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Olympic bronze medallist, Deji Aliu, reveals the many problems that have dogged Nigerian athletics, KAZEEM BUSARI writes
He was well known for his outspokenness during his time on the tracks but many years after retirement, Athens 2004 Olympics bronze medallist, Deji Aliu, will not stop pointing out where Nigeria got it wrong in athletics.
Aliu was discovered to be a talented sprinter from his secondary school in Surulere, Lagos in 1991, but he shot to prominence at national competitions from the following year.
One of the competitions that brought him out was the Athletic Federation of Nigeria’s Classic Competitions which were organised monthly. He was named best overall in the 100m event between 1992 and 1995. In 1995, he set the Classic record, 10.02, which has yet to be broken.
“I was discovered through the Under-20 programmes but today, the programme is hardly organised well. I wonder how they bring young athletes to compete at major events like the Mobil championships with just six months training,” Aliu, who set a personal best of 9.95 seconds to win 100m gold at the Abuja 2003 All-Africa Games, said.
“It shouldn’t work that way; the athlete should be made to go through several junior programmes before going to the elite competitions in order to build confidence and experience. This is one of the reasons some of the younger athletes fail at major events.”
Aliu became a champion in his second participation in the Classic events. But he did not stop at that as he pushed himself until he became the national junior champion, West Africa junior champion, Africa junior champion and eventually, world junior champion.
“These experiences gave me the confidence to face the elite athletes at the senior level without feeling inferior.
“Back then, we have what was referred to as invited junior athletes. The juniors were invited to compete alongside the elite athletes and we were treated the same way as the foreign-based professionals. I was competing with the likes of Chidi Imoh, Olapade Adeniken and the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond). There was no intimidation because I knew I was ready for the challenge. There was nothing else for me to compete for at the junior level.
“Beside me, Francis Obikwelu, Mercy Nku, Endurance Ojokoko, Bisi Afolabi and Josephine Ogbeide and a few others were all discovered through the junior championships and were nurtured to the top level. We were in the same camp together at different times to prepare for events. We were truly juniors in all aspects but we had good coaches and programmes that helped us grow. We were unbeaten at the classics events.
“Unfortunately, the under 18 we’re having now is far from being a national event,” he said.
Nigeria at London Olympics
Aliu had believed Nigeria would win at least two medals from athletics at the London Olympic Games, but he was disappointed that medal hopeful Blessing Okagbare crashed the way she did.
He said, “What happened to Blessing had happened to me in my career. She could have done better at the London Olympics if she had intelligent people around her. The people around her at the games were not technically sound. They were only making her feel she had arrived.
“She was in shape to win medals but I think she was not sure of herself, and the pressure was so much that she could not really plan. If she had conserved more energy in the early stages, she could have finished with a medal.”
“Oludamola Osayomi should not have started the relay event. She is an athlete that builds her speed as she progresses. She’s a world class sprinter but it was technically wrong to allow her start the relay,” he added.
Nigeria’s male athletes have not been as dominant on the track as the women unlike in the past. But Aliu pointed out that the problems were in the developmental programmes.
He said, “It wasn’t that the male athletes were more dominant on the track than the women in the past. I think it was because the men got more mentioned; the women were equally good during that period.
“The 400m women’s event was a big battle among the women then. There were Falilat Ogunkoya, Fatima Yusuf, Charity Opara and Bisi Afolabi, all top athletes. So it’s not like we’re seeing the emergence of the women; it’s simply that we don’t have top athletes anymore.
“We lost it when we neglected the junior championships and other developmental programmes. We’re deceiving ourselves if we think our women are doing well better than the men; none of them is doing great at the moment. We’re not winning anything outside Africa .”
He added, “Our relay teams are not much of a team, that’s why we have problems these days. I recall Nigeria’s relay event at the 7th IAAF World Championship in Seville in 1999 where we won bronze. The four of us – Innocent Asonze, Francis Obikwelu, Daniel Effiong and I – understood one another. Effiong was nursing an injury so he told me not to get off the check mark before taking the baton in order not to stretch him. I knew this, so I waited for him while trotting on a spot.”
The team went on to win bronze at the championship. But they were disqualified six years later when Asonze failed a doping test.
“Another problem which I’ve noticed among Nigeria ’s sports teams is that coaches don’t respect the opinions of athletes. This has affected us terribly especially in athletics,” he said.
“At the Athens 2004 Olympics, our German coach felt no shame in coming to me at night for advice on how to handle the team. He said there were interventions in the team and needed someone who could relate with the athletes. He showed his humility and I was willing to work with him, and together we devised a plan that actually worked for the team. But these days, coaches think they know everything and eventually draw up plans that don’t work.”
On Usain Bolt and Jamaican athletes
“The Jamaicans started working on their programmes many years back, they never relented because there were structures to follow. There were clubs with mandates to unearth new talents and integrate the athletes into their national programmes. That was how people like Usain Bolt emerged,” he said.
“I believe London 2012 was Bolt’s last dominance at the Olympics. His victory in the 100m in London was closely challenged by Yohan Blake. I think Blake or someone else will take over at the next Olympics in Brazil. If you observe, Bolt was not fantastic before the London Games; he only excelled at the Olympics so that says a lot about what is to be expected.”
Aliu’s first gold at the senior level was during the 2003 All-Africa Games in Abuja . That year meant a lot to him.
“The year 2003 was my best in athletics; that year was like the icing on the cake for me. That was when I virtually won everything after beating some big names in the sport. That was when I beat double Olympic champion, Maurice Greene and a host of other top athletes,” he said.
“My first Olympics was Atlanta’96. I was young and full of life. It was my first major break. I was with the likes of Olapade, Davidson and Osmond Ezinwa. I had earlier beaten these people at the trials before the Olympics so my spirit was high.
“There was no medal then, but it was an eye-opening experience. I felt I had arrived and I was looking at the money I was getting from endorsement.
“If Nigeria was a country with good sports management outfits, someone would have put me on the right path. I would have done better things with my money and time.
“It’s not as if I’m biting my fingers and regretting my actions back then. After all, I was not getting anything from Nigeria . Everything I own from athletics, I got it through personal efforts.”
He recalled his experience at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and concluded that Team Nigeria could have performed better.
He said, “We could have won more medals at the Sydney 2000 Olympics but money issue before the opening ceremony destabilised the team. All the athletes had refused to come out for the team parade when the Nigerian officials said there was no money to pay for our allowances. When the officials saw that the athletes would carry out the threats, the money was released immediately, few minutes to the match past.”