Beginning today, the focus of many athletics lovers in Africa and beyond will be on Asaba, Delta State capital, venue of the 21st African Senior Athletics Championships.
This is the first that Asaba would be hosting a major sporting event since the state was created on August 27, 1991. The competition venue, Stephen Keshi Stadium, which was a mere playing ground for school children for years, has been brought to life, thanks to the Governor Ifeanyi Okowa administration.
However, like the scenario at COJA 2003 All Africa Games hosted in Abuja, the focus of Nigerian fans and spectators will be on the athletes, as they attempt to wrestle the number one position from South Africa and Kenya on the nine-lane track.
The Asaba 2018 boasts some athletes who are considered among the best in the world.
Countries like Kenya and South Africa are already in Asaba with their ‘A’ squad for the five-day championships.
The Rainbow Nation (South Africa) won three of the past five editions of the African Championships, topping the medals table at Addis Ababa 2008, Marrakech (Morocco 2014) before winning the last edition on home soil at Durban 2016.
On its part, Kenya hosted and won the 2010 edition of the championship, while Nigeria topped the medals table at the 2012 edition hosted in Porto Novo, Benin Republic. The Asaba 2018 is another avenue for the three countries to rekindle their age-long rivalry in track and field.
This is the second time Nigeria is hosting the championship. In 1989, when Nigeria hosted the rest of Africa at the National Stadium in Lagos, the country topped the medals table.
Nigeria also won seven other editions of the championships at Dakar ’79, Cairo ’85, Annaba ‘88, Cairo ’90, Yaounde ’96, Dakar ’98 and Porto Novo 2012.
As the host nation for 2018 edition, Team Nigeria is presenting a squad comprising athletes led by Beijing 2008 silver medallist, Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor and U.S-based sprinter, Divine Oduduru.
They are indigenes of Delta State. While Okagbare is gradually reaching her peak in athletics, Oduduru is making a steady rise on the track. He is a five-time African Junior champion and was the 2014 World Junior silver medallist in the 200m.
At the 2013 African Youth Athletics Championships in Mauritius, Oduduru won gold medal in both the 100m and 200m, and was also a member of the gold medal winning 4x100m relay quartet. That was a few months after he made it to the final in the 200m at the 2013 World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine.
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He successfully defended his 200m title at the 2015 African Junior Championships, and also added the 100m and 4×100m gold medals to his tally. This made him a five-time African Junior Champion.
In 2014, Oduduru dipped under 21 seconds for the first time to become Nigeria’s champion in the 200m. He led the Nigerian 4x100m relay team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but due to illness, he could not defend his 200m title at the 2015 All Nigerian Championships.
Oduduru bounced back for the All Africa Games in Brazzaville, ran a PB of 20.45s to settle for a silver medal behind Ivorian sprinter, Hua Wilfried Koffi.
He was part of Team Nigeria’s squad to the last African Championships in Durban, South Africa. He ran in the 200m. After posting the second fastest time in the semifinals, he did not run in the finals due to injury.
Asaba 2018 is the avenue for Oduduru to prove a point as one of Africa’s brightest stars of the moment. Last week, he won the first gold medal at the Stephen Keshi Stadium during a test-run event.
Perhaps, Team Nigeria’s strongest hopes going into Asaba 2018 African Athletics Championships will be the women’s 100m hurdles, where Oluwatobiloba Amusan is the commander-in-chief.
Amusan was Team Nigeria’s sole gold medallist in track and field in Gold Coast (aside the medal won by Suwaibidu Galadima in Para-Athletics). She became the first Nigerian to win a gold medal in the 100m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games.
Many Nigerians are looking forward to Tobi Amusan to add the African Championships title to her kitty here in Asaba.
Another female athlete to watch out for in Team Nigeria is home-girl, Ese Brume in the long jump.
Though, since Brume took her track business to Cyprus, where she is combining both sports and education, not much has been seen of her. She was not part of Nigeria’s contingent to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, but on a good day, Brume has what it takes to put smiles on the faces of Nigerians, especially now that she is competing in front of her home fans.
Brume, who emerged as one of the best athletes at the African Junior Athletics Championship at Mauritius 2013, made big headline at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she beat all senior contenders to the gold medal in the long jump. She also won the long jump gold at Marrakech (Morocco 2014) African Senior Athletics Championship, and repeated it at Durban 2016.
Since she could not have the chance to defend her Commonwealth Games title at the Gold Coast, the Asaba 2018 will be an avenue for Brume to clinch her third consecutive title at the African Senior Athletics Championship.
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Nigeria’s female Hammer thrower, Queen Obisesan is also expected to paint Nigeria’s name in gold here in Asaba, though she has to overcome stiff opposition from South Africa.
Chukwuebuka Enekwechi, who picked a silver medal in the men’s Shot Put at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, is another male athlete on the radar of many athletics followers. He has the potential to fight for gold here in Asaba.
Nigeria’s major rivals, Kenya and South Africa, hosted the championships in 2010 and 2016 respectively, and won the championships on home soil.
This time, many Nigerians are looking forward to Team Nigeria winning the championships in Asaba.
But considering the facts on ground, it might require a big miracle for Team Nigeria to achieve it. Some have predicted that the host, Nigeria might even struggle to finish third on the medals table when the event ends on August 5.
On current form, South Africa and Kenya have the potential to finish with higher number of gold medals here in Asaba.
The Nelson Mandela country is in Asaba with the reigning Olympic and World Championships gold medallist in the 800m, Caster Semenya.
Semenya is targeting the gold medal in the 400m, 800m, 1500m and 4x400m. She proved an asset in the 4x400m for South Africa at Durban 2016, as her blistering anchor leg earned Team South Africa the gold medal ahead of Nigeria.
And having won Commonwealth Games gold in the 800m and 1500m earlier this year, Semenya is likely to win more than one medal for her country in Asaba.
Also included in the South African team are the continent’s top two male long jumpers, African record holder, Luvo Manyonga, and Ruswahl Samaai.
Team South Africa is also parading Africa’s best athletes in the 110m hurdles, women’s 400m hurdles, men’s discus throw and women’s javelin throw. The country is equally banking on sprinter, Akani Simbine, who won the men’s 100m at the Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast, Australia earlier this year.
For the East African, Kenya, Asaba 2018 is another avenue to prove a point as the best in track and field. The country, noted for long distance races and marathons, hit Asaba with a star-studded team comprising world record holder in the women’s 3000m Steeplechase, Beatrice Chepkoech, reigning world Champions, Conseslus Kipruto (3000m Steeplechase) and Elijah Manangoi (1500m).
Other athletes being paraded by Kenya here in Asaba are former world champions, Julius Yego (Javelin), Eunice Sum (800m), Nicholas Bett (400m Hurdles), and current world leaders, Emmanuel Korir (800m), Timothy Cheruiyot (1500m) and Hellen Obiri (5000m).
Cote d’Ivoire may not be coming with a large team, but they will be sure to contend for medals in the men and women’s 100m and 200m, with focus on the duo of Murielle Ahoure and Marie-Josée Ta Lou. It was Ahoure who outclassed Nigeria’s Okagbare in the 100m final at the 2012 edition hosted in Port Novo, Benin Republic. Ahoure and her compatriot, Ta Lou, are expected to make it to the final here in Asaba.
The short sprints used to be regarded as Nigeria’s stronghold in athletics, but things have changed. Botswana will be favoured to win gold medals in the 400m (men and women), leaving Team Nigeria with slimmer chances of medals, even on home soil. The country may have to search for medals in other events.
For members of the Local Organising Committee, headed by former AFN boss, Chief Solomon Ogba, the major task is providing world-class facilities for African athletes to prove their worth at the Stephen Keshi Stadium.
To them, the business of making sure that Team Nigeria finishes top on the medals table is solely on the shoulder of AFN President, Ibrahim Shehu Gusau, and his Technical Director, Sunday Adeleye.