Okagbare, Others Begin Quests for Athletics Medals for Nigeria

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Duro Ikhazuagbe

Africa and Commonwealth sprint champion, Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor is at the top of Nigerian athletes who will begin their search for Olympic medals when the track & field events of Rio2016 begin today at the Estádio Olímpico João Havelange.

Without doubt, the Sapele-born Okagbare appears Nigeria’s best chance for a podium appearance in the double sprint events as well as the women’s long jump.

However, the double gold medalist in the 100m and 200m at the Glasgow Games is up against a very quality field in the 100m event including defending champion Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pyrce who is bidding to become the first woman to win a hat-trick of blue ribband gold at the games following her wins in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.

While Fraser-Pyrce’s historic bid looks a herculean task going by her pre-Games performances in the circuit where she has only managed a legal run inside 11 seconds (10.93 seconds at the Jamaican trials) due mainly to a toe injury, it is much more for Okagbare who is also bidding to become the first Nigerian to win a 100m medal at the quadrennial event.

Since she made a bolt out of the blues emergence into the sprints stage in 2010 when she ran 11.10 seconds and below seven times before joining the sub-11 seconds club the following year, this is Okagbare’s worst pre-major championships/games season as she has legally failed to break 11 seconds this year,only bandying the wind-aided 10.92 seconds she ran in Székesfehérvár,Hungary on July 18 as her only claim to that effect.

With her rivals such as world leader Elaine Thompson (10.70 seconds personal season’s best, SB) of Jamaica, the American trio of English Gardener (10.74 seconds SB),Tori Bowie (10.78 seconds SB) and reigning world long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta (also 10.78 seconds SB) as well as new African record holder Muriel Ahoure (10.78 seconds SB) and the flying Dutch woman, Dafne Schippers who holds a 10.83 seconds personal season’s best red hot in the pre-games circuit, Okagbare will need to not only legally duck inside 11 seconds in Rio,she also needs to break her 10.79 seconds personal best to be sure of an historic podium appearance.

While the 100m looks like an impossible task to accomplish by the beautiful, seven-time Nigerian blue ribband queen ,the half lap even looks more herculean if she chooses to remain on the track at the expense of the long jump pit due to the clash in schedule.

Okagbare’s love for the event seems to have diminished since she finished third at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow three years ago as she rarely runs it. This will surely count against her and with a 22.58 seconds personal season’s best,the best she can hope for will be to just be among the finalists.

Holland’s Schippers, the reigning world champion, with a 21.93 seconds world lead looks the hot favourite to add Olympic gold to the world title she won last year with Bowie, who won bronze in Beijing last year and Thompson who raced Schippers to the finish line in second place at the Worlds favoured to share the remaining space on the podium.

Is the long jump event where she won a fortuitous bronze eight years ago the best bet for Okagbare to return to the podium?
With the unpredictability of the event,this may seem so but a look at the quality of competitors and the Nigerian’s less than inspiring performance in the event pre-Rio do not paint a very positive picture.

Defending champion Britney Reese who won every available global title from 2009 to 2013 is back to form and leading the pack with a huge 7.31m world lead. It is safe to bank on her retain the title she first won four years ago in London where she equalled Chioma Ajunwa’s 7.12m mark as the third joint longest winning mark at the Games.

Following on Resse’s heels are Sosthene Moguenara of Germany who set a personal best of 7.16m in Weinheim, Germany lasy May to jump to number two on the top list for the year and Aussie’s Brooke Stratton who also set a 7.05m personal best in Perth, Australia in March. The trio have jumped above 7m this year and should be challenged by Serbia’s Ivana Spanovic of Serbia (6.95m SB,) who has been very consistent in the circuit this season jumping 6.90 and more.

Okagbare holds a personal season’s best of 6.73m which is 10cm outside the 6.83m her compatriot, Ese Brume jumped in Akure on June 6 at the final of the Athletic Federation of Nigeria Golden League.

Both Okagbare and Brume will need to jump farther than their present bests.The former will need to at least equal the 7.00m personal best she jumped on July 19,2013 at the Herculis Zepter IAAF Diamond League meeting to stand a chance of making the podium while Brume will need to make history as the third Nigerian woman to hit the 7m mark in the event to also wear the tag of a contender.