Rio 2016 Paralympics: Nigeria’s great outing

IN a marked contrast to Nigeria’s dismal outing at last month’s Rio 2016 Olympic Games where it recorded only one medal despite fielding 77 athletes, the nation, this month, recorded its best ever performance at the Paralympics since 1992. Parading 23 athletes, the nation finished 17th on the medals table with eight gold, two silver and two bronze medals.  A total of 4,300 athletes from 161 countries participated in the 22 events staged at Rio 2016. Nigeria won gold in the athletics women’s javelin throw through Ugwunwa Flora, the athletics women’s shot put through Onye Lauritta, the men’s powerlifting 54 kg category through Ezuruike Roland, the men’s-65 kg powerlifting event through Kehinde Paul and the women’s +86 kg powerlifting event through Orji Josephine.

Also, Ejike Lucy, Nwosu Ndidi and Omolayo Bose brought the nation glory by clinching the gold medals at the women’s -61 kg, -73 kg and -79 kg powerlifting events, respectively. In addition, Team Nigeria clinched two silver medals through Tijani Latifat and Oyema Esther, who competed in the women’s -45 kg and -55 kg powerlifting events, respectively. Finally, two bronze medals came through Iyiazi Eucharia and Innocent Nnamdi in the athletics women’s discus throw and the men’s -72 kg powerlifting event, respectively. Commendably,  Josephine Orji, Paul Kehinde, Lucy Ejike, Lauritta Onye, Bose Omolayo and Florence Ugwunwa all set new world records, while Roland Ezuruike set a new Paralympics record.  Overall, Nigeria finished 17th on the table and the best in Africa.

When Nigeria made its debut at the Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, 32 years after the inauguration of the games, it won three gold medals after fielding only six athletes. In 1996, it fielded eight athletes and won three gold, two silver and three bronze medals.  In 2000, however, the nation recorded its best result before this year’s, winning seven gold, one silver, and five bronze medals after fielding 33 athletes. In 2004, Team Nigeria fielded 14 athletes and won five gold, four silver and three bronze medals. At the London 2012 Paralympics, it went home with six gold, five silver,  and two bronze medals. Buoyed by that performance, the then High Commissioner to the UK, Dr Dalhatu Tafida, rewarded the gold medallists with $7500 each. The silver medallists got $5000, while the bronze medallists got $2500 each. And the team’s arrival at the country, an elated President Goodluck Jonathan conferred the six gold medallists with the MON national award and gave them N5 million each. He also handsomely rewarded the silver and bronze medallists. Now that Team Nigeria has posted an even better result with its resilience in the face of the hardships experienced in the country arising from economic recession, it is our expectation that the team will be rewarded even more handsomely, as a way of encouraging athletes to give their all to their country at all times.

Nigeria’s Rio 2016 Paralympics  was not however without its sad stories. The world record holder in the -49 kg powerlifting category, Yakubu Adesokan, was unable to compete at the men’s event because of his late arrival at the venue of the event. According to him, this was due to the wrangling among his coaches which delayed their movement from the games village to the venue of the event. Narrating his ordeal, a distraught Adesokan said: “We arrived late at the venue and I was not allowed to undergo weighing before the event. We tried to explain but the authorities did not allow me to take part in the exercise. In fact, I was so shell-shocked that I almost ran into a moving vehicle after I was disqualified. It is something unbearable for me because I never imagined this kind of unfortunate incident in my career.”

However, Adesokan’s record of 182.5kg remains intact, as the eventual winner of that category, Le van Cong from Vietnam, finished at 181kg. Still, with the ugly turnout of events, the nation’s investment in the athlete in the last four years could not be realised. We urge the relevant authorities to probe this incident and mete out appropriate sanctions. If the investigation establishes that Adesokan’s non-participation at the powerlifting event was indeed due to no fault of his, he should be compensated for his patriotism and commitment to the country, in addition to being given a formal apology. This will assure the nation’s athletes that their interests will always be protected.

The foregoing notwithstanding, there are weightier matters that deserve urgent attention. A survey of Nigeria’s participation at the Paralympics  will show that it has exploited its comparative advantage in three events: powerlifting, athletics and para table tennis. That is why, out of the 23 athletes that featured at Rio, 14 were powerlifters, six were track and field athletes, while three were table tennis players. The nation should however try and source for talents that can excel in other events. For instance, Nigeria paraded athletes in the wheelchair tennis category at the 2008 games. Since then, it has not featured in that event. With the results at its disposal, Nigeria should, we believe, be able to participate in at least seven events. This should be actualised at the Tokyo 2020 games, for which preparations should begin in earnest.

Meanwhile, we say a big congratulations to Team Nigeria and wish it greater glory in the years to come.