Blessing Okagbare has had ups and downs on the track. From winning a silver medal at the 2012 Beijing Olympics, to silver and bronze medals at the 2013 World Championship in Moscow, to coming last in the same competition in Beijing two years later and to her row with eggheads of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria. Last Saturday, the University of Texas, El Paso, graduate was in the news but for the right reason she broke the 22 -years -old 200 metres African record. Will this feat be a motivation for the Sapele-born athlete? Kunle Adewale reports
When in 1996 in Switzerland, the then Nigerian queen of the track, Mary Onyali, set a new African 200 metres record with a time of 22.07seconds, not many would have thought it would take over two decades for the record to be erased.
However, last Saturday, Blessing Okagbare threw Onyali’s record into the dustbin as she started her outdoor season with an impressive 22.04s in her 200m race at the Wes Kittley Invitational Track and Field Meet at the Abilene Christian University, United States.
Aside from becoming the new African record holder, Okagbare’s winning time also becomes the new national record in the women’s 200m. Her previous personal best in the event of 22.23s was set at the 2014 Eugene Diamond League.
With her latest exploit, it means that Okagbare now holds the Nigerian records in the women’s 100m (10.79s) and 200m. The Wes Kittley Invitational was her first competition of the season.
Former Nigerian Queen of the track, Mary
Onyali-Omagbemi has congratulated Okagbare-Ighoteguonor for breaking her African record.
“My 200m African record went to my little sister yesterday. Congrats Ble-Ble Baby! Now we are back on track!! Thanks for keeping this in the family Kitty; while we hunt for the other one! Stay tuned,” Onyali gushed with enthusiasm at the feat of Okagbare.
With this new form, it is going to be difficult for the Delta-born sprinter to avoid defending the double sprint medals she won at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland four years ago.
The former Team Nigeria captain had earlier signified her intention to race only in the 4x100m relay at the Games scheduled to hold in Gold Coast, Australia between April 4 and 15. She remains the favourite for both the 100m and 200m gold medals at the Games.
The apex socio-cultural umbrella of Urhobo people, Urhobo Progress Union, has also saluted sprinter Okagbare for breaking Onyali’s 22-year-old 200m African record
In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Abel Oshevire, the union urged Nigerian youths, particularly those from Niger Delta to emulate Okagbare.
Since the Beijing Olympics in China, the country’s hope for a medal at major international competitions is largely dependent on Okagbare. With a silver Olympics medals in Beijing, another silver and a bronze medal respectively at the 2013 World Athletics Championship, it seems Okagbare is fast passing her peak after failing to qualify for the semifinals of the women’s’ 100 meters at the 2017 World Athletics Championship in London.
She had similarly failed to make the final of the event at the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Delta lady’s late surge in form that saw her running a sub-11 (10.99) leading to the competition had raised the hope of a miracle happening to wipe the memory of her eighth position at the Olympic Stadium during the London 2012 games.
However, her recent new African record in the 200m may be the motivating factor to reignite her form.
In 2015, Okagbare had a battle with the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, after accusing the board of killing Nigerian athletics by recruiting foreign athletes, something which the then AFN Chairman, Solomon Ogba, described as unfortunate.
“Inasmuch as I don’t want to join issues with her, I want Blessing to know that she is becoming too self-centered. Her major interest is money all the time and it is not good for an athlete of her status,” Ogba replied.
She had accused the AFN leadership of paying more attention to recruited foreign athletes, who, according to her, were not better than home grown talents.
Okagbare was born in Sapele, Delta State and given her athletic physique; teachers and family encouraged her to take up sports. Initially, she played football as a teenager at her high school and later, in 2004, she began to take an interest in track and field. She participated in a number of disciplines early on, competing in the long jump, high jump and triple jump events at the Nigerian school championships and winning a medal in each.
On the senior national stage, she was a triple jump bronze medalist at the 2004 National Sports Festival. He first international event came at the 2006 Athletics World Championship, where she performed in the qualifying rounds of both the long and triple jump competitions.
In May 2007, at the All-Africa Games trials in Lagos, she established a Nigerian record of 14.13 metres in the triple jump, record that had since been beaten by Chinonye Ohadugha. At the 2007 All-Africa Games, she won the silver medal in the long jump and finished fourth in the triple jump.
Okagbare won the Nigerian 100m title in 2010, running a time of 11.04 seconds, after opting out of the long jump in order to save herself for the upcoming African championships. At the African Championships in the same year, she won gold in the long jump and also won gold in the 100m distance with a run of 11.03 flat. She won her third gold at the end of the championship as part of the Nigerian 4×100 m women’s relay team.
In 2011, Okagbare continued to build on her earlier endeavours by establishing herself as a 100m runner. At the 2011 World Championship in Daegu, Okagbare placed fifth in the 100m final with a run of 11.12s. However, she did not make it to the final of the long jump as her best jump of 6.36m was not enough to get her out of her qualifying group. She concluded her 2011 season by winning three medals at the All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique.
At London 2012, Okagbare participated in her second Olympic Games. Going into the Olympics, she had run a number of good 100m races and there was much anticipation and hope of a medal. However, the 2012 Olympics were not as successful for Okagbare as 2008. She established a new personal best of 10.92s in the 100m semi-final but placed eighth in the final with a run of 11.01s.
Meanwhile, at the 2013 World Championship in Moscow, Okagbare won the silver medal in the long jump. Her jump of 6.99m put her in second place behind Brittney Reese of the United States by only two centimetres. In the 100m final, she placed sixth with a run of 11.04s and also placed third in the 200m race.
She had a disappointing show at 2016 Rio Olympics as she finished without a single medal. She never made it to the final but was ranked 3rd in 100m semifinal finishing at 11.09s and ranked 8th with her teammates in the final of 4 × 100m relay.