The 21st edition of the African Athletics Championship kicks off yesterday, Wednesday at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba, Delta State with Nigerians filled with expectations of another glorious finish 29 years after the country hosted and won in Lagos. The 21st African Senior Athletics Championships, which started from August 1 to 5, 2018, is set to be the biggest ever as projections of athletes’ registration presently shows.
A current breakdown indicated 473 male athletes have already been listed for the championships, while 400 female athletes have also registered, with 205 accompanying officials. A current breakdown indicated 473 male athletes have already been listed for the championships, while 400 female athletes have also registered, with 205 accompanying officials.
The likes of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are all presenting large squads as they move to consolidate their dominant status on the continent.
We preview selected events where Nigeria will make a strong presence. But can the strong presence translate to podium places as African champions?
On paper, the race should be between Akani Simbine of South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire’s Arthur Cisse. Simbine, the African leader in the event at 9.93 seconds is only one of only two African sprinters who have broken 10 seconds this year. The other of course is Cisse who holds a 9.94 seconds personal best and will be wishing to ensure the Ivorians make it a third consecutive win of the blue ribband gold. The odds however favoured Simbine who is the most consistent of the two so far this season (has run inside 10 seconds four times this year).The South African will also want to upgrade his bronze medal finish of two years ago on home soil to gold this time around.
Can Nigeria upset the apple cart? The trio of Seye Ogunlewe, Enoch Adegoke and Oghooghene Egwero will need to run new lifetime bests if they want to mount the podium as African champion 10 years after Olusoji Fasuba completed a hat-trick of 100m titles, the first in the history of the championship.
This should have been a race between Botswana’s Isaac Makwala and the rest of Africa. And the rest of Africa would have been led by the South Africans who have now found themselves in the driver’s seat following the withdrawal through injury of the Botswana star.
In the absence of Makwala, Nigeria’s Divine Oduduru who won the NCAA title last June with an incredible 20.10 seconds performance (not recorded by the IAAF on its top list for 2018) has forcefully come into the picture.The last time Nigeria won the gold medal in this event was 12 years ago when Uchenna Emedolu ran 20.61 to make it Nigeria’s sixth gold in the event.
Oduduru however has the South African hurdles before him and these are big,almost insurmountable hurdles if the times returned are anything to go by.Clarence Munya who holds the African lead at 19.69 seconds seems to have faded into obscurity while Ncincihli Tili and Luxolo Adams will hope to recreate the performance in April and March of this year when they ran 20.00 seconds and 20.01 seconds respectively.
When the mice are away, the saying goes, the rats will play. With injury knocking undisputed king of the quartermile out of the race, two very big rats in form of Kenya’s Emmanuel Kipkurui KORIR who raced to a new personal best and African lead of 44.21 at the Kenyan championships in June and defending champion, Baboloki Thebe of Botswana will fight for supremacy.
Botswana has dominated the event since Wakwala first won the title in 2012 and Thebe who triumphed in the absence of Makwala two years ago in South Africa will hope to make if four consecutive 400m titles.
Korir however seems to be on a mission to return Kenya to become the third Kenyan man to win the title after Samson Kitur in 1990 and Kennedy Ochieng in 1993.
Where does Nigeria come into contention here? Through miracle. Except a miracle happens, Nigeria will extend her drought in the event to 10 editions (20 years) since Clement Chukwu became the second Nigerian man after Innocent Egbunike (1985, 1988) to win the title in 1998 in Dakar,Senegal.
Chidi Okezie who won the bronze medal two years ago is the fastest Nigerian athlete going into the battle in the absence of Emmnauel Bamidele who has broken 46 seconds twice this year.
They say ‘lightning never strikes the same place twice’ but for South Africa’s Antonio ALKANA, it will strike twice in the same event as the defending champion is on course to repeating as winners when the event holds at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba.
Alkana, the fastest sprint hurdler Africa has ever produced is the bookmakers favourite to retain his title and in the process become the second man in the history of the championship after Kenya’s Philip Sang (1982 & 1984) to successfully defend a 110m hurdles title.
With Alkana’s exploits in the circuit so far this year, do you still want to know where Nigeria will end up in this event? The answer: may be a final placing.Two years ago a certain Tyronne Akins, imported and masqueraded as a Nigerian, won the title in South Africa.
Akins has disappeared to nowhere. Even his American compatriot, Antwon Hicks who also borrowed the green and white robe of Nigeria and ran 13.27 in Sapele two years ago to set what is unfortunately a Nigerian record has also disappeared into oblivion..and rightly so at 35 years old!
Who can bet against Kenya’s 2015 World Champion Nicholas Bett from succeeding his compatriot, 2016 Olympic silver medallist, Boniface Tumuti as African champions? Did I hear nobody? Yes, Bett, barring any unforseen circumstances, will become the fourth Kenyan man to win the quartermile barrier title here in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria.
Bett who failed to build on his Beijing 2015 IAAF Worlds success two years ago in Rio De Janeiro at the Olympics is back to form and ready to prove he is not a one-season wonder.
The real battle will come in the scramble for silver and bronze where Kenya’s Aron Koech will battle an Algerian, Abdelmalik LAHOULOU who is the second fastest African in the event so far this year at 49.01 seconds;South Africans led by Lindsay HANEKOM and old war-horse Cornel FREDERICKS and a Nigerian in the form of Rilwan Alowonle.
Alowonle will however need to run more than the 49.49 seconds he ran in April at the Commonwealth Games to have a chance of making the podium where he will watch as the national anthem of Kenya will be sung for the second successive edition.
For pool stakers, a sure bankers are numbers that they are somehow fixed and can lead to a jackpot win. To Nigerians, Enekwechi Chukwuebuka is a sure banker not just for a podium appearance but the ultimate gold!
Since 2000 when Chima Ugwu won the last of his two gold medals in the event which incidentally happened to be the last of the two won by Nigeria,the closest the most populous black nation has gotten near the title was Stephen Mozia’s bronze place finish two years ago in South Africa.
Now Enekwechi has raised expectations and has the numbers to stake a huge claim to the gold. He lost the Commonwealth Games gold medal to the world leader in the event, New Zealand’s Tomas WALSH last April at the Gold Coast in Australia. In Africa he has been untouchable. He not only holds three of the best five marks by an African so far this year and he is the only African to have 21m and above.One of his main challengers is South Africa’s Orazio CREMONA,winner of the event four years ago in Marrakech. He finished fifth on home soil two years and will be looking to bounce back to gold in Asaba.He holds a 20.71m season’s best.
Also in the mix for a place at the podium is Congo’s Franck ELEMBA, the Rio 2016 Olympics finalist who came second two years ago in Durban at the 20th edition of the championships. He has a personal season’s best of 20.52m but could make as far as 21.20m he threw in Rio to place fourth.
Egypt’s Mostafa Amr HASSAN looks like an outsider. The African leader in 2017 with his massive 21.31m put holds a 20.44m personal season’s best which he achieved last month in Eugene, USA.
This is an event Nigeria has won 10 out of the 20 times it has held with Nigeria’s last victory coming just four years ago in Marrakech, Morocco. Can the Seye Ogunlewe led quartet make it an 11th gold medal in the event for Nigeria? Can the team replicate the feat performed on home soil in 1989 by striking gold? The answer looks a likely no going by the form and numbers of South African sprinters who have dominated the African list so far this season. In their first match-up this year, the South Africans who lead the African top list in the event with the 38.24 seconds they ran to emerge Commonwealth Games silver medallist while Nigeria was disqualified for dropping the baton in the final. Interestingly, the 38.52 seconds the Nigeria quartet ran in the Gold Coast is the fastest they have ran in over 10 years!
Who would believe Nigeria has only won this event three times since the event made its debut at the inaugural edition of the championship in 1979! In fact the last time Nigeria mounted the podium as African champion was in 2000 in Algiers.
With bookmakers favourite, Botswana without their best leg, Isaac Makwala, can Nigeria take advantage and sneak into the podium as champions?
The Kenyans and the South Africans will definitely have a say in this. With only one of the four Nigerians, Chidi Okezie (45.65 seconds) expected to battle for honour in this event a 45 seconds runner this year,a big quaestion mark will definitely find its way behind Nigeria’s chances.Kenya, who has the African leader in the event, Emmanuel Kipkurui KORIR with a 44.21 seconds performance this season and as many as four others who have done 45 seconds this season, the coast looks clearer for a three way battle:Botswana who count of 800m runner, Nijel Amos to join the party like he did two years ago on their way to a golden finish, Kenya and of course South Africa who should be led by Derick MOKALENG who holds a 45.08 seconds season’s best and three others who have all dipped inside 46 seconds.