By Enefiok Udo-Obong
The uproar was vicious. Everyone who was anyone in athletics had an opinion on ‘The List’. There were accusations of bias, nepotism, favoritism, God-fatherism and outright ineptitude. The bitterness was palpable across the oceans and from the beaches of California to the deserts of Abu Dhabi. Nigerian athletes cried “FOUL”. This was the reaction to some names on list of people the Federal Ministry of Sports had released to benefit from the Covid-19 relief fund and also the “Adopt-an-Athlete” Programme. One name in particular, caused the rippling agitation: Ruth Usoro.
At the beginning of 2020, Special Adviser (Media) to the Sports Minister, John Joshua-Akanji confirmed that a would-be Olympian has been ‘adopted’ by a businessman under the ‘Adopt-an-Athlete’ initiative being promoted, by Mr. Dare.
The Chairman of Dakinda Football for Every Home Limited, Mr. Emmanuel Akpakwu, had signed an agreement to pay $20,000 (about N7.2 million) towards the preparation and participation of Ruth Usoro at the upcoming Olympic Games. The documents were signed in the minister’s office at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja. While thanking the Sponsor, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr Sunday Dare charged the athlete not to disappoint the benefactor. He advised her to double her efforts and bring pride to the nation.
There was a nationwide inquest. We have lots of potential Olympic medalists not yet recognized, the naysayers said. Why would anyone think Ruth would win a medal when she was not even good enough to qualify? Qualification for the Olympics in her specialty was unlikely as we hardly have any qualifier in that event for the ladies. Even our national record was not good enough to qualify her for the Tokyo Games. How on earth did her name come up for a grant and big names like Seye Ogunlewe, a three-time national champion in the 100m was not chosen? There were even some athletes that had made the standard to represent Nigeria in Tokyo that had no financial support.
Ruth, a junior college student at the TexasTech was unperturbed. Her focus always total. I had come to know her closely as she comes often to my fitness centre, Fitness Options, with her coach, Late Adu Uruemu to do her strength work which is available for free for athletes all the time as my contribution to the sports that brought me honours. You could not doubt the pretty girl’s dreams and ambition. She was determined to succeed. Many times, my clients (regular working class folks) would see the heavy weights she was carrying and quietly wonder how a ‘small’ girl was so strong. So it was evident that criticism back home did not deter the young girl’s drive to make the qualifying mark in Tokyo.
Ruth Usoro did not disappoint. Barely a year after receiving the grant, she has made history by becoming the first Nigerian athlete (male or female) to qualify for the Olympics in both the Long Jump and Triple Jump, a feat she performed in two consecutive days while competing at the Big 12 Indoor Championships in Lubbock, Texas. Not only did she qualify, she broke the national record in the triple jump with a distance of 14.36 meters. This record was her second in just two month having earlier jumped 14.28 meters in the season opener in January, breaking the 13-year-old record of 14.21 set by Chinonye Ohadugha in 2007 at the All African Games in Algiers. In the Long Jump, Ruth was equally ruthless in performance, winning the Meet with a distance of 6.82 meters. Only two Nigerians have ever jumped longer than her. Olympic Gold medallist, Chioma Ajunwa and Olympic Bronze medallist Blessing Okagbare. Her feat is a great success story for the Minister and his programme and how sponsorship can motivate athletes to excel. Hopefully it would encourage other sponsors to come forth.
These performances were vindication for those that selected her name on the list of those to benefit from programme. One prominent ex-athlete based in the US queried me when I suggested that we should move on as the names of athletes sponsored was at the discretion of the Ministry and the sponsors. “Why are you saying we should move on? We have been tolerating foolishness in our sport and it’s time for us to stand and demand transparency. Let them tell us the criteria for selection.” I advised that we should all in our little way contribute our quota to help our sport and not just make noise over the internet, she replied. “How are we going to change policy if we don’t make noise? You have to show that something is wrong,” the former athlete roared from her base in America. Even some of the current athletes were not left out in the complaints over Ruth. A former 100m National champion bitterly complained to me about his omission when we met at the stadium while I was training some kids in my Athletics Academy. Then he sarcastically begged me to, “Adopt him”. I smiled. He needed to know that sponsors need talent and level heads at the same time and in selecting athletes for support and sponsorship, there is much more to it than the talent on the field of play. And to a lot of people, journalists, ex-athletes and some of the current athletes, the modalities and technicalities of seeing a prospective champion is lost on them.
But Miss Ruth Usoroh has answered all these critics on the field of play with ruthless execution.