In the summer of 2012, I excitedly undertook a two-week vacation from work to travel back to the UK, where I had grown up and spent most of my adult life, to witness the 2012 London Olympics firsthand.
Why? That year I had an epiphany-to help make Nigerian athletics relevant, once again. I am not normally a dreamer. Actually, at the time of this awakening, I was hard at work as a management consultant at Bain & Company in South Africa, after I completed my MBA at the Kellogg School of Management in the U.S.
If I thought I was going to enjoy following Team Nigeria at the Games, I couldn’t have been more wrong–the 2012 Olympics would be the first Games since Seoul ’88 that Team Nigeria returned without a single medal.
In fact, my enduring memory from London 2012 was witnessing Team USA hit an Olympic scoring record against D’Tigers, Nigeria’s men’s basketball team. I returned to South Africa after the Olympics, thinking about why Nigeria’s Olympic star had dimmed so dramatically and what we could do about it.
Down [sweet] memory lane
Like many Nigerians in my generation, I grew up witnessing great Olympic success for the nation – Nigeria’s first Olympic medal in Athletics (Track and Field) in the Men’s 4x400m at Los Angeles ’84 was only Nigeria’s fourth Olympic medal overall.
To date, Nigeria has won 25 Olympic medals with 13 of them coming from athletics, but crucially since 2008, the nation has only one medal–a bronze from football at the Rio 2016 Games. What went wrong? Why were the two decades from 1990 to 2010 the zenith of Nigeria’s global sporting success, and how can the nation restore its Olympic pride?
These questions assail me because I know that by numbers, and genetically, Nigeria should do better. My country has had a rich history of success in athletics at the Olympics and World Athletics Championships. I found out interestingly, that one of the key reasons Nigeria did so well at the Olympics from Barcelona 92 until Beijing 2008 was major corporate sponsorship in Athletics.
In the two decades from 1990 to 2010, the word ‘Mobil’ was synonymous with Nigeria’s annual Track and Field Olympic trials. Exxon Mobil was the title sponsor of the event, and it was undoubtedly one of the top five national Athletics Trials in the world.
It also compared favourably in the quality of performance with the likes of the trials in the USA, Canada, Great Britain and Jamaica. Nigeria won twenty of the 25 Olympic medals in athletics within this 21-year period.
Thus, the connection between Mobil’s lead sponsorship of Athletics in Nigeria and her Olympic success is undeniable. Unfortunately, the great impact Mobil had on Nigeria’s Olympic movement was not a narrative that was clearly and widely articulated, and the benefits to the brand of remaining behind Athletics waned.
Amidst rumours that prize money which was meant for the Athletes was no longer reaching them, Mobil pulled the plug on their support of the National Trials in 2011. Is it any surprise that Nigeria hasn’t won a single Olympic medal in Athletics since the Beijing 2008 Olympics?
Nigerian Athletics has not had a major long-term corporate sponsor since Mobil pulled out in 2011. This inevitably led to a decline in the sport in Nigeria and has seen the mass exodus in the last decade of Nigeria’s best talents to represent other countries such as Qatar and Bahrain.
Today, the World 400m Champion and third fastest woman in history in the quarter-mile is Salwa Eid Naser. Do not be mistaken- Eid Naser was Ebelechukwu Agbapounwu in 2013 before she pursued her Golden Fleece to Bahrain.
As part of a quartet of Nigerian-born Athletes, she inspired Bahrain to Bronze in the first-ever mixed 4x400m (two men and two women per team) at the World Championships in 2019. I coined the term ‘Bahrain Drain’ as far back as 2016 when we discovered that Bahrain’s entire track team at the World U20 Championships were Nigeria-born.
The four Athletes who won Bahrain’s mixed 4x400m bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships were all born in Nigeria, and each one of them left for Bahrain between 2013 and 2015. They are Musa Isah, Aminat Jamal, Salwa Eid Naser & Abbas Abubakar Abbas.
Though we believe the work we have undertaken at MoC is now helping to turn the tide in Nigeria. Most of these athletes had to seek greener pastures elsewhere to have meaningful careers. Gone are the days all Nigerian athletes, everywhere in the world, rushed home every year for the highly anticipated Mobil Trials to ensure selection for Team Nigeria.
Gone are the days when Nigeria could expect to have two men in the 100m or 200m finals at the Olympics, like at Atlanta ’96 or Barcelona ’92. Gone are the days when Nigeria was always a medal contender in the Olympic relay races–eight of Nigeria’s 13 athletics medals in Olympic history have come in the relays.
Indeed, Nigeria has won medals in all four relay races they have competed in at the Olympics–the men & women’s 4x100m and 4x4x00m and these relay medals should be the most obvious target for Nigeria to return to winning ways at the Olympics.
The good news for Nigeria is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite a difficult decade wallowing in the doldrums relative to the two decades prior, a new generation of athletes are showing the promise that could make Tokyo the nation’s best Olympic showing since Atlanta ’96, where Nigeria won four medals in athletics and six medals in total.
In 2019, Ese Brume won Nigeria’s first World Championship Medal in 6 years in the Long Jump, while Tobi Amusan narrowly missed out on a medal in the 100m Hurdles–they will probably be Nigeria’s greatest individual medal hopefuls in Tokyo, but don’t count out the likes of Divine Oduduru and Blessing Okagbare to contest for 100m or 200m medals.
Seven Nigerian athletes have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, and all of them are medal hopefuls in their individual and/or relay events. Nigeria could end up with five medals in athletics at the Tokyo Olympics-at least two Individual medals and up to three medals in the relay races.
This will not happen by chance. As a nation, we must have a flawless preparation to bring our relay teams to train and compete together despite the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic. Nigeria could actually contest for all five relay medals in Tokyo, but not without putting in the work.
South Africa’s sprinters were already in relay camps even before the coronavirus pandemic, while Nigeria’s 4x100m men lost to Team Ghana at the 2019 African Games, despite having the faster 100m sprinters on paper. Without adequate preparation, another barren Olympic Games for Nigeria in the relays looks inevitable.
Making of Champions (MoC) has played a major role in reviving Nigerian Athletics-that I am pleased to say. It wasn’t long after the 2012 Olympic Games that fate would set me on the path to founding MoC. My next project at Bain after returning from my London 2012 Olympic vacation would be in Nigeria and this coincided with the Eko 2012 National Sports Festival in Lagos.
I made a documentary to show Nigeria’s great potential at the Olympics and how we could realize it. At Eko 2012, I met many of Nigeria’s Olympic greats for the first time, particularly the nation’s three double Olympic medalists in history–Mary Onyali, Falilat Ogunkoya and Enefiok Udo-Obong.
The journey of making the film would eventually take me across the world to meet more Nigerian Olympic medalists, from Innocent Egbunike in the USA, to Glory Alozie in Spain and Francis Obikwelu in Portugal.
Thanks to all of their inspiring stories, the production eventually became the feature-length docu-film, Making of Champions: “The History”–the story of Nigeria’s Rise & Fall at the Olympics, which debuted at the iREP Documentary Film Festival in 2014.
Much of the film was shot, on location, in Jamaica during their annual Secondary School ‘CHAMPS’ to learn the secrets of their incredible Olympic success, and what we saw there gave me the conviction that Nigeria has all the talent and resources to replicate and even surpass the Olympic feats achieved by the likes of USA and Jamaica.
We met many experts in both nations who confirmed Nigeria’s potential and told us as much, even though we as a nation don’t know this about ourselves. The making of the film is ultimately what inspired me to leave my job in South Africa and move back to Nigeria to begin the MoC project in 2013.
We launched MoC Track Club in Lagos in 2016, under the tutelage of Olympic medalists, Deji Aliu and Glory Alozie, who serve as our Head, Sprints Coach and Sprint Hurdles Coach, respectively. Since then, we have embarked on the journey of training a promising group of young athletes, many of whom are on track to appear at their first Olympics in Tokyo.
Promising talents such as National 100m Champion Joy Udo-Gabriel, National 400m Champion Emmanuel Ojeli and National 200m Silver medalist Jerry Jakpa are all strong contenders to make their Olympic debuts in Tokyo, and they are all key members of Nigeria’s relay teams, each having won medals or set records for Team Nigeria in the relays in 2018 and 2019.
Udo-Gabriel, Ojeli, and Jakpa are part of Nigeria’s next generation of Olympians–already ranked well within the Top 100 Athletes globally in their respective events, they are currently in strong Olympic qualifying positions and the national call for Tokyo beckons for them. With a good preparation in the next six months, Nigeria’s best Athletes at home and abroad could combine well to bring home the five projected Olympic medals.
Will it happen?
It is all conjecture at this point, but as well as dreaming at MoC, we are helping our athletes put in the hard work that will turn their and our dreams into reality.