- leads Team Nigeria’s quest for medals
Team Nigeria track and field captain, Blessing Okagbare does not cut the picture of an athlete on whom the hope of over 150 million Nigerians rest for medals at the Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championship in athletics which begins at the Beijing National Stadium, popularly called Bird’s Nest, on Saturday.
Since she arrived, a little over a week ago, Okagbare has been all smiles, exchanging banters with all and sundry, blessing athletics fans and buffs with smiles and greetings, the only time you see a stoned faced Okagbare is when it is time to work out.
Mere passing by Okagbare revealed an athlete who has subjected herself to all the rigorous training one needs to be best in the world.
Now a familiar face across the globe, especially to members of the sports family, for Okagbare, the Beijing National Stadium holds special memory.
At 19, when most kids are still looking for a sense of direction, Okagbare was already on the world stage winning an Olympic medal in front of a 91,000-capacity crowd at the Bird’s Nest in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Though she won a bronze medal in women’s long jump, Okagbare treasures the medal and the stadium that launched her on the global stage.
She said, “The stadium in Beijing means a lot to me because that was the track I won my first and most priceless medal. Before the 2008 Olympics, I never understood what it meant to be an Olympian and a medalist but I was able to achieve that at the age of 19 years which makes it a very great memory.”
In sports, an unknown athlete sometimes springs surprises, beating established stars because they are not under pressure. Now, Okagbare is not the budding athlete of 2008, but a big name in track and field that is already a global brand. Will her new status be an advantage or disadvantage?
“I will say it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage because over the years, I have learnt so much which has really made me the woman I am today. I do not see any disadvantage being a global star, it only proves to the world that you are simply moving forward, improving and getting better at what you do,” she explained.
The bronze medal she won in 2008 may be priceless, but in 2015, Okagbare does not want to be blessed with either silver or bronze, “My goal for Beijing is to win that gold medal that my profile is missing.”
It is not only Blessing that does not have a gold medal, since the first World Championship in Helsinki, Finland in 1983, Nigeria has never won a gold medal, so the whole nation is hoping and praying that God will crown Okagbare’s hard work with a gold medal in Beijing.
To win the gold medal, Okagbare has to overhaul a strong field that includes 28-year-old Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
The Jamaican sprinter has posted the fastest time in the world in the women this year, a blistering 10.74 clocking in Paris, and the joint second-fastest time with a 10.79 c in her native Kingston.
Then there are three Americans, first is Tori Bowie, who emerged as a world-class sprinter in 2014. The 24-year-old blitzed to a 10.81 clocking to win the American title in Eugene in June, within 0.01 of her lifetime best.
Then English Gardner, the second-fastest woman in the world this year at 10.79.
The third American is little known Jasmine Todd, who proved she is no slouch by running a personal best of 10.92 to qualify.
Moscow 2013 Silver medalist Murielle Ahoure of Cote d’ Ivore Ahoure will also pose a serious threat.
Also in the running for the top prize is flying Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers, old warhorse Veronica Campbell-Brown, Pan American Games champion, Sherone Simpson and Natasha Morrison.
Not to be counted out is Trinidad and Tobago’s 2011 word bronze medalist Kelly-Ann Baptiste and compatriot Michelle-Lee Ayhe, but our girl, Okagbare is a top contender for the top prize.
Okagbare is also expected to lead the Nigeria 4x100m team that includes Gloria Asunmu, Stephanie Kalu, Cecilia Francis and Deborah Odeyemi. The team alongside Jamaica and America are strong contender for medals.
Nigeria 4 x400m women team of Patience Okon George, Regina George, Oluwatosin Adeloye, Rita Ossai, and Funke Oladoye are also medal favourite, but they have to contend with a strong America team of Francena McCorory, Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross Phyllis Francis and Natasha Hastings.
The Jamaican team that finished second at the World Relays and, with Russia, represents another threat to Nigeria.
Britain finished third at the IAAF World Relays and three of that team – Eilidh Child, Anyika Onuora and Seren Bundy-Davies, are also among favourite with the inclusion of Christine Ohuruogu.
Outside the relays, Doreen Amata in the high jump, Miles Ukoma and Tosin Oke have a chance of making the finals. Weyinmi Lindsay 100m hurdles, Amaka Ogoegbunam 400m hurdles, Tega Odele 200m, and Uhunoma Osazuwa are contending with a very strong field, but the unpredictability of athletics is one its strongest attraction, they should not be counted out.