As the track and field events of Rio 2016 begin today, Nigerians are banking on world class sprinter and long jumper, Blessing Okagbare. The 27-year-old Nike ambassador seems, without a doubt, to be the country’s best bet for medals at the ongoing Olympic Games.
Okagbare has a lot to prove, not just for her country, Nigeria, but also for herself in maintaining the title of Africa’s fastest woman, and also solidifying her place as a world class athlete, especially considering that last year was not one of her best. But to accomplish this, Okagbare must contend with and beat some of the world’s best athletes and title holders like Jamaican duo Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pyrce, the defending champion of the 100m event.
She also has to compete with America’s English Gardener, Tori Bowie and Tianna Bartoletta, the world’s current long jump champion. There is also Muriel Ahoure of Ivory Coast with a new African record of 10.78 seconds, and of course the 24-year-old Dutch, Dafne Schippers, who has been training with male sprinters to improve her take off speed. The Dutch woman also seems to be under a lot of pressure as she happens to be the world’s favourite to win the 100 and 200 meters, with millions of dollars in sponsorship deals at stake.
It appears that each of these women have quite a lot at stake for them, from simply flying their countries flag high in Rio, to the self-fulfilment of earning the title of an Olympic medallist, to cashing in on financial incentives in terms of endorsements and sponsorship deals. There is absolutely no weak link in this competition, if any, it might be Okagbare, given her less than inspiring performance in 2015.
In long jump, Okagbare is up against the American on a winning streak. According to ThisDay, Britney Reese has won every available global title from 2009 to 2013. Predictions are that Reese stands a better chance of retaining her title than Okagbare has to steal it. But there’s the silver and the bronze medal, which Okagbare has won before, so we’ll see. Other contenders in this event are Ivana Spanovic of Serbia, current Australian long jump champion, Brooke Stratton, and Germany’s Sosthene Moguenara.
Regardless of these strong contenders, Okagbare remains one of Nigeria’s greatest athletes, and her ability is not in doubt. Up until last year, when a series of injuries caused her to loose momentum, her career has been on a steady rise. After winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, she followed up with a streak of wins at the African Championships in 2010. By 2013, Okagbare had made her mark as one of the world’s best sprinters having beaten Pryce’s record at the world championships.
Following her 2013 showing at the world championships was a defining performance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she became the fourth woman, in over 85 years of the event, to win both the 100 and 200 metres and to break an existing 12-year-old record for the 100 metres event. Although Nigerians were not very supportive of their star athlete when she lost last year in Beijing, they are looking to her to end the Olympic medal drought that currently plagues the country. Given the poor preparation and drama surrounding Nigeria’s journey to the Olympics, not much is expected from the team. It is unlikely that we will measure up to countries like the US, China, or Japan in this event, but leaving with a medal or two will not be bad.