in 2014, holds the Bahraini records in both the 400m flat and the 400m Hurdles, and is the current 400m World Indoor Champion. Abbas Abubakar Abbas also won Silver at the 2014 Asian Games, and while at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing he granted me an explosive interview that gave plenty of insight into why many Nigerian Athletes are opting to run for the likes of Bahrain, famously saying that “his blood had turned from green to red.”
The painful common thread (from a Nigerian perspective) that can be seen with most of these athletes, from Moussa to Iman to Abbas, is that they never thought or planned to run for another country, but that the circumstances in Nigeria gave them what they felt was very little or no choice but to leave for Bahrain.
If it were one athlete, one could dismiss their case as an isolated incident. However, with up to five Nigerian-born Athletes at the World U20 Championships for Bahrain, and seven of them set to represent Bahrain at the Rio Olympics, it is high time that Nigerians awoke to the fact that there is virtually no functioning athletics development structure in Nigeria currently. This worrying trend of athletes leaving Nigeria will continue without some kind of urgent, drastic intervention in Nigerian Athletics.
In fact the trend will only increase – the sudden success of the likes Femi Ogunode for Qatar and that of Kemi Adekoya and now Ofonime Odiong for Bahrain will not have gone unnoticed by the thousands of youth still trapped in a country completely devoid of any kind silver lining for Athletes. If we refuse to look after our best talents somebody else will, in a Kingdom far far away.