This is the first piece by Deji Ogeyingo, a Nigerian track & field journalist, for RunBlogRun. He will be appearing twice a week, one Mondays, he will write on Nigerian athletics and Fridays, he will write about African Athletics and other subjects that interest him.
In his first piece, Deji wanted to give us his perspective on Nigerian athletes who have competed for Nigeria, and also the US Collegiate system as well. Nigeria has a tremendous number of athletes who compete in the U.S. system, and also, for other countries.
Nse Imaobong, WU20 Championships, photo by Roger Sedres / World Athletic
We are very lucky to have Deji added to our team. We hope you enjoy his writing and insights!
How the US Collegiate system help churn out the best of Nigeria track and field stars…by Deji Ogeyingbo
Nigeria has a storied history of competing at the top level when it comes to Track and Field, a sport that prides itself as one of the oldest and purest forms of competing. With over half of its medal-haul at the Olympic Games (14 of 24) coming from the Sport, it’s certainly a pointer to the fact that there are immense talent waiting to be harnessed in the country, or in most cases have gone down the drain because of a plethora of reasons.
From the likes of Innocent Egbunike to Mary Onyali or even Blessing Okagbare, all reached the pinnacle of the sport in their various disciplines. There are many others who didn’t get the opportunities to ride the wave that these stars of the countries enjoyed at the top level.
Be it the lack of an enabling environment to help the precocious talents justle education with their track life or the fact that there aren’t adequate resources to help cater for their training or even the lack of quality training equipment, the obvious remains that these athletes have looked for alternative routes than staying in Nigeria.
Countries like Bahrain, Qatar, the United Kingdom, United States of America, just to mention a few, have been welcoming to these talents. However, while most of these countries have gone on to poach Nigeria’s talents to run for them, the United States’ path seems a whole lot beneficial to both parties.
A situation where these athletes get to go to college in the States in their late teens, while they compete for the schools and still being eligible to run for Nigeria has been seen as a win-win by both the athlete, school, and the country. And like every possibility which throws up positives there are bound to be downsides to them, however, it is more of the latter than the former.
Blessing Okagbare is the most popular athlete to start the breakdown with as she has won a glut of medals domestically and International. Don’t be mistaken, she wasn’t the first to go down that route, but she ushered in a period that saw a lot of athletes take the same road.
The two-time World Championships medalist joined the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) in 2008, a place where she was an 11-time All-American and a 15-time conference champion at UTEP, and won the 60m and long jump at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships, setting a Meet Record of 6.87m in the long jump. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. (Editor’s note: Blessing Okagbare is currently under suspension by Athletics Integrity Unit).
Current African Record holder in the women’s 100m Hurdles, Tobi Amusan is another athlete to benefit from the student-athlete scholarship. With several Division I college athletic scholarships to consider, she pitched her tent with UTEP in the fall of 2015, and her career has been on an upward trajectory since then.
Amusan made quite an impact in UTEP as she became only the second athlete for UTEP since it joined C-USA in 2006 to be named C-USA Female Track Athlete of the Year. In 2017, she won the women’s 100m Hurdles at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) finals before turning pro in 2018.
Another Nigerian athlete that has grown in leaps and bound since going to the US on a track scholarship is Divine Oduduru. After emerging as one of the best talents in a sprint from Nigeria, Odurudu joined Texas Tech in 2016 just after he competed at the Olympic Games in Rio.
While studying at the school, Odurudu was a huge success on the track for Texas Tech and won four NCAA titles, one in the 200m and three in the 100m. Some of the records while competing for the school including running one of the fastest 100m and 200m times in 2019 with 9.86 and 19.76 respectively. He also became the first Texas Tech athlete ever to win a 200m National Title.
The last two years have seen a plethora of athletes throng to the States for Student-athlete scholarships. After joining Texas Tech in 2019, Ruth Usoro won the NCAA championship in the women’s triple jump both indoor and outdoor this year.
Mercy Abire who competes in the horizontal jumps competed for Oral Roberts in 2017 and 2018 as a freshman and sophomore. She went on to join Louisiana State University (LSU) representing them in the triple jump and long jump.
Favour Ofili joined her in 2019, and prior to pitching her tent with the school, she had won a handful of laurels for Nigeria at the youth and junior levels. Still a sophomore, Ofili placed 3rd at the 200m at the NCAA Championships this year.
The likes of Yinka Ajayi (Drake University), Knowledge Omovoh (South Carolina), Rosemary Chukwuma (Texas Tech), and Ineh Emmanuel (Caray University) are some of the athletes that have joined the student-athlete scholarship schemes in recent times.
This year alone has seen the likes of Baylor University poach the reigning World Junior Champion in the women’s 400m, Nse Imaobong, and the World Junior Bronze medallist in the men’s Javelin, Nnamdi Chinecherem.
Godson Brume, the younger brother to Tokyo 2020 Olympic Bronze medallist in the women’s long jump, Ese Brume, got the news he’s been signed up by LSU while competing at the World Juniors in Nairobi too.
Student-athletes scholarships have been around for a very long time but the new wave of athletes going to the US on such programs is unprecedented. It’s a system that has been proven to work, with the only downside ensuring that these athletes can’t earn money while competing.
Ultimately, it’s a sacrifice worth making for most of these athletes who leave the shores of Nigeria hoping for greener pastures, and being gifted in track and field has provided an opportunity for them.