The 2021 World Athletics U-20 may have come and gone with officials of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN, grinning from ear to ear. After all, they can claim to have guided the country to arguably its finest outing in the competition its wards grabbing four gold medals. But left to the shenanigans for which they may one book a place in the Guinness Bookk of World Records, the country would have lost its newest athletic sensation, United States-born Udodi Onwuzurike. The 18 year-old lad it is who sensationally grabbed a gold medal for the country in the 400m in 20.21 seconds, setting a new national junior record and personal best in the process.
Onwuzuike’s victory time is also very remarkable in another way. With it, he broke a 25-year jinx in the category as no other Nigerian has won gold in the 200m event since 1996 when Francis Obikwelu nailed it in Sydney.
But the Onwuzurike story is typical for having the peculiar Nigerian twang. Born to a Nigerian parents in the United States, the high school graduate, who just got enrolled into Stanford University, California, had more enticing representation options. At least, he had the refusal option with the United States, his birth country. But his father, Chris Onwuzurike, insisted his son must represent Nigeria.
Sadly, his father’s decision didn’t receive the support of officials of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, AFN. Besides ignoring his entreaties to include the young lad in the country’s squad to the global athletic meet, they paid no heed either even as he had to practically beg for him to be included, the young man’s more enticing prospects with US Athletics not withstanding.
Eventually, he got a break, thanks largely to the untiring efforts of a US-based Nigerian coach, Taiwo Ariyo, better known as Mr. T. Coach Eriyo had to work the phone through to some of his colleagues back home.
Undeterred even when he didn’t get the right response from most of the coaches he contacted, Coach Eriyo kept on until he got a break with Gabriel Opuana, who wasted no time in speedily facilitating Onwuzurike’s registration processes, onward the Kenyan meet. Yet, it was the young lad’ s father, Chris, who paid the passage to Kenya for both himself and son.
While in Kenya, Onwuzurike quietly worked his way to where it mattered even as all eyes feasted on Botswana’s sensation, Letsile Tebogo, who grabbed gold in the 100m dash. With less attention, he had enough time to land himself in the semi final in style where he posted a blistering, wind-assisted 20.13 seconds to send a message to rest qualifiers that he is the event’s real deal. That much he proved in the final where coasted to the finish with an inspiring 20.21 seconds to stand in Nigeria’s podium placing in the event, second to Francis Obikwelu.
“It wasn’t easy getting the AFN to register Onwuzurike. If not for his fathers insistence that he runs for Nigerian that is how we would have lost him to other countries,” coach Ariyo pointed out, adding,
“We have so many Nigerian-born athletes all over the world. But because we are not organised back home, these kids easily get attracted to other nations. It is about time we stop all the shenanigans in Nigeria and get serious about athletics development.”
Indeed, left to the shenanigans of the Nigerian Athletic Federation, AFN, officials, Onwuzurike would have been lost to another country like Anthony Joshua, Daniel Igali and a host of others. But thanks to the resilience and patriotic zeal of his father, who insisted his son must represent his home country and practically begged for him to do so, Nigeria would have also lost the gold medal he won at the 2021 World Athletics U-20. Not least is the tenacity of Coach Ariyo, who deployed his contacts to reach the right Federation contact back in Nigeria.
At the moment however, the same Federation officials who almost ruined Onwuzurike’s chances of representing his home country are smiling from ear to ear over his record-breaking achievement in Kenya. It doesn’t matter that their action may have resulted in Nigeria losing many more Onwuzurikes to other countries.
But apart from Nigerian athletes in the diaspora lost to the ineptitude of some of the country’s Federation officials, there are a thousand and one more endowed and aspiring local kids who are also being frustrated. Certainly, the country will continue to lose their representation as possible athletic world beaters if the situation remains as it is presently.
As Coach Ariyo puts it, Onwuzurike, who begged to represent Nigeria but ended up bagging gold in style is just one lucky grab.
“Even back in Nigeria there are many kids in the towns and villages who are naturally endowed, but because we are not doing the right things, that is why we have to struggle, while Jamaica a country not event the size of Delta State is dominating world athletics.”
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