By Duro Ikhazuagbe
The U.J Esuene Stadium in the heart of Calabar will be the focus of athletics aficionados beginning from Tuesday morning as Nigerian athletes begin frantic search for tickets to this summer Olympic Games to be staged in London. It is a sort of mini Olympiad for the country’s athletes, many of whom may never have another shot at the game until four years later when Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) will be hosting the 2016 edition.
Already, close to 400 athletes have arrived the Canaan City to begin that is fast becoming the hub of sports activities in the country. The country’s senior football team, the Super Eagles at the weekend completed a string of 2013 Nations Cup and 2014 World Cup qualifiers at the same venue.
This edition of the championships is also going to be used to select the country’s athletes to 18th African Senior Athletics Championships slated to begin barely a week from now in Port Novo, Benin Republic.
Below is an insight into the gladiators who will make the three-day track & field fiesta worth the while as the nation begins the countdown to London.
100m: Ogho Oghene Egwero is the main man here. All eyes will be on defending champion, to see if he could join the elite class of Davidson Ezinwa, Seun Ogunkoya, Francis Obikwelu, Olusoji Fasuba, Deji Aliu and Obinna Metu who have successfully defended their title in the recent history of the All Nigeria Open. Last year Egwero denied Metu the chance of extending his record as the only man to have won the blue ribband gold four times, back-to-back. Metu will be itching to extract his pound of flesh and stop Egwero from joining the special class of successful defending.
On paper, Egwero, who only a fortnight ago emerged the 100m winner of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria Golden League final has run faster than Metu this season (10.31 to 10.45 seconds). But Metu has always proved to be a big occasion athlete. He won two of his three 100m titles as pre-championships' second best. So it would be foolhardy to bet against him. Others ready to pounce if both Egwero and Metu falter is Peter Emelieze who came home last year as the pre-championships fastest man but ended up with the bronze medal. USA-based Seye Ogunlewe and Patrick Chinedu who holds the pre-championships fastest time of 10.20 seconds are also in the corner waiting to profit from any slip up.
200m: Obinna Metu is the candidate to beat here. Metu will likely want to make up for whatever disappoint he gets in the 100m with a strong finish in the 200m and when he is in full flow, pre-championships form will count for little here. Although, nobody should count out USA-based duo of Stanley Azie and Noah Akwu. Both have recorded the two pre-championships fastest times of 20.67 and 20.71 respectively with Akwu achieving his own early this month in Florida.
400m: Home based police athlete, Segun Ogunkole has every chance to prove here that he is as good as the quarter milers that went to train at the Atlanta camp under Innocent Egbunike’s watch. He proved it last week at the Warri Relays and Grand Prix. But it remains to be seen how Ogunkole is going to overcome Abiola Onakoya who has the country’s fastest time coming to this Olympic trials. The University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP) undergraduate, has been the nearly man of this championships in the last five editions. Last year, all the odds were in Onakoya’s favour to win his first national title only to be beaten to the gold by veteran quarter-miler, Godday James. This time around, Onakoya is also the favourite to win after posting the pre-championships fastest time of 46.08 seconds.
100m: Blessing Okagbare who is favourite here will be creating a championships record of four consecutive 100m win in the last three decades. The best the championships has witnessed were the feats performed by Mary Onyali and Endurance Ojokolo who won the title three times back-to-back. On paper, it looks an easy feat for Okagbare to achieve going by the fact that she is the pre-championships national leader at 11.01 seconds. In All Africa Games reigning queen, Oludamola Osayomi she will have a strong contender for the title. Interestingly, it was Okagbare that stopped Osayomi from joining the group of three-time back-to-back winner in 2009.
Last year, it required a recourse to a photo-finish machine to determine the winner. Osayomi has always proved to have the big occasion temperament and all eyes will surely be on her to see if she could surprise the way she did in Maputo last year at the African Games. Of all the athletes that will line-up today for the 100m heats, only the Ilesa-born two-time All Africa Games queen has ducked inside 11 seconds (10.99 seconds) to become only the fourth Nigerian woman after Onyali, Chioma Ajunwa, Glory Alozie to do so. The duo of Okagbare and Osayomi should be wary of Gloria Asumnu, the sprinter who transferred allegiance to Nigeria only last year. On paper she is the second fastest Nigerian (11.21 seconds) so far this year in the event and a candidate for the podium.
200m: There will be no contest in this event if Blessing Okagbare decides to run the half lap race. She has raced over 200m more this year and has capped a wonderful season so far with a new 22.63 seconds personal best. That time is the fastest time run by a Nigerian woman so far this year and the second fastest in Africa. The fight for the silver will be between USA-based beauty-on-the-track, Lauretta Ozoh who is the second Nigerian to have broken 23 seconds so far this season and Gloria Asumnu who holds a personal season's best of 23.13 seconds.
400m: This is another event a big battle is expected to unfold. About a month ago, defending champion, Abogunloko Bukola seemed untouchable, especially after posting a new personal best of 51.57 seconds which happens to be the fastest time recorded so far by a Nigerian woman in the event this year. Just a fortnight ago, Margaret Etim, an individual 400m silver medal winner at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada two years ago stormed back into the picture with a commanding 51.67 performance to edge Abogunloko to the gold medal in the finals of the AFN Golden League event in Warri.
The battle for the gold is between the duo and the winner will be the one is most composed as they both are on form as they go into the battle. The battle for the bronze will be among the trio of the beautiful Omolara Omotosho who ran 52.06 seconds in Warri early this month; Patience Okon (52.49 seconds) and Policewoman, Josephine Ehigie (52.34 seconds).
As for the High Jump, Long Jump and the 400m hurdles, nothing appears to be on the way stopping Doreen Amata, Okagbare and Ajoke Muizat Odumosu from repeating what they did here a year ago.
100m Hurdles: In the absence of the cat, the mice will always have a field day. That proved to be the case when Toyin Augustus was slammed a two-year ban in 2009 for doping violations. The mouse, in person of Seun Adigun stepped in to win the title in the last two editions to change from mouse to cat. Now, her own cat seems to be unavailable and the mouse should ordinarily have been Jessica Ohanaja who has always played second fiddle to Adigun. But heptathlete, Uhunoma Osazuwa has jumped forward to be the new cat going back what happened at the Warri Grand Prix last week In addition to that, she holds the fastest time (13.28 seconds) in the event so far this year not only in Nigeria but also in Africa. If she listens to wise counsel and registers for the 100m hurdles instead, she can emerge the crown queen of the sprint hurdles.
400m Hurdles: Who can bet against Ajoke Muizat Odumosu retaining her title for the umpteenth time? Certainly none because this University of Alabama, USA graduate has grown from an awful hurdler of a few years ago to a world class talent and a potential finalist in London at the 30th Olympic Games come August. She holds the fastest time (55.03 seconds) in Africa so far this year and the 13th fastest time in the world this year. It is also her third fastest time ever and has run inside 56 seconds on more than four occasions this year.
Long Jump: Blessing Okagbare will always be the favourite to win this event if she decides to add it to the 100m and 200m she is expected to register for at this championship. She holds the best mark (6.64m) by a Nigerian so far this year. In her expected absence, the battle for gold will be between off-form Comfort Onyali who holds a personal season's best of 6.35m this season and home girl, Chinazom Amadi who dominated the local long jump scene like a colossus and capped it with a share of the AFN jackpot prize in the Golden League meetings.
High Jump: Two-time All Africa Games champion, Doreen Amata is still favoured to retain the title she reclaimed last year despite the obvious stiff challenge heptathlete, Uhunoma Osazuwa will pose if she decides to compete in the event. Osazuwa, interestingly holds the pre-championships best mark at 1.84m but lost to Amata when the two went head-to-head during the Warri Grand Prix last week. Amata, whose season has been blighted with injury won with a rather pedestrian 1.78m but has the experience and the big occasion temperament to clear higher.