Rio 2016 Paralympics: Nigerians bank on special athletes again for gold harvest in Brazil

From next week, September 7 to be precise, attention will once again be shifted to Rio, Brazil for the 15th edition of the Paralympic Games with Nigeria this time as one of the teams to be beat given its antecedents.

Nigeria made its debut at the Games meant for the phyically-challenged in 1992 after missing the previous editions which began in 1960.

However, the profile of Nigeria in the Paralympics has continued to rise since 1992 given the exploits of its special athletes especially in powerlifting, athletics and table tennis.

Nigeria has so far won 28 gold, 16 silver and 14 bronze medals in its last six appearances at the quadrennial Games.

At the Barcelona ‘92 Paralympics, Nigeria only featured six athletes in track and field, powerlifting and table tennis.

Nigeria came back with three gold medals, two from Adeoye Ajibola in sprint and the other by powerlifter Monday Emoghawve, who is now the president of the Paralympic Committee Nigeria (PCN).

At Atlanta ’96, Ajibola clinched two more gold medals while Emoghavwe won another gold in powerlifting.

At Sydney 2000, Edith Nzuruike blazed the trail when she won gold in the javelin while  Emoghavwe clinched his third consecutive gold in powerlifting. Also in Sydney, three women powerlifters – Iyabo Ismaila, Victoria Nneji and Patricia Okafor won gold in their respective categories.

Unarguably, Adekunle Adesoji was the hero of Athens 2004 Paralympics when he became a triple sprint champion as Silver Ezeikpe ruled the men’s javelin, while Lucy Ejike grabbed a gold in powerlifting.

At Beijing 2008 Paralympics, Eucharia Njideka Iyiazi emerged the heroine when she won gold medals in both shot put and discus, while Ejike and Ruel Ishaku each won a gold medal in powerlifting.

At London 2012, the inspiring peformance of Team Nigeria which paraded 27 athletes at the Games continued as the powerlifting team amassed six gold, five silver and two bronze medals.

Nigeria thus finished 22nd on the medal’s table with 13 medals among the 164 countries in attendance and third in Africa behind Tunisia which had nine gold, five silver and five bronze medals to finish 14th and South Africa which finished 18th and second Africa’s best with eight gold, 12 silver and nine bronze medals.

Five of the powerlifters also set world records at the London 2012.

They were Yakubu Adesokan (48kg); Esther Oyema (48kg); the late Joy Onaolapo (52kg); Graze Anozie (+82.5kg) and Folashade Oluwafemiayo (-75kg), who though set a world record with a lift of 148kg, but lost the gold medal to Fu Taoying after both lifted 146kg. The Chinese lifter weighed less which gave her the edge to be awarded the gold medal.

The remaining two gold medallists at the London 2012 were Ivory Nwokorie (44kg) and Lovelyn Obiji (82.5kg).

The other Nigerian silver medallists at the London 2012 were Lucy Ejike (56kg), Ikechukwu Obichukwu (52kg), Anthony Ulonnam (56kg) and Ifeanyi Nnajiofor (60kg), while the bronze medallists were Victoria Nneji who competed in the women’s 67.5kg para-powerlifting and Eucharia Iyiazi in women’s shot put.

At a civic reception held at the Abuja House in London by Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom then, Dr Tafida Dalhatu, each gold medallist was rewarded instantly with $7,500, silver medallist $5,000 and bronze medallist $2,500.

Tafida, praised all the athletes for their brilliant outing which he noted erased the sad memories of Team Nigeria at the London Olympics which was concluded a few days earlier.

He specifically lauded the heroics of Adesokan, who lifted 180kg to set a new record saying “worthy of note is the performance of Adesokan who lifted the weight that triples his own weight”.

The six golden athletes – Adesokan, Oyema, Anozie, Nwokorie, Obiji and Onaolapo also returned home to a N5million largesse each from the esrstwhile President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan and national honour, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).

Nigerians are indeed looking forward to the paralympians to making the national anthem be sung this time in Brazil, which the able-bodied athletes failed to achieve as Nigeria only won a bronze through the soccer team, the Dream Team at the just-ended Rio Olympics.

Twenty-three athletes will hoist the country’s flag at the Games according to the Paralympic Committee Nigeria (PCN) with six coaches and a partner of the athletes.

The contingent left the country on Thursday aboard an Emirates Airline for Brazil with a promise by the chief coach of the powerlifters, Prince Are Feyisetan that the mission of his charges is to surpass the six-gold London 2012 feat.

Media Officer of PCN, Mr Patrick Ibeh, said that Nigeria is competing in only three sports: athletics, powerlifting and table tennis because it has comparative advantage in those events.

The women lifters are Nsini Ben, Lucy Ejike, Ndidi Nwosu, Bose Omolayo, Josephine Orji, Esther Onyema and Latifat Tijani.

World record holder, Yakubu Adesokan leads Roland Ezuruike, Abdulazeez Ibrahim, Nnamdi Innocent, Opeyemi Jegede, Paul Kehinde and Tolulope Taiwo to vie for honours in the men’s category.

The table tennis players in the team are Faith Obiorah, Ahmed Koleosho and Emmanuel Nick while Hannah Babalola, Eucharia Iyiazi, Lauritta Onye, Lovina Onyegbule, Flora Ugwunwa and Friday Aibangbe will compete in track and field events.

“We had a successful camping in Abuja and we are ready for the Games. Every lifter in the team deserved a place, they were all selected on absolute merit. I am confident that with a conducive environment in Brazil, we would perform better than what we did in London four years ago,” Feyisetan begins.

He stated that Nigeria is going to Rio with the best lifters at the moment adding that “we are aware that Nigerians always bank on us to win medals and we have always taken it as a challenge.”

Perhaps, lifters who will command world focus at the Rio Paralympics are Adesokan, Oyema, Omolayo, Nsini, Abdulazeez and Ejike, among others given their past exploits.

Adesokan, who won the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold sets a new world record at the London 2012 when he lifted 180kg. He also won the gold at the 2014 world championship and 2015 All Africa Games in Congo Brazzaville where he reclaimed the world record title with a lift of 182.5kg.

Oyema is also a star to watch in the women’s category with 2010 Commonwealth Games, 2011 All Africa Games, London 2012, Asian Championship 2013, Glasgow 2014, 2015 All Africa Games and world championships gold medals in her kitty.

“I am going there to try my best, I only lost a gold once in my career (at Kazakhstan 2015 IPC) and it has been a lesson. We just want Nigerians to support us with prayers in Brazil, we are coming back with something to celebrate as usual,” the Edo State-born Oyema told Tribunesport by phone during the week before the team’s departure.

Omolayo too at the IPC Kazakhstan 2015 broke the senior world record in the 79kg women’s category and won the gold at the 2015 All Africa Games with a lift of 137.5kg.

Fast rising lifter, Ben Nsini won a gold medal in the 41kg junior category in Kazakhstan where she sets a new world record. Nsini, however, settled for a silver medal at the 2015 All Africa Games and if she reenacts her form this time, she has what it takes to grab the gold in Rio.

Abdulazeez is another world champion in the Nigerian squad to Rio. He won the gold at the 2015 IPC in Dubai, silver at Glasgow 2014 and sliver at 2015 All Africa Games.

Among the athletes to watch out for in the track and field events are Hannah Babalola, who is the reigning African record holder in the women’s T54 100m and 200m; Iyiazi who clinched double gold medal in both the women’s shot putt F57/F58 event and discus throw F57/F58 as well as Lovina Onyegbule who won two gold medals at the Brazzaville 2015 in the 100m T11 and 200m T12 events.