The atmosphere was electric with thousands of spectators at the Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium. The setting on Monday 12th August, 2013 was perfect for a sprint final; on the blocks were the eight fastest women in the world and up for grabs are the 3 medals, but of more importance is the Gold medal, and the chance to become the world champion in the highly rated 100metres sprint.

And the starter calls the 8 best women sprinters to the blocks, and Set, then Bang for the gun start: Shelly Ann Frazer blasts off the block like a rocket- mind you they call her in her native Jamaica, the “pocket rocket-” coined from her usual explosive start from the blocks and her small/petite nature (only about 5ft tall, even on her running spikes!) On her heels were the six other ladies, except the Nigerian Blessing Okagbare, who dwelt on the Blocks until all her running mates are half a metre away and into their running strides. In sprinting half a metre is a veritable street away! And so all Ms Okagbare had to do was do the chasing, chasing and chasing all through 99 and ½ metres in a tunnel vision. To be fair to the Nigerian quintessential athlete “good reaction off the blocks” has never been her forte. She always chases the pack, in all the races she had won (and they have been many in the last one year, including the famous victory over the best Jamaicans and US sprinters) and catches them up before they cross the line and she did exactly that at the Anniversary of the London Olympics 2012 game in July 2013 at the London Olympics Stadium in East London,

It is important to note that our Blessing Okagabare has at the London Olympic stadium beaten the “pocket rocket” along with the best Americans women sprinters to win the Gold price in July, 2013, even with a fairly slow start. But that was just an inconsequential meet! Even the African woman who won the Silver at the Moscow 2013 World championship has been beaten repeated by Okagbare since over the past one year, but these girls, all of them left the frozen, slow reacting start-up, Blessing at the blocks as they powered away and our Blessing who normally chases them and often catches them all also developed heavy legs on a day that matters most in her career- a day she would have been crowned as the World fastest woman, and Champion of the blue ribbon sprint event- the 100 metres Women sprint!

I do not know what happened to Blessing Okagabare on that fateful evening at the Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium: Her start was poor compared to the lighting Shelly-Ann Fraser, but her build up run-usually her strongest part- was even poorer that night. Was Blessing carrying an injury arising from her poor take off and awkward landing in one of her jumps in the Long Jump event where she won the Silver medal for Nigeria, could have been gold if she got her techniques right! And so Blessing Okagabare could not catch the 1st eleven of world runners only managing to catch up with those who either “dwelt on the blocks” like her or were in a much more lower league than the first five fast runners who powered away from the blast of the gun to the finish line. The winner was never in doubt: Like her compatriot in the Men’s event- “lightening” Usain Bolt, who has now added another World Championship Gold to his collection of all Gold medals in the last two Olympics in both the 100m and 200m events, the “hair-raising” Shelly-Ann put her feet down literally no one was going to catch her among the best women printers of all time. The good news is that an African woman from Ivory Coast, Murielle Ahoure, won the Silver medal, becoming the first African woman ever to win a medal of any description in the blue ribbon 100metres sprint race in either the World Championship or Olympics- a history that the in-form Ms Okagbare would have shared. It’s a veritable daylight-in sprinting terms- between Shelly Ann Fraser who crossed the finishing line clocked at 10.71seconds and Ms Ahoure who finished at 10.93 seconds and massive 0.22 seconds gap between the two fastest women on the day, which is like street distance in sprint times. It was “Bolt-like” type of victory over the best women printers you will ever get across in the history of women sprint event. To put the time-gap between Shelly-Ann and the Ivorian second placed Murielle Ahoure into perspective, recall that almighty Usain Bolt could only beat Justin Gatlin of the  USA by a time-gap of only 0.07 seconds-Bolt won in 9.77seconds whilst Gatlin followed very closely at a time of 9.85 seconds. So the extent of the “pocket bullets” victory over Ms Ahuore and all the fruitless chasing pack can better be put in perspective.

The very pertinent question is why is it that our very good sprinters, over the years and till date, find it difficult to do what they routinely do at Grand prix and Diamond league meetings at the finals of the sprint event at either the Olympics or World Championships? I remember the duo of Davison Ezinwa and Olapade Adeniken, both very fast printers and beat Linford Christie and even Carl Lewis- in his aging days in the early 1990s, in various Diamond League meetings, particularly in the Olympic year of 1992. On the Line up at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Male 100 metres finals were two Nigerians the first time we have had one, not to talk of two sprinters in the finals of the blue ribbon men sprint event in Olympics final. Since then really, apart from the short time, Francis Obikwelu, who later changed Nationality to Portuguese in 2001, no Nigerian has ever been in the finals of the 100 metres event, either at the Olympics or World Athletics Championship. The only man to have beaten the eventual winner of the priced Gold before the  Barcelona 1992 Olympics, Linford Christy of Great Britain, was Mr Adenikan. Before then in 1991, Davidson has beaten him in one of the competitive Diamond League games. But when it mattered most at the final of the 1992 Olympics Men’s 100m sprint, both Nigerians dwelt on the box as the fiery Lingford Christy and the two or 3 Americans (Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Denis Mitchell) left the two Nigerians at the blocks.

I do not think it was an injury she was carrying that robbed Okagbare of a medal of any variety. This woman is a powerhouse, tall, rangy and has long leg and strides to beat all the short but explosive starting women at the starting line-up at the Moscow Olympic stadium, Monday 12th August 2013. I believe she froze at the big occasion. Why do our athletics get nervous or even frightened at the biggest Athletic events? Are they scared of the huge crowds that normally grace those stadiums on those days? How do we overcome the nerves or build up the confidence of these world class athletes like Blessing Okagbare, who freezes in large spaces with large number of spectators at the big events? This is the challenge for the Nigerian Athletic federation, as well as the athlete’s coaches and managers. I suggest we get good Psychologists and counsellors to build up the promising athlets confidence before the semi-finals and finals of those big competitions. It’s not enough to be winning at Diamond and Golden league meets, only to be medal-less in the main championship or Olympics.

Its a shame really because we have one very raw talent, in Blessing Okagbare- Nigeria’s only medal hopes at this Moscow Athletic Championship- and was well capable of winning 3 Gold medals in the 3 evens ( 2 tracks and 1 field event- the Long jump) she is participating in. Lets hope and pray she adds a medal to the Silver she has already won! I am sure she should be able to get a silver or gold in the remaining 200 metres event if she is fit enough. In the 200 metres, a poor start may not stop you from catching other early starters if you have the burst, acceleration and speed endurance in the final third of the race and unto the finishing line, as you have a long way and time to catch up before the finishing line. The margin of error, is sadly, not available in the 100 metres sprint event, and so Blessing Okagbare paid the price of dwelling on the blocks after the Starter’s gun. Let’s hope she learns her lessons for the future. She is still quite young and still has a few more years of sprinting in her.

Tony Ishiekwene

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