An Amazing Year for Lesser Sports

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2018 REVIEW…2018 REVIEW…2018 REVIEW…

Two standout events of 2018 were the World Cup in Russia and the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. The Super Eagles that represented Nigeria at the global football showpiece was the youngest of all the 32 teams. As the result of the experimentation of Franco-German tactician, Gernot Rohr, in his first two years in charge, nobody expected any miracle from happening at the Mundial. In this first part of the review of sports in Nigeria in 2018, DURO IKHAZUAGBE takes a look at the so-called lesser sports given little attention yet produce the best results when it matter most.

In barely hour from now, the year 2018 would have become history. The journey of 365 days would have come to a full stop. As a FIFA World Cup year, Super Eagles performance at the Mundial in Russia appears to be the benchmark for gauging the success or otherwise of the sports sector in the country. The reason is because: Nigerians eat, drink and do everything that concerns the Beautiful Game with utmost passion. Whether such a decision is fair to the women’s game where the Super Falcons have bestrode the African Women’s Nations Cup like birthright with little accolade and attention from all that matter in the country’s sports, is a matter for another day

‘Lesser sports’ like Table Tennis, Basketball, Wrestling and Badminton who exceeded what football brought to Nigeria in the year under review, have continued to remain in the background despite Aruna Quadri and colleagues winning silver in the team event of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia and Aruna in particular also went as far as the quarter final stage at the ITTF World Championship. In basketball, D’Tigress won the AfroBasket as well as bagged ticket to the 2019 World Cup. Their male counterparts, D’Tigers as defending champions went all the way to the final of the Men’s AfroBasket but lost and still qualified for the World Cup. Odunayo Adekuoroye won gold in freestyle wrestling at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast 2018. It was an addition to the gold she claimed at the 2014 Games in India as well as the World Championship bronze medal of 2016.

2018 was also a very good year for badminton, a hitherto lesser sport totally ignored and left to rot like most other racket games. But Francis Orbih who took over the mantle of leadership at the BFN, has turned around the fortunes of the sport. It has continued its steady climb to the top in the continent. Through personal efforts like what Daniel Igali is doing for wrestling, Orbih has shown to the rest of Africa that Nigerian badminton players are podium stuff. From one competition to the other around Africa, Dorcas Adesokan and Aanu Opeyori have become the most feared  players in Team Nigeria. Yet, this is the same sport players have been begging for funds from the Federal Ministry of Sports to attend events before Orbih took charge.

The story of Nigeria’s maiden outing at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, North Korea reads like a fairytale. Team Nigeria’s Bobsled and Skeleton team, The ‘Ice Blazers’ made up of the quartet of Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeiga, Simi Adeagbo and Ngozi Onwumere created a new identify for Nigeria. Of course as novices in the sport who had less than few weeks preparation with no known coach of the sport as guide, they finished 19th out of the 20 teams in the event. They were celebrated for breaking new grounds in sports for Nigeria. For Adigun in particular, transiting from being a hurdler to Bobsled was simply an adventure.

If Super Eagles could not go beyond the Group Stage at Russia 2018, celebrating those who were considered infinitesimal in reckoning but turned out the ‘head corner stone’ is definitely not out of place.

Nigeria’s Special Sports athletes, like always have remained the bedrock of the country’s sports. In 2018 like in the previous years, they turned their disability to ability. The Para weightlifters took away the gloom that enveloped the country’s contingent when after several days of competition, there was no gold medal recorded yet for Nigeria at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Roland Ezuruike and Paul Kehinde won gold and silver in the men’s event while women’s heavyweight champions Ndidi Nwosu and Esther Onyema harvested gold in that category. Lucy Ejike narrowly lost the gold of that same class to settle for a precious silver. The medals they won contributed immensely in helping Team Nigeria to a decent finish on the final medals’ table of the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Four years ago Team Nigeria dominated the track and field events at Glasgow 2014 Games with Blessing Ighoteguonor Okagbare the star athlete winning the sprint double in the 100 and 200m. She left the long jump gold for her fellow Delta athlete, Ese Brume to smile away with. But this year, with an inconsistent season caused by recurring injuries, Okagbare was in Gold Coast for just the 4x100m relay event so as not to aggravate the healing process she was going through. But Oluwatobiloba Amusan ensured that Team Nigeria had a track and field gold to celebrate. She gave signal of what to expect at the Games when she dusted reigning World Champion Sally Pearson in the semi final of the World Indoor Championships. She shocked Jamaica’s 2015 World Championship winner, Danielle Williams to win the 100m hurdles gold in her season’s best time of 12.68sec. It was just three seconds short of the Games record of 12.65.

After years in the doldrums, Handball found a new energy in Sam Ocheho. He disbanded the senior national team and introduced  the Prudent Energy Handball League. To ensure steady inflow of talents to the senior cadre, he introduced the Under-12 and Under-15 championship. In his words: “From what we have seen in the national team we need to start using younger players, we need to go back and start using fresh legs.

“This game is very physical and if we need to regain the top stop in Africa, we must go back to the youths.”

He did the self-reassessment of the Nigerian situation after the not to convincing performance at the continental championship in Gabon. Today, handball is creeping back into the consciousness of Nigerians.