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There can only be two years of competition for the golden year of athletics – athletics in Nigeria.
In 1996, Nigeria reached the peak of its Olympic glory, winning four medals, including a very first individual Olympic gold medal!
In fact, 1996 was marked by many firsts in Nigerian athletics. It was the year that Falilat Ogunkoya made history as the first Nigerian track and field athlete to win an individual medal at the Quadrennial Games.
It was also the first time that Nigeria won its first medal in the spring thanks to Mary Onyali’s 200m victory.
The year was also marked by another first: a double medal won by an athlete in the history of Nigeria’s participation in the Games via the Falilat Ogunkoya bronze medal and 4x400m silver medals.
It was also the year that three African records were set by Nigerian athletes in the same 49.10 second 400-meter Olympic race in Ogunkoya to win a bronze medal; the record for 3.21.04 4x400m established by the quartet of Ogunkoya, Charity Opara, Fatimah Yususf and Bisi Afolabi and of course the massive and golden jump of 7.12 m from Ajunwa in the long jump.
Outside the Olympic Games, Francis Obikwelu became the first and so far the only Nigerian to double the sprint at the IAAF World Junior Championships (now World Athletics) in Sydney, Australia.
Read also: Top 10 fastest men in the history of sprint in Nigeria
If 1996 was the year of Olympic glory, 1998 was also indelible. This is the year that Nigerian athletes made the headlines around the world on the track and beyond.
It was the year that two young athletes, Seun Ogunkoya and Glory Alozie stormed the international scene like a thunderbolt and impressed the whole world.
Seun, a 10.15-second runner just two years before the start of 1998, brandished the 9.97 seconds he ran in September of the previous year as his only claim to stardom. However, he proved that he was made for the big occasion when he meant that a world class sprinter emerged after running 9.96 seconds in Zurich to defeat the great Frankie Fredericks who, two years earlier, was beaten to Olympic sprint titles by two world records (Donovan Bailey, 19.84 seconds in the 100m and Michael Johnson 19.32 seconds in the 200m).
Seun “crashed,” as did Fredericks again at the African Championships in Dakar, Senegal, a few weeks later, before running 9.92 seconds to finish second at the World Cup in Athletics. (now Continental Cup) in Johannesburg later in September. It was ranked seventh in the world that year by the influential Track and Field News. Like Seun, Alozie, a 13.30 second runner in the 100m hurdles in 1996 started 1998 with a single run in 13 seconds, her performance of 12.96 in 1997.
She started 1998 with a personal best of 12.85 seconds, improved to 12.66,12.46 and 12.44 seconds twice to set a new African record and a place in the top 12 of all time. She also won the World Cup by establishing herself as the best (12.58 seconds) in the 100m hurdles in Johannesburg.
That year, she won 15 of 17 races and was named the best sprinter in the world in 1998 by Track and Field News.
If Seun and Alozie shocked the world watching them to be relative strangers, the duo (Falilat) Ogunkoya and Opara dominated the world scene of the 400m.
It was the first and so far the only time that Nigerian athletes dominated an event and would be ranked 1 and 2. Although Ogunkoya was ranked better overall after winning the Grand Prix final in Moscow this that year, Opara was the world leader with 49.29 seconds of performance. at the Gala d’Or in Rome, Italy.
Ogunkoya would go a step further by winning all the world titles available that year. She won the 400m title at the World Cup in Athletics in South Africa a few weeks after achieving a double 200m / 400m at the African Championships in Dakar.
She also finished second in the 200m, with an impressive time of 22.25 seconds behind the big Marion Jones. Her time was a confirmation of the 22.22 seconds she had run to win gold in the U-turn in Dakar a few weeks earlier. She also won the 400m title at the now rested Goodwill Games in the United States before winning the Grand Prix title in Moscow.
In fact, the 400m event that year was reduced to a contest of supremacy between the two Nigerians after Opara took the lead 5-0 in direct confrontations between the two.
Ogunkoya recovered to tie the game 5-5 with his victory in Rome before coming to South Africa later in September to crown his incredible year with two World Cup medals.
She was also ranked third best woman in the general classification that year.
So what would be the golden year for Nigerian athletics?
Seasoned reporter Uzor Odigbo believes 1998 was Nigeria’s golden year.
“It should be 1998 when all the elite female Nigerian athletes dominated their events on the circuit. (Fali) Ogunkoya, Opara and Alozie were on fire and placed first in their events, Nigeria dominating the 400m. have not been matched until today, “said Odigbo who has been covering athletics for over 25 years.
Former African queen of the track, Mary Onyali thinks that no year can be compared to 1996, the year she won an individual medal at the Olympic Games and the year when the great Ajunwa immersed in booth immortality long jump.
Quarterback Fatimah Yusuf, the first Nigerian woman to run less than 51 seconds in the 400m (as a junior) thinks 1996 and 1998 were really golden.
“In 1996 we had two athletes in the women’s 400m final and we won a bronze medal. We also won a deserved silver medal in the 4x400m relay, ”said Yusuf.
Osheku: 1996, 1998, my best years as a coach
Before any athletic trainer, Chef Tony Osheku has been an active participant in the two years under review and has explained his dilemma to Complete Sports.
“In fact, the two years (96 and 98) were my best years in coaching. In 1996, I was a recruit in coaching and I had the opportunity to attend some great prizes. Going to the Olympics for the first time and coming back with two medals was huge.
“Fali (Ogunkoya) was ranked third in the world 400 m behind (Marie-Jose Perec) and Cathy (Freeman). Some people thought his performance was a fluke, so we were determined to work harder to prove them wrong. Our best Olympic Games as a country took place in 1996, not forgetting that (Mary) Onyali also won a bronze medal in the 200m while Chioma (Ajunwa) won our first Olympic gold medal.
“Then, in 1998, World Athletics introduced the Golden League series, now known as the Diamond League. I have traveled to all Golden League games and have been so impressed with the number of Nigerian athletes participating in the circuit.
“The whole world witnessed the breakthrough of Glory Alozie who was ranked number one that year in high hurdles and Seun Ogunkoya who was under my supervision surprised the best sprinters on the circuit when he won in Zurich, one of the most prestigious stages of the Gold League.
That same year, Charity Opara won the first three meetings of the Gold League in Oslo, Rome and Monaco and achieved a PB (personal best) of 49.29 seconds that same year.
“At the end of the year, Track and Field News ranked the two Nigerians 1-2, Fali obtaining the ranking No 1 and Opara No 2 after meeting 10 times on the circuit and settling for a draw 5 -5!
“I was particularly happy to be Nigerian that year because in most of the gold leagues, you could see 8-10 Nigerian athletes participating in a meeting.
“In a competition, I had dinner with the following athletes: Fali, Opara, Alozie, Seun, Davidson, Osmond, Asonze, Ajunwa, Onyali, Atede, Deji and Bisi. Obikwelu was not in this competition.
“1998 was also the unknown year when Nduka (Awazie) won the world junior 400m title with 45.54 PB and he arrived at the championship the same day of his round.
“Clément Chukwu was also a surprise winner at Dakar (African Championships) 44.65. Honestly, 1998 was the year we had many top athletes on the circuit.
“I remember the Lausanne GP, when all the athletes arrived at the airport, a bus was at the airport to transport all the athletes to the hotel and to my surprise, they sent a special car to take us Fali and I at the hotel as special guests and other athletes joined us and I felt at the top of the world. Fali did not disappoint because she won the competition while her compatriot Opara was second.
“I really believe that with the right structure, we can always imitate what we achieved in 1996 and 1998.”
By Dare Esan
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