For a country that has been going through its worse economic and security phase since independence under the rule of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), Nigeria had a big reason to smile two weeks ago when Tobi Amusan broke the 100m hurdles world record twice at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, United States. Nigerians felt proud of their country, their national anthem and their national flag once again in a long while.
What even made Amusan’s feat more touching was her reaction at the time of the presentation of medals. While she stood on the podium, flanked by those who took the second and third positions, tears welled in her eyes and then streamed down her cheeks. Many Nigerians, who watched it live or watched the video afterwards, confessed that they also shed tears when they heard the Nigerian anthem and saw tears in the eyes of Amusan.
Taking the first position in any international event comes with many advantages. Breaking a world record doubles those advantages. Besides the monetary gain, the name and country of the winner are on the lips of everybody. Only the national anthem of the country of the gold medallist gets played during the presentation of medals. That is why many people know the tune of the national anthems of countries like the United States, Germany, Brazil, etc.
With that achievement, Amusan made Nigeria the global centre of focus and discussion. Nigerians felt proud of themselves and their country wherever they were in the world. The spirit of self-assurance, which has been suppressed in Nigerians for years because of the non-stop depressing news stories emanating from Nigeria, returned, even if momentarily.
The reasons for the tears may have been varied but the main reason many gave for getting emotional over the feat was the feeling of nostalgia about Nigeria’s glorious past and disappointment at what Nigeria has become. Until the end of the 20th century, Nigeria was a force to reckon with in Africa and the globe in track and field events as well as in football, boxing and table tennis. Once the era of a generation of athletes was coming to an end, another set would smoothly take over from them.
However, it did not mean that the gradual rot in the Nigerian system was not affecting the quality of sports in Nigeria before the year 2000. It was just that the full effect was not manifest. But with the turn of the 21st century, especially in the past seven years, Nigeria seemed to have fallen off the ladder and is no longer reckoned with in sports. Most Nigerian athletes began competing for other countries. While other countries were taking the glory of the milestones achieved by Nigerians, Nigerians only got the consolation that such athletes were of Nigerian heritage. All facets of the Nigerian system—economy, security, education, health, manufacturing, infrastructure, agriculture, national cohesion and the like—have been badly affected by the malaise the same way cancer spreads through the human body and corrupts the entire system.
Amusan had broken the world record in the semi-finals at the World Athletics Championships in the hurdles with a time of 12.12 seconds. With 12.20 seconds, Kendra Harrison of the United States had held that record since 2016. In the final, Amusan went further to break her new world record by finishing at 12.06 seconds. However, her finishing time of 12.06 was ruled out because of strong wind speeds, leaving her with 12.12 seconds as her official world record time.
While Nigerians were basking in the euphoria of the record set by Amusan, some non-Nigerians tried to cast doubts over her record. Some pointed at her shoes as the factor. Some pointed at the wind as the factor. Perhaps silently, some hoped to hear that she tested positive for enhancement drugs but that was not to be. To many, it was unusual that a Nigerian should hold the world record in 100m hurdles.
However, Nigerians would not accept any attempt to belittle the feat achieved by their compatriot. When, therefore, four-time Olympic gold medallist, Michael Johnson, raised a question mark on Twitter over the times recorded at the 100m hurdles, he drew the ire of Nigerians. Nigerians on Twitter descended on him like a swarm of bees and never let go even after 24 hours. Following the heat, Johnson had to make other posts to explain himself but Nigerians were not concerned with his explanation.
What Amusan did for Nigeria with that feat was far larger than all that the government has been doing through public relations, advertising and other forms of communications meant to burnish the image of Nigeria. For hours and even a day or two, Nigerians put aside all the negative issues bedevilling Nigeria and enjoyed the feeling the victory of Amusan brought.
Sports commentator, Tim Hutchings, could not hold his excitement as he exclaimed, “I cannot believe it! She’s done it again. Two world records in one night and she makes history by becoming Nigeria’s first world champion. What a way to do it and what a stage on which to discover sporting immortality. Records can be broken; titles will stand the test of time; and tonight, she’s done both – two world records. 12.06! Tonight will never, never be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to be here.”
Just about two weeks after that, athletes gathered at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England and Amusan showed that her performance was not a fluke by not just defending her Commonwealth Games title but also setting a new Commonwealth Games record of 12.30 seconds in 100m hurdles. In addition, she and three other athletes (Favour Ofili, Rose Chukwuma and Grace Nwokocha) also won the 4x100m relay. Other Nigerian athletes also won medals at the games, bringing smiles to the faces of Nigerians despite the unpleasant news from Nigeria.
Though sporting competitions are not used to determine the strongest and wealthiest countries, countries pay serious attention to them. While the Cold War was on, the former USSR and the USA saw every Olympics as an opportunity to rub shoulders. When the USSR broke up in 1991, that competition fizzled out. Soon after that, China rose as a strong force in technology and economy and began a subtle contest with the USA over which country will come first at the Olympics. At the last 2020 Tokyo Olympics, eventually held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US won 39 gold medals, while China won 38 gold medals. Japan came third with 27 gold medals, while the United Kingdom came fourth with 22 gold medals. Nigeria managed to get one silver medal and one bronze medal. This was a country that won two gold medals in 1996! A look at the medal table at the Tokyo Olympics showed a subtle ranking of countries in terms of technological advancement and size of the economy.
Many of the athletes that made Nigeria proud are not based at home. The good thing is that they did not choose to participate for other countries. What is going for the athletes is not the result of something exceptional that Nigeria did for them. It is more because of individual abilities and determination. If such abilities and determination are given some support by the government, they will blossom into global achievements because Nigerians have the fighting spirit to excel. All they need is a conducive environment and relevant support.