Following a fair outing of Nigerian athletes at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) President, Solomon Ogba, is confident that the country can make an impressive performance at next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Speaking in an exclusive interview with our correspondent, YEMI OLUS, the AFN boss reveals the Federation’s plans for the new season and other issues affecting the sport.
What plans does the AFN have for the revival of youth competitions in Nigeria?
First of all, we have succeeded in staging the D.K Olukoya U-18 competition and we are planning to have an U-15 competition in the coming season.
The U-15 competition used to be sponsored by Odogwu and Folawiyo. If the school sports system is running well then we can bring the U-13 or we could give directives for schools to organise such. By the time we start the buildup for the next season I will take a tour of the zones, meet the commissioners and explain to them the need to have these competitions because I think they don’t understand what is at stake. It is the responsibility of the state associations to scout for young talent.
We are lucky because the National Youth Games is just coming on board, so it will be used as a platform to discover more talent since it is an U-17 competition.
There is so much focus on Blessing Okagbare at major championships. What is the AFN doing to discover more Okagbares over different events?
It is not possible to have four or more Okagbares because athletes like that come once in a lifetime. In two years she has run under 11 seconds over nine times.
Mary Onyali ran under 11secs once in her entire career. Glory Alozie ran 10secs once. For us to have four athletes in that class means we are on the same level as the US.
We are doing things to have people who can support and complement her. It is not easy to have an athlete of her calibre. In Moscow the IAAF technical team penciled her down for three medals; the 100m, 200m and long jump. We’ve had problems with our male athletes after the era of Olusoji Fasuba. During his time, he was the only star; every other person was struggling.
We’ve been struggling since he left and we are trying to rebuild. We downsized the team that travelled to Mauritius for the ongoing African Junior Championships from 35 to 26 athletes because we discovered that many of them are not using their true ages.
It would be counterproductive using a training programme that’s meant for a youth for an adult. We don’t have to win in Mauritius, but we know that we have a crop of young athletes we can focus on and the result will show in two years. That is the internal mechanism we are using to sanitize the system in order to get young athletes that will take over.
By the time we start doing a lot of these youth and junior competitions and getting a lot of them and with the High Performance System we are trying to set up in Abuja and the one in Port Harcourt, in the next two years we will get people.
Not only that, I am also into aggressive recruitment of Nigerian athletes from all over the world. A lot of Nigerian- born Americans have been contacting me and I have been checking them out. I believe that it is because of Okagbare’s feat that many athletes are now sending emails, signifying their interest to run for Nigeria. There is a boy, Ahmed Suleman who already has 7.91m in the long jump and 16.27m in the triple jump. There are so many of them we are trying to get.
It has been alleged that most of AFN’s funds were spent on Blessing Okagbare to the detriment of other athletes. What’s your position on this?
When she was asked that question in Calabar, she reacted because she has not gotten anything; whatever she has gotten is personal. She and three others only got the money that was available for making the ‘A’ standard, but apart from that, there was nothing from the federation or country, so if anyone says that all the money is spent on her, its untrue. I know that the Delta State Government supports her; I support her and a lot of athletes as well. It is the man or woman who wants it as a champion that will get it. What do you do with your build up for example? Are you waiting for Nigeria before you start?
Does Blessing wait for Nigeria before she begins her buildup? She doesn’t wait because she knows what she is looking for that season. I tell the athletes that there is money in athletics, but they have to make the effort to get it instead of blaming their woes on Nigeria. Nigeria cannot make you who you want to be. You made the decision to be a professional athlete, you cannot afford to wait for anybody because when the benefits come, its the athlete that will get it first.
What special programmes will the AFN come out with ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games?
Many of our top athletes are not based in Nigeria, so they have their own programmes, but we want to ensure that many home-based athletes meet the standard to strengthen the team. If the athletes based abroad begin to hear of the exploits of the home-based athletes, it will build anticipation and strengthen the rivalry among them. We want to sustain that and try and get as many people as possible to run fast.
I think we can win seven gold medals at the Commonwealth Games if what we are trying to do works out the way we planned it.
Where do you intend to get the funds to drive this programme?
There is a High Performance System they are trying to set up in Abuja. They are going to look for money to provide grants for the athletes and that will help. We are trying to also get help from the private sector, but that will not disturb our own programme. So we will do our build up. Actually, we are looking for funds to support our programme and by the grace of God it is not looking badly from the responses we are getting so far.
We also need corporate organisations to support us with their products especially beverages to help our home based athletes during training and competitions. They lose a lot when they sweat and this will help make our athletes look pleasant at all times.
What plans does the AFN have to support upand- coming athletes faced with so many obstacles such as lack of funding?
Anybody can go to the stadium to train. The fact that you train in the stadium doesn’t make you a Nigerian athlete. Does it mean that Nigeria will give money to anybody that trains there? The age factor also comes up because many of them do not declare their true ages. The potential has to be there for us to support the athletes.
What have they done for themselves? Let us tell ourselves the truth. Before you ask what Nigeria is doing for you, what have you done for Nigeria that you are expecting so much from the country? How many medals have you won for Nigeria? Such athletes have to train very hard. If you work very hard as an athlete you can get endorsements from kit manufacturers and sign on fees based on your performance, so it is left for you to go the extra mile in order to make money. For instance does anyone give training grant to footballers?
Such an individual has to train hard to be noticed and bought by a club; it should not be different from athletics. There is a book that states that you need to train consistently for two and a half hours daily for five years to become an Olympic champion so the athletes must be willing to work hard.