–Nigeria born sprinter, Francis Obikwelu tells Complete Sports’ TUNDE KOIKI in this exclusive interview why he took up Portugese nationality. He also reveals plans to to help Nigerian athletes reach their career heights. Enjoy excerpts…
Sports planet: It’s nice meeting you, Francis.
Francis Obikwelu: It’s my pleasure.
You did brilliantly for Nigeria and your records are still there. But you broke a lot of heart when you decided to switch nationality. What was your thinking then?
First of all, I’d like to apologize for that. But nothing happens without a reason and a lot of people know the story. I just have to forget about that and look forward to support the upcoming athletes for them to get to the level I am.
Do you ever think you would become a professional athlete?
Yes of course. When I was in school, I used to tell my friends that I was going to be famous but they would all laugh at me, even my mum too used to laugh whenever I said so.
What has been the difference competing for Portugal as against competing for Nigeria?
There is a huge difference. For instance, some years back, athletes in Nigeria were treated well and that made our passion for sports to increase but all of a sudden, things changed. In Europe, athletes are well respected, they get everything they need and there is a proper care in case of any injury. And as athletes, that is what we need. So, when I get all these in Portugal, I had to switch my nationality.
Have you ever experienced any form of racial abuse since you started competing for Portugal?
You know Portugal is one of the European countries that recognize Africans. They have shown me a lot of respect and love. Even the younger ones there see me as their role model. So, I have never had any problem with them.
You dominated Africa and you still have the European record of 9.86 that is still unbroken for 11 years now, how do you feel achieving that feat?
I’m very glad to have such a record. And I’m still working hard to do better because everybody in Europe is working very hard to break that record.
How did you get involved in Tops Sprinters Genesis Project?
I received a call from Bambo Akanni (CEO of Making of Champions) in 2013 that he wanted to see me. We later met in Portugal where we discussed the programme. He also did some interviews with me and got some of my video clips. This guy is doing a great job because nobody has done this in Nigeria before.
Looking at the format of this project, taking kids from all corners of the street and training them to become Olympic sprinters in future. Don’t you think this is crazy?
No, it is not crazy. It is just a passion. You see, we have abundance of talents in this country (more than America and Jamaica), yet we are far behind these countries. Nigeria should look back to those days when athletes are being discovered in their school days.
You are a renowned sprinter, and when you look at major events like Commonwealth Games, IAAF, Diamond League etc. and you can’t find a single Nigerian getting to the final of any of these tournaments; doesn’t this break your heart?
I won’t use the word heartbroken. To me, it is a shame that this country cannot produce at least three good sprinters in the final of major events.I think we have to do something better to get to that level. And I believe that with what Bambo is doing right now, we are going to produce good athletes at the 2020 Olympic Games because this project is not about now but about future.
Francis, why did you have to come back home to do this?
First, it is passion. Second, we have the raw materials and something must be done to turn them to professionals. So, when Bambo called me, I told him I would give more than 100% to ensure this project is successful. As a coach, I’ll pick at least two of these kids to Portugal to train them and make sure they compete for Nigeria in future because I know I have the capability to do it. Also, to be a champion, many things come to play. There must be full support from the federation; there must be a good coach as well as a good physio in case of any injury for any athlete to get to the highest level.
What would represent your satisfaction at the end of this programme?
A lot. In fact, being part of this project alone at this particular time is a satisfaction for me. For me, I believe we are going to discover some talents at the end of this programme. And in the next ten years, I’d be glad to say I was part of this project and which will be my biggest satisfaction. I’ll also continue to be part of this programme until I die even in the absence of financial support, I’ll put all my energy. So, my satisfaction will be that this programme should keep on working. This programme is going to encourage a lot of youths to go to school and run which is very important.
Looking at how Jamaicans dominate the 100m and 200m race, what do you think of the current top 10 fastest runners?
You know year in year out, we have new method of improving athletes. So, every year, people look for different ways to make their athletes run faster. The Jamaicans have school for athletes and they train a lot and that has been working for them. And with what Bambo is doing, I believe we can also do better because we have the materials.
What do you have to tell your fans here in Nigeria?
First of all, I want to use this medium to thank all Nigerians for making me who I am today, I really appreciate them. They should keep on supporting me and they should be happy as well.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you very much.