Blessing Okagbare - good for silver or gold
Until this week I had never watched Blessing Okagbare in any athletics event. Not even on television.
I knew about her, of course, through media reports. No Nigerian can be totally oblivious of her achievements, even through the dark years of Nigerian athletics after Atlanta '96. So poor was my impression, and so bad the public perception of Nigerian athletics generally, that I did not even realise any Nigerian athlete achieved anything at the Beijing Olympics. I was very wrong.
For some years I had lost my appetite for Nigerian athletes in competitions at the highest levels. Seeing the poor state of school sports and the fruitless effort of a few persons in the country to resuscitate it, my expectations for success in track and field were very economical.
I did not expect any Nigerian to win anything tangible at the Olympics for many years to come. This feeling was a far cry from the 1980s up to the early 1990s, when my interest in athlete management was ignited by Chioma Ajunwa-Opara and Charity Okpara-Asonze. Working closely together we all rose from the pit of despair and hopelessness to the pinnacle of Olympic gold and silver medals.
From 1991 to early 1997 I was an active athlete representative and manager. I was very conversant with the subject of track and field. However, all of that is in the distant past.
When I met Blessing Okagbare some three years ago it was at a time when I believed the burst of athletics genius in Nigeria had slowed down to a trickle. I met her in Abuja during the preparations for the last World Athletics Championship. I did not know about her genius back then. I wish I had.
On Tuesday, I watched a local programme on Nigerian television and was surprised to see Blessing Okagbare's long jump that won her the Olympic bronze medal in Beijing four years ago. Not only was I shocked at my own ignorance, I could not believe my eyes. I never even knew she was that good in the long jump. All I remember ever reading about were her exploits as a sprinter not a jumper. Yet, it was in the long jump that she brought back the only Nigerian medal from Beijing.
I was watching closely this time. I had met her again some two weeks ago. I noticed her determination to do well, expressed confidently in her choice of words about her hopes at the games. It was revealed to me that she had actually just won the long jump event at the African meet in Cotonou and that she was looking forward to doing well in both the sprints and the long jump.
She was humble in her expectations in the sprints. She said she would be happy to get to the last eight and hopefully get a medal, any medal! I told her I believed her words and that she would return to Nigeria with a medal even if I did not know how it would happen. Now I know. I saw it this week. I watched her jump in Beijing.
Blessing is a tall woman. She is beautiful. She has a great running style and elegant strides. She is well built and her muscles are nicely toned. I watched her that evening in Beijing. I observed her total concentration and elegant run up to the launching board. It was beautiful; her jumping technique straight from the text book.
She lifted like a plane and hung in the air for an eternity. When she finally landed she did not fall back as most jumpers do. I watched in awe. Believe me that was one of the best jumps I have seen in a very long time in athletics. Everything about it was nearly flawless. Yet, that was four years ago. Her first Olympic games! She had very little experience.
This is now. The wine has matured very well. On the eve of London 2012 she is sprinting faster and better than at any time in her life. She is jumping better too. Lee Evans tells me she is very well coached these days by one of the best coaches in the world, John Smith.
I am putting my neck, as I usually now do on the eve of championships, on the chopping block. I am making a prediction. Blessing Okagbare will do very well in the short sprint event. She will achieve her dream and possibly get to the finals. She may even win a medal.
In the long jump I see something different happening. I see the prospect of a jump that is going to be a giant leap that will lift, suspend and land her at a point in the sand well beyond the magic 7-metre mark.
It will take her to an Olympic silver medal for sure. With a little bit of luck she will upstage Reece, the best jumper in the world in the past several years, and bring home the gold to Nigeria.
Mark my words, or I eat humble pie after the Olympics. Either way, enjoy the games and watch out for the woman called Blessing Okagbare.