Nigeria seeks Olympic glory despite global COVID-19 scourge

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Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

 

Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics is finally upon us. A tournament like no other, the opening, on Friday was with cascading fireworks and made-for-TV choreography that unfolded in a near-empty stadium to fit the theme of the moment, coronavirus.

As the opening played out, devoid of the usual crowd energy, the Olympics convened amid simmering anger and disbelief in much of the host country, but with hopes from organizers that the excitement of the sports to follow would offset the widespread opposition.

The Olympics is considered the world’s most prestigious sports competition, with more than 200 nations participating. However, this year’s edition almost one year overdue is held under unprecedented conditions including tight quarantine rules to prevent the spread of covid-19. International and domestic fans are banned from all venues in Tokyo. Yet, over a hundred Olympic-related infections have emerged since July 1, while the Japanese capital logged 1,359 new infections.

Top sponsors, including Toyota and Panasonic, opted not to send their representatives to the opening event, with polls showing the Japanese public remaining largely against moving forward with the sprawling gathering in which about 11,000 athletes will contest 339 medal events across 50 disciplines in 33 sports over two weeks.

It is an unusual competition for Nigeria which accounts for 60 athletes competing in 12 sports. The African giants represent a meagre 0.5 per cent of the total sportspeople at the Japanese capital, the nation’s second-fewest contingents since Barcelona 1992.

Still, Nigerians are optimistic that this crop will eclipse the country’s best finish in 1996. In Atalanta, Team Nigeria won an unprecedented two gold medals, one silver, and three bronze. Chioma Ajunwa ended the country’s gold medal wait in the women’s Long Jump event. Nigeria’s U-23 team’s dramatic triumph over Argentina yielded another.

The women’s 4x400m relay team won silver. There were more personal triumphs in Athletics. Falilat Ogunkoya came third in the women’s 400m; Mary Onyali also finished third in the women’s 200m while Duncan Dokiwari won Nigeria’s almost customary medal in boxing in the men’s super-heavyweight class.

Since then, Team Nigeria added just one more gold in 2008 and failed to pick any medal in 2012. The nation’s only podium finish at the last edition was bronze, thanks to the Dream Team VI led by Mikel Obi. But without any representative in football, Nigeria’s medal hopes have shifted to basketball.

After three exhibition matches in Las Vegas, the D’Tigers, courtesy of two victories over the USA and Argentina, were given a power ranking of four. Despite defeat to Argentina, it is expected that Mike Brown’s team would at least nick a bronze medal with a roster stacked with NBA players.

If they get the rub of the ball and their perimeter shooting stays strong, D’Tigers could win Africa’s first-ever medal in Basketball in Tokyo. The women’s team is not as buoyant, though, especially after two players – Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams – were disallowed from wearing the green of Nigeria in Tokyo. Although with little luck in their group stage matches, they could also make a run for bronze.

In athletics, queen of track, Blessing Okagbare, and Tobi Amusan carry the hopes of the country in the 100m, 200m, and 100m hurdles. While Okagbare is ranked fifth in the world going to Tokyo, Amusan is fourth in the 100m hurdles. Divine Oduduru can spring surprises in the 200m though.

But if Ese Brume can do anything beyond 7 metres in the women’s long jump in Tokyo, she will have a very good shot at a medal. And she has beaten that mark before. Indeed, she did it recently, leaping to 7.17m in May at a meet in the United States of America. That distance beat the 7.12m Ajunwa achieved to win a gold medal and is also the new African record in the event. It is the longest any woman has jumped this year.

There is also Odunayo Adekuoroye, who is heralded as a medal surety. She proclaimed her top credentials at the Poland Open in June when she defeated Helen Maroulis of the United States, the reigning Olympic champion in the 57kg division in wrestling. She then beat 2016 silver medalist, Valeria Koblova, before claiming the title when her Belarusian opponent, Iryna Kurachkina, pulled out.

Team Nigeria captain, Aruna Quadri, will officially start his Tokyo 2020 journey on 27 July hoping to go just one step further than he did in 2016. The 32-year-old reached the quarter-finals of the men’s table tennis event in Rio five years ago, becoming the first African to ever go that far. One more win and he would have been guaranteed at least a historic bronze medal.

Already, about five of the nation’s athletes have been eliminated barely 24 hours after the opening ceremony. Yet there is the hope of glory from the remainder.

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