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African Drain

Elvan Abeylegesse proudly displays the Turkish flag during a lap of honour.Yomi Omogbeja (19/07/2004)

Many talented Africa athletes are changing nationalities in droves in search of the elusive greener pastures.

True, the slave trade may have been over many years ago and slave masters may no longer be selling Africans to work on their fields abroad.

Yet, today there are still many who are willing, or are forced by circumstances beyond their control, to sell themselves.

Africa is now devoid of doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists and most recently, athletes and footballers.

The rush by African athletes to change their nationality to just any country ready to offer them citizenships abroad have never been so alarming as it is now.

This year Olympics games in Athens may witness the highest participation by Africans in the history of the modern games, yet only about 50% will actually be representing African countries.

Nigeria is the most populous black nation with a population of over 120 million, yet can only send 24 athletes to Athens, whereas South Africa is sending over 200.

Nigeria officials blamed lack of funds to take a large contingent- especially those without realistic chances of winning - thus depriving all the long distance and field athletes the Olympic opportunity and exposure irrespective of their form.

These officials seemed to have forgotten that Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medal came through Chioma Ajunwa in the long jump in Atlanta 1996, at a time when she was outside of the world ranking in the event.

Flying other flagsPhillips Idowu

However even though there will be only 24 athletes officially representing Nigeria in Athens, there will be over 100 Nigerians competing at the games.

Five out of this number will be donning the colours of former colonial masters Britain at the Olympics.

These British-born Nigerians are Philip Idowu (triple jump), Abiodun Oyepitan (100m) Joyce Maduaka (100m) Emeka Udechuku (Discus) and Christine Ohuruogu (400m).

Maduaka, Oyepitan, Udechukwu and Idowu Jr. – the nephew of Nigerian sports philanthropist Nathaniel Idowu – are all regular members of the British team while Christine Ohuruogu will be making her debut in Athens.

The 20-year-old UCL Psychology and German major is now being touted as ‘Britain’s new sprint sensation’ by the British press - many of whom could hardly pronounce her name - after she won the 400m in a spectacular fashion at the Manchester Norwich Union British Olympic trials in a time of 50.98 seconds.

Other athletes with Nigerian parentage who missed out of the British Olympics team include Tosin Oke (Triple jump) Larry Onochie Achike (Triple jump) and Du’aine Ladejo (400m).

At the ongoing 10th IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships in Grosseto, Italy, three Nigerian kids Ayodele Ikuesan (100m) Demi Omole(100m) and Mfon Etim (4X100m) turned out for France, USA and Sweden respectively.

Milwaukee Wisconsin runner Demi Omole, with a personal best of 10.15, won the 100m silver medal with 10.27sec after earlier running a blistering 10.19 in the semi-finals this week.

What an addition a 10.19 runner would have made to the Nigeria relay team - that could only manage 38.91 yesterday in Brazzaville - can at best be imagined.

One can argue that since these athletes were born in those countries and hold dual-citizenships, they are entitled to compete for them.

But, what do you say about athletes who had already competed for African countries in past competitions.

Wasted talent

Recent media reports that former Nigeria's national record holder in the men’s 100m, Seun Ogunkoya may soon dump the country to run for Qatar gives serious cause for concern.

Ogunkoya who won the African championships in 1998 and was second at the Johannesburg ’98 IAAF World Cup with a new national record of 9.92 seconds, has now been completely neglected by the country.

For the past four years his career has plummeted and he could barely make it to the national trials. Yet, the national athletics federation do not think rescuing such a talent from waste makes any sense.

Nigerian sport Journalist Olukayode Thomas, who was in London last month for the Unity Cup football matches, said: “If Ogunkoya dumps Nigeria at the end of the day, he would neither be the first nor the last.

“He will simply join the growing list of African athletes who have dumped their countries - Gloria (Alozie), Francis (Obikwelu), Christy Opara-Thompson, Sylvester Omadiale etc.”

If and when that happens, Ogunkoya will join former Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono - now known as Saif Saaeed SHAHEEN - in the colours of Qatar.

Official neglect

Many of these athletes usually cite insensitivity of the national federations, poor incentives to athletes, lack of developmental programmes at home, lack of support from the government and non-release of training grants before major championships as reasons why they opted for greener pastures elsewhere.

Cameroon’s African women’s triple jump record holder Francoise Mbango Etone even said she felt she was being gradually chased away from the country and might consider changing her nationality.

The 27-year old told Cameroon Herald she had been training alone since April 2003 because she does not yet have a trainer and could not afford to pay for the service.

She added that her demands for assistance to prepare and train under better conditions for the Athens Olympics have not always yielded fruit.

This same attitude and lack of sensitivity to athletes needs was the reason alluded to by the European 100 hurdles women’s champion Glory Alozie for dumping Nigeria for Spain after her fiancé 400m runner Hyginus Anugo was killed in Adelaide few weeks before the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

IAAF president Lamine Diack also conceded to the fact that the trend is not likely to stop. He said yesterday in Brazzaville that Africa must do more to keep her top athletes.

“If we don’t build an elite programme to take care of the future of our best athletes, we will lose them.

“Every year they would go. To go from world junior champion four years before the Olympics to see him going to run for Portugal, it is because Nigeria did nothing. You can’t fault this!” he said.

Diack, a Senegalese, was the president of the African Athletics Confederation (AAC) for 15 years, so he should know.

However, the tide seems to be reversing somehow. Cuban-born hurdler Yamile Aldama, with no prior attachment to Sudan, has obtained a Sudanese passport three weeks ago to be able to compete for Sudan at the Olympics.

Shortly after winning the women’s Triple Jump gold, with a leap of 14.90metres, for her new country at the African championships in Brazzaville, Aldama said she was ‘delighted to be in Africa’.

“ I’m here now. I’m not complaining at all. I’m happy”.

Maybe it’s about time Africa countries start to court top athletes from all over the world, with the chance to train all year round in a warm climate, to reverse this trend.

But like Diack said, Africa need to put her house in order first.

Complete lists of African athletes with new nationalities

Athletes ------------Country / Original country

  • Wilson Kipketer --- -Denmark / Kenya
  • Stephen Cherono ---Qatar/ Kenya
  • Gloria Alozie ----------Spain / Nigeria
  • Francis Obikwelu --- Portugal/ Nigeria
  • Florence Ekpo-Umoh --- Germany / Nigeria
  • Christy Opara –Thompson --- USA / Nigeria



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Last updated: 27-Oct-2004 9:44 AM

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