Ese Brume at the 2019 World Championships in Doha (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature

Coronavirus pandemic puts Nigeria's Olympic hopefuls’ aspirations on pause


When 2019 World Championships bronze medallist Ese Brume flew into Nigeria in March, it was part of a straightforward plan: to compete at the National Sports Festival – Nigeria’s biggest multi-sport competition - and then return to Cyprus where she has been based since 2016 as an undergraduate at Eastern Mediterranean University.

However, almost four months after her arrival in Nigeria, Brume, the 2014 Commonwealth champion and the world’s No.3 ranked long jumper, is still in the country due to the coronavirus pandemic which has disrupted living and travel conditions across the world. The Sports Festival, initially billed for March was indefinitely postponed just days before the start, and once the lockdown began in some Nigerian states, much like elsewhere across the continent and the world, postponements of the African Championships in Algeria and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics quickly followed.

Brume spent the first month of her return in Akure, South-West Nigeria, where she had access to training facilities before the lockdown. However, she had to return to Benin City where the facilities are now shut and has had to resort to doing workouts at home and going to the gym when she can. The three-time African champion had anticipated a great outing in Tokyo this year, but now she waits with the world to fulfill her dream of going for gold at the Olympics.

“I’m trying to cope with the current situation but it has not been easy,” Brume said. “Covid-19 happened suddenly and I’m trying to manage as best as I can and hope that things will become normal eventually. Postponing the Olympics was kind of sad but what can we do? Hopefully when it is time for the Olympics, we will all be ready, because right now we aren’t fully training. I’m just here and waiting for this to pass.”

Itsekiri locked down with training group in Arizona

The pandemic threatens to derail the Olympic hopes of a new generation of Nigerian athletes. With several first time national champions in 2019, a number of emerging athletes are expected to make their Olympic debut in Tokyo, but the coronavirus has cut short their opportunities to qualify for now. National 100m and 200m champion Usheoritse Itsekiri is the only one of those who has qualified already, running 10.02 to win 100m bronze at the 2019 African Games.

When Itsekiri left Nigeria to the US for the first time to join the ALTIS training group in Arizona, he had no idea that the world was about to shut down.

 

Adam Gemili and Usheoritse Itsekiri at the 2019 World Championships (Getty Images)Adam Gemili and Usheoritse Itsekiri at the 2019 World Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

“If I had foreseen this situation, I would have probably remained in Nigeria because it’s important to be with family at this point in time, but I’m here alone in the US,” he said. “During the lockdown we couldn’t train as a group anymore. Three of us live in the same housing complex: myself, Anaso Jobodwana and Schillonie Calvert. We used to walk down to a park that’s less than five minutes away and do some grass runs. We found a track that’s about 380m. It wasn’t the best of tracks but we used that alongside the park just to stay fit.

“I feel terrible about the postponement of the Olympics by a year because there were so many plans and pushing it by a year is pushing all the plans one year back. Some people say it’s more time to prepare but regrouping and starting all over again, making the same plans you made in 2019 for 2020 and not knowing if it will work, waiting for a long time and doing the same thing is very difficult.”

Forced to improvise

During the lockdown back in Nigeria, national 100m champion Joy Udo-Gabriel, a student at the University of Lagos, has had to improvise by using household equipment as weights for training, whilst also running on the road in her estate. The 2018 Commonwealth 4x100m medallist, who sensationally broke into Nigeria’s senior team that year at the age of 18, sees a silver lining in the postponement of the Olympics.

 

Nigerian sprinter Joy Udo Gabriel (Getty Images)Nigerian sprinter Joy Udo Gabriel (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

She said, “It takes a lot of mental alertness to get ready for a competition of that magnitude so when I heard about the postponement, I felt it gave me an opportunity to work on one or two things, because I’m yet to meet the qualifying standard for the Olympics. For me this is the time to get ready mentally, spiritually and otherwise. It’s like a second chance for me to prepare because I do not want to only run the relays at the Olympics.”

Emmanuel Ojeli, the reigning national 400m champion after dominating the event in Nigeria in 2019, says there is a world of difference between how he was training before the pandemic and now. Ojeli broke into the national scene in 2019 and emerged as a finalist in the men’s 400m at the African Games and bronze medallist in the 4x400m.

“Many things have changed,” Ojeli said. “I only get to train about twice a week now unlike before when we used to train at least four times weekly. I felt so sad when I heard about the postponement of the National Sports Festival, African Championships and Olympics because I was in good shape. I was angry because I was looking forward to running under 45 seconds and competing at my first African Championships, but now I need to put in more effort to correct certain things.”

Drain on financial resources

Patience Okon-George has consistently featured for Nigeria for the best part of a decade and retained her national 400m title in 2019. She lives in the southern city of Calabar where a lockdown wasn’t enforced. But revealed that she spent most of her time indoors just to stay safe. Their stadium was shut for some weeks but is now open, so the two-time African Championships 400m bronze medallist and four-time Nigerian champion now has access to the stadium.

However, she bemoans the manner her plans fell through due to the postponement of the major competitions for 2020. “I was already in good shape and I knew I was ready. The postponement of the Olympics was quite difficult to come to terms with because if everything had gone according to plan, by now we would have been done with the Festival and would have been preparing towards the African Championships and then the Olympics. We have already spent a lot of money buying vitamins and supplements to keep ourselves going but we can’t recoup the money spent because there are no competitions for now.”

 

Nigerian sprinter Patience Okon-George at the Commonwealth Games (AFP/Getty Images)Nigerian sprinter Patience Okon-George at the Commonwealth Games (AFP/Getty Images) © Copyright

 

Perhaps Nigeria’s most exciting young prospect and likely successor to Okon-George’s national dominance in 400m is Favour Ofili, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019. From emerging African U18 champion in both 200m and 400m in Abidjan, she went on to claim the national 200m title and then win 400m silver at the African Games in Rabat. Making her World Championships debut in Doha, she reached the 400m semi-finals in a new personal best of 51.51, agonizingly close to the 51.35 qualifying standard for the Olympics. For now, the coronavirus outbreak has put paid to her plans of automatic qualification for her first ever Olympics.

“It’s very painful because most of us have spent a lot of money to prepare for these competitions and even went out of our way to try to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “I had spent a lot to prepare for the National Sports Festival with the hope that I would run Tokyo 2020 qualifying times there, but now all our plans are scattered.”

Ofili, a student at the University of Port-Harcourt, says she has to make do with workouts at home or running on the road in order to stay fit. “I am still trying to keep fit so that I can bounce back because I want to go for the Olympics; time is running, so it’s not too far away anymore.”

No domestic competitions on the horizon

Despite the lockdown in Nigeria being eased at the end of June and restrictions on interstate travel lifted, there seem to be no competitions in sight for Nigeria’s athletes for now. There has been word that the postponed National Sports Festival could now happen in October, but with the pandemic unabating, nothing is certain for now. Nigeria’s Ministry of Sports has announced it is still reviewing its plans and calendar and will soon release a COVID-19 Sports Code. In the meantime, most stadia remain shut although gyms have started to reopen.

Most of Nigeria’s Olympic hopefuls now face an anxious wait until 2021 to see if they can join the nation’s established stars such as Blessing Okagbare, Tobi Amusan, Chukwuebuka Enekwechi and Brume as well as the exciting men’s 100m trio of Divine Oduduru, Raymond Ekevwo and Itsekiri who have all already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. For Brume and Itsekiri their attention for now will have shifted to when they will be able to return to their respective bases, as it doesn’t seem likely they will be able to leave or return to Nigeria anytime soon.

Yemi Olus for World Athletics