Six months from now, Nigeria’s physically challenged athletes will commence their quest for medals at the long-awaited Paralympic Games holding in Tokyo, Japan, and for one of these athletes, Flora Ugwunwa, the target will be to successfully defend the title she won in Rio five years ago!
The Nigerian team to the Rio Paralympics scooped a total of 12 medals: eight GOLD, two Silver and two Bronze. Nine of those medals came from Powerlifting, which has become the country’s medal-spinning event at the Paralympics, while three medals were secured in Athletics.
Ugwunwa set a World Record (WR) of 20.25m at the time to strike GOLD in the women’s F54 Javelin throw at her maiden appearance at the Games. The second GOLD medal came from Lauritta Onye in the women’s F40 Shot put, while the third, a Bronze, came from veteran Eucharia Iyiazi in the women’s F57 Discus throw.
Little motivation, low morale
Ugwunwa thought her life was going to change dramatically after winning GOLD with a WR at the Rio Paralympics but she’s been discouraged by the lack of attention being suffered by the country’s special athletes, especially by the government and corporate organizations.
Ugwunwa competes in the F54 Class, which is for athletes with ‘Limb deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement’, and has to use a wheelchair.
Recounting her experience after the Rio Games, she said: “When we returned from Rio, we didn’t even receive a handshake from the President. We are the ones making the country proud, but we’re not being treated in the manner we deserve to be treated. We have nothing to show for our efforts. I don’t even like to grant interviews because I don’t see anything coming out of it. I’ve granted so many interviews and now I’m sick and tired of doing so because it doesn’t change anything. It’s no longer funny.”
‘The outbreak of the coronavirus messed up my plans’
Ugwunwa’s only saving grace is the fact that she has an appointment with the Edo State Government where she receives a monthly stipend. But the disruptions caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus have been far-reaching and altered the plans Ugwunwa had, especially as it led to the postponement of the highly anticipated National Sports Festival which has since suffered numerous postponements.
She says, “I don’t know how to express my feelings over the outbreak of the coronavirus last year because it messed up a lot of things for me, because we live on competitions as athletes, but there was nothing! It’s really painful. It spoilt all my plans. If it was a situation where we had endorsements and the country was co-operating, it would not have been a problem. But in our case now, we’re trying to make ends meet on our own and there is nothing to show for it.
“Covid messed everything up! Nowhere to train because there was no competition, nothing! I only resumed training because we started preparing for the festival, because I don’t see how we will be training and training yet there is no competition. I’m still thankful to God for Edo State Sports Commission, because without them I don’t know what would have happened to me. That’s the State I’m representing and the little renumeration has been helping me.”
Champions need competitions and financial incentives to remain at the top
Ugwunwa qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics after winning Silver in the women’s F54 Javelin throw at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships held in Dubai. That was her last international outing for Nigeria. Prior to that, she had clinched GOLD and Silver medals respectively at the 2015 African Games in the Discus and Javelin respectively. She also won two medals, GOLD and Silver respectively, in the Javelin and Discus at the 2019 World Para Athletics Grand Prix held in Tunis.
She will be hoping to make a return to Tunis later in the month for the 2021 edition of the Grand Prix in Tunisia, provided funds are available to execute the trip.
Ugwunwa said, “I will be very glad if we can make the trip to Tunisia. Our last international competition was in 2019. For someone to stay away from international competition for two years is not good. I will be very glad to make the trip to Tunisia because it will help towards our preparation for the Paralympics.
“The problem here is that every day they say there is no money, but assuming there was money, it would have been better to participate in the Grand Prix series, so we could go to Dubai, from Dubai to Tunis and from Tunis to France. That way you will know that you’re really preparing, and you will be able to know the shape you’re in at the moment, but all this talk of no money isn’t helping. The worst part is that there is no endorsement, because if we had endorsements, the companies would be the ones sponsoring us for these competitions.”
When asked what it would take for her to successfully defend her title in Tokyo this summer, Ugwunwa said, “The only thing I can tell you is that with God all things are possible. With God on our side, I believe we can do it again but what we need is early preparation and good athlete welfare. If all these are put in place, I believe nothing is going to stop us.”