By Dare Esan:
Reigning Commonwealth queen of the track Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor will be hoping for another slice of history when the 16th edition of the IAAF flagship event, the World Championships, get underway at the Olympic Stadium in London on Friday.
Okagbare, silver (long) and bronze (200m) bronze medal winner at the championships' 14th edition four years ago in Moscow, Russia, where she made history as the
first Nigerian to win two medals at the same championships, will be hoping to become the first Nigerian to win a sprint medal.
The closest Nigeria came was Olusoji Fasuba's fourth place finish in 2007 at the Naggai Stadium in Osaka, Japan but Okagbare will relish her chances of surpassing that feat following her late return to form.
The six-time Nigeria 100m champion ran her first sub-11 seconds 100m race (10.99 seconds) last month at the IAAF Diamond League meeting at the Olympic Stadium in London, venue of the championships.
It was the first time since September 2015 she would break 11 seconds in the event and she will be confident she has got the momentum going for her.
Okagbare will also be banking on the fast track at the Olympic Stadium which has proved to be a good ground for her as it was on the same track in 2013 that she became the first Nigerian and African woman to run a sub-10.80 seconds (10.79 seconds) in the 100m. So, can Nigerians and indeed Africans start counting their chickens?
Can she achieve what the great Mary Onyali who ran in three consecutive 100m finals at the championships between 1991 and 1995 failed to achieve?
On the surface it looks a very Herculean task as he will not only have to think about the duo of Elaine Thompson, the Jamaican who won the world title two years ago and added the Olympic crown just last year in Rio, and the flying Dutch woman Dafne Schippers, who won the silver medal behind Thompson two years ago in Beijing. Also add the two Ivorians, Muriel Ahoure who broke her African record by one hundreth of a second (10.78 seconds) last year, and the more impressive Marie-Jose Ta Lou. Okagbare will also have to spare some thoughts for the dark but talented AmericanTorie Bowie who won a surprise bronze medal in Beijing.
If the track gets congested for the Nigerian, she could seek redemption in the long jump where she will only require one long leap to achieve another slice of history: become the first Nigerian to be crowned a world champion.
Only three athletes have come close to making the mark. Innocent Egbunike was the odds-on-favourite to win the 400m title in 1987 after his impressive pre-championships performance in the circuit and came to the event in Rome as the fastest man in the world in the event. When the chips came down, he settled for the silver medal.
Fast forward to 1999. Two Nigerian athletes, Francis Obikwelu in the men's 200m and Glory Alozie in the women's 100m hurdles, looked sure bets to be crowned worldchampions. While Alozie's pre-championships' feats made her look one of the sure favourites alongside Gail Devers, Olga Shishigina and the Swede Ludmila Enquist, Obikwelu's 19.84 seconds run in the semi-final of the event got the reigning 100m king Maurice Green, who was gunning or a sprints double, scared.
Both Nigerians failed to fulfill expectations. While Alozie (12.44 seconds) raced to a silver medal finish behind Gail Devers (12.37 seconds), Obikwelu settled for a bronze medal behind Green (19.90 seconds) and Brazil's Claudinei da Silva (20.20 seconds).
Interestingly, Obikwelu's 19.84 seconds run was the fastest time in the world that year. For Okagbare, the task may look less herculean unlike in the 100m but she will have to leap farther than the 6.77m personal season's best she jumped last month in Hungary or even the 6.99m that fetched her the silver medal behind Britney Reese four years ago in Moscow where she lost the gold by 2cm. While all attention will be on Okagbare, petite sprint hurdler Tobiloba Amusan could prove to be the joker in the pack of the 18 athletes that will don Nigeria's green and white colours at the championships.
Amusan, the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP) undergraduate student, is the hottest sprint hurdler in Africa this year and one of the seven fastest in the world following the 12.57 seconds she ran last June to win the American collegiate title. She is also the second fastest African of all time in the event after compatriot Glory Alozie and looks a good bet for a place in the final in her first tripto the championships. The gold may be far from her reach unless reigning world record holder (12.20 seconds) in the event Kendra Harrison hits the hurdle and crashes, she can make
the podium if she runs faster than her personal best of 12.57 seconds.
While podium appearances by Okagbare and Amusan may not come much as a surprise to Nigerians ,shot putter Chukwuebuka Enekwechi will need a miracle to throw his way to the podium. The best the USA-based Nigerian who changed his allegiance to represent his parents' country just before the championships should be hoping for should be to throw farther than the 21.07m that secured his qualification for the event and see if it could land him in the final.
A place in the final will be historic for Enekwechi as no Nigerian shot putter had made it that far.
The women's 4x400m relay team will also be hoping to emulate the feat performed by the Sunday Bada-led male team in 1995 in Gothenburg,Sweden where the team finished third after a spirited anchor-leg run by the late Bada. Two years ago the team, led by Patience Okon-George, ran an impressive 3:23:27 seconds in the semi-finals but failed to make it count in the final before Tosin Adeloye's positive dope test rendered their fourth place finish and second fastest time in the Nigerian nay African all-time list illegal.
Meanwhile Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) President, Honourable Ibrahim Gusau, has charged the athletes to stay clear of performancing-enahncing drugs while assuring them the federation under his leadership will ensure their welfare comes first at all times.
Gusau who bankrolled the team's trip to the championships is optimistic the future is bright for track and field in Nigeria.
"I am delighted to be attending my first World Championships as AFN President and I want to assure you that we shall ensure there is competition at home for athletes to enable them improve on their performances and have the chance to compete against the very best in the world," Gusau told Completesportsnigeria.com. Gusau is confident the programmes the federation under his watch will roll out for next season will make positive impacts in the lives of the athletes.
"We have plan for training programmes for our coaches and as we improve their capacity they in turn will produce athletes that can be reckoned with in continental and global athletics."