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More athletes may dump Nigeria – Obikwelu, Alozie

Olympic medallists, Francis Obikwelu and Gloria Alozie spark a debate on the welfare of Nigerian athletes during the week with their stories of why they
dumped Nigeria for Portugal and Spain respectively and went on to become European track and field champions.
The duo told their stories that highlighted the huge between the way athletes are treated in Nigeria and what obtains in Europe at a press conference, which was held in Lagos on Monday to herald the final of the Top Sprinter Genesis, an athletics talent hunt organised by the Making of Champions.
Obikwelu lamented that 14 years after he switched allegiance to Portugal, the conditions that made him to abandon Nigeria have not been addressed and that those conditions are pushing the country’s athletes to the edge, where they would likely opt for representing some other countries, where they would be better taken care of.
In a room packed with journalists, the retired athlete, who won silver for Portugal in 100m at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said he abandoned Nigeria after the then leadership of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria displayed what he referred to as disrespect and nonchalance towards his plight, after he got injured at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
“A lot of people in Nigeria were not happy that I switched allegiance to Portugal. I was not happy too. I want to use this opportunity to lay it down,” he said.
“I remember the Sydney Olympics; I was ranked number two in the world in 200m. I was in top shape but unfortunately I had a knee problem. I told my federation (AFN) that I had a problem with my knee and they said that I was lying. I went on and used the knee to run up to the semifinals and I could not run any more.My knee was bad.
“They took me to hospital and I did an MRI scan and the doctor said ‘I don’t think you will continue running, your knee is bad and totally destroyed.’ I cried to the AFN and the only thing they told me was that they don’t need me; that they could produce another Obikwelu; that Nigeria had a lot of talents. I asked them to support me so that I could go for surgery. They said they would approve some money for me for the surgery.
“At the end, I went to Canada for the surgery with my money. After the surgery, I had to stay in hospital for another two months because I had blood clot. I almost died. Nobody from the federation called me. It was just my family. I came back to Nigeria on crutches. The money was approved but all they could tell me was that they didn’t know where the money was. I went back to Portugal and I said to myself ‘I’m done’.
“I love my country. This is where I started but what happened to me was not good. I think Nigeria should support its athletes when they have injuries. It is not about money. It’s also about respect and care. In Portugal, they support me, even if I’m not doing well. They come to me and ask ‘what do you need?’ This is the kind of careNigerian athletes need.”
On her part, Alozie, who was more emotional that afternoon, said she would not blame the AFN. She said taking up Spanish citizenship seemed the best decision for her at the time considering that she felt at home in Valencia, where she obviously had access to far better facilities for training than in Nigeria.
The Sydney Olympics silver medallist said, “It was after I changed my nationality that I really knew what I had done. I went to Spain as a junior and I was still young so I did not really know what I was doing.
“When they tried me and they said I had to officially switch, I considered that my home,my club, my coach and everything was in Valencia and I had to change. That was why I changed.
“I’m really sorry I changed. I didn’t really see it that way. But thank God I’m back and I promised to make amends. I’m here to produce another Gloria Alozie, who can win medals for Nigeria.”
After the press conference Obikwelu added that it was unfortunate that athletes that represent Nigeria at major championships hardly have the things they need to give their best both before and during the competition.
The former African champion said until the Nigerian sports authorities improve the support given to athletes and quit intimidating them, the country’s performance at global athletics competitions will continue to dwindle.
Obikwelu’s assertion may not be unconnected with Nigeria’s poor outing in the last two Olympics and IAAF World Championships, the most recent of which the country won no medal despite parading great talents including 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medallist, Blessing Okagbare and 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Tosin Oke.
“Sometimes when I go to competitions, such as World Championships and Olympic Games it pains me a lot when I see these young ones (Nigerian athletes) complaining about the same things. Those things have not changed: ‘I don’t have my ticket back’ and so on. How do you expect such athlete to perform well in a major championship? He can’t, even if he has great potential,” Obikwelu said.
“The problem is that in Nigeria the athletics federation doesn’t have respect for athletes. They are always intimidating the athletes saying they will ban them if they don’t do this or that. I think that is wrong. If there are no athletes, there will be no federation. But in Nigeria, the opposite is the case. Here it is the federation before the athletes.
“Nigerian athletes fail to go into the semifinal and final of major competitions because they are not prepared to run rounds. They can run one race well but when they have three races, for instance, they burn out because their bodies are not well prepared for that. That is why the Jamaicans and Americans are better than us.
“When I went to the Olympics with my physiotherapists, they enabled me to run rounds. In 1999, when I was running for Nigeria at the World Championship in Sevilla, I had no physiotherapist. I ran fast, I ran 19:84 seconds in the (200m) semifinal and I was dead. The next day I didn’t know how I went to the final, but I still came in third. With that experience and because I had a good contract, which was giving a little money, I invested in myself by hiring physiotherapists and that worked for me. It is very important for athletes. It is not just about training; it is also about executing the race.”
Giving her perspective on the matter, another retired athlete, Falilat Ogunkoya, who is in the board of the AFN, said having been away from Nigeria for long, Obikwelu may not be in the best position to talk about the welfare of Nigerian athletes.
The Atlanta 1996 silver and bronze medallist told our correspondent on the phone during the week the that athletes representing Nigeria in the past six years are better off, particularly in terms of getting cash rewards and national awards when they win medals at international championships.
Ogunkoya said, “When an athlete makes the Nigerian team, he is paid his allowance. I don’t know what he (Obikwelu) is referring to but he has been out for a while. He is not in the system, so he may not know. The people that came back from the Commonwealth Games last year were given a lot of cash reward by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration.
“I didn’t get that during my time. Even the people that won gold at the African Championship were paid over one million naira. I was African champion in 1998. I won three gold medals for Nigeria, I was not paid anything. The people that won medals at the Olympics were given N5m each by the past Federal Government.”
When reminded that several Nigerian athletes have at different times complained about poor welfare, which manifests in many ways including their inability to feed well, inability to access proper treatment when they get injured, and their lack of proper kits and facilities for training, Ogunkoya said the authorities at the national level were not responsible for all athletes in the country.
“When you talk about welfare of athletes, you have to get to a certain level before you are taken care of. Don’t say Nigeria, you have to talk about local governments, state governments, before the Federal Government,” she said.
“As an athlete, you represent your zone, then your local government, from there, you represent your state and from your state, if you are fit, you then represent Nigeria. Everything is not the responsibility of the National Sports Commission. It starts from the local government. What are the state governments doing about athletes’ welfare? The National Sports Commission cannot come to your local government to train you. Both your state and local governments must be involved.
“But the current trend is that if you represent Nigeria and win medals, you are paid dollars after the event. That did not happen in my time. Even after the 1996 Olympics when I won my medals, I was not paid. Some people were paid. But I’m a Nigerian, that didn’t stop me from representing my country with the best of my ability. But I can tell you that we are doing our possible best to make sure our athletes excel.”
For Obikwelu and Alozie, it is time to give back to their first country, Nigeria, where they launch their successful track and field careers.
They are currently working alongside two other Olympic medallists, Deji Aliu and Uchenna Emedolu, who made up last known golden generation of Nigerian athletics, in the Top Sprinter Genesis project, to discover and groom the next generation of elite athletes for Nigeria.
The quartet are hopeful that the young athlete they are training would eventually win Olympic medals for Nigeria and break national records that have remained unbroken for as many as 17 years (Alozie’s 1998 record in 100m hurdles and Obikwelu’s 1999 record in 200m).