Nigerian athletes have the potential to be as successful at London 2012 as Jamaica were in the Beijing Olympics, the country's leading athletics official claimed today.
Police Superintent Sunday Bada, formerly one of the world's leading 400 metres runners and now the technical director of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), believes that Nigerian athletes can be just as competitive as Jamaica, whose sprinters won a record 11 medals in Beijing last month, six of them gold.
He said in an interview published today in the Nigerian newspaper THISDAY: “An American track coach, John Smith asked me and Innocent Egbunike why is it Jamaica and not Nigeria doing the kind of show put up by the Caribbean nation.
"Smith followed the progress made by Nigerian athletes in the American collegiate system in the past and was sure that if any country was going to usurp the dominance of USA in track and field such nation must be Nigeria.
"He just could not fathom what had happened to that dream."
Nigeria has only ever won one gold medal in athletics since it started competing at the Olympics in 1952 when Chioma Ajunwa won the long jump upon her return from a two-year drugs ban.
That figure, though, could double if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decide to upgrade the Nigerian 4x400m team, including Bada, which finished second at the 2000 Games in Sydney behind the United States, who were recently disqualified after one of its members, Antonio Pettigrew, admitted he was using banned performance-enhancing drugs at the time.
Bada claimed that lack of Government investment was behind Nigeria's failure to win a medal in Beijing and that they should reward medallists with financial incentives.
He also said that the lack of Nigerian athletes now attending universities in the US on scholarships was affecting their potential.
Bada said: “After the Atlanta’96 feat in the USA when Nigeria won her first and only gold medals at the Olympic and the rewards that followed, many athletes upped their training, hoping to emulate these stars who got both cash and other incentives like promotions in their work places.
"Most of these athletes carried the spirit to the Sydney Games but to their utter disbelief, there were no repeat of such reward systems.
"Perhaps, the Government was not too pleased by the silver and bronze medals the athletes toiled day and night to achieve.
"There was no reception to even welcome them.
"Instead, it was mere handshake, as reward.
“It was after this Games that the leg drain set in
“By the time we were hosting the All African Games in Abuja in 2003, the last generation of those in their primes like Mary Onyali-Omagbemi were almost on their way out and the American collegiate system that offered our athletes scholarships had tightened the noose, there by making it difficult to continue to supply us quality athletes."
Bada is urging the Government to back a system to help Nigeria's athletes begin preparations for London 2012 now and also to prevent its top athletes defecting to other countries, like Francis Obikwelu, who switched to Portugal and finished second behind Justin Gatlin in the 100m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
He said: “Why can’t we start our own collegiate system to take care of athletes through scholarship?
"We need to put in place structures to reward excellence through hard work.
"Once an athlete knows that he is on a programme and does not need to think of where his next meal will come from or how to fund his training, he or she can concentrate fully on the business of sport.
“That is how is done elsewhere.
"We must begin to think and act in the best interests of our sportsmen and women.
"Once basic things of life are taken care of, I don’t see any reason why any serious athlete will be thinking of dumping Nigeria for another country.
"Francis Obikwelu was a potential Olympic medallist as a Nigerian athlete, no doubt but better incentive and preparation made him narrowly missing the gold for Portugal, his adopted country at the Athens Olympic.”
"If want gold medals in four years time, now is the time to begin preparation.”
Originally published in www.insidethegames.com