By Fred Edoreh
Flora Ugunnwa crowned Team Nigeria’s campaign at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with a gold medal in F54 javelin event on the eve of the closing ceremony.
It was just after Lauritta Onye had, against glaring odds in the wet and slippery grounds of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, wrestled out a bronze in the F40 shot put competition earlier that day.
The day before, Eucharia Iyiazi finished with bronze in F57 discus just as the trio of Tajudeen Agunbiade, Olufemi Alabi and Isau Ogunkunle did in the Class 9-10 table tennis team event.
Those final rushes swelled Team Nigeria’s account after Latifat Tijani, Bose Omolayo and Folashade Oluwafemiayo had stunned the Tokyo International Forum with their performances to clinch gold medals in their respective events in para powerlifting.
Folashade finished in style, breaking and resetting both the Paralympic and world records which she had set herself.
The rest of the para powerlifting team complimented their efforts with silver from Loveline Obiji and two bronze medals by Lucy Ejike and Olaitan Ibrahim.
In all, Nigeria finished with 10 gold medals won by 12 of 22 athletes – four gold, one silver and five bronze, to place 33rd out of the 163 countries that participated.
Those who understand the global terrain of para sports would appreciate the strength shown by Team Nigeria, even in comparison with table topper China and runners up Great Britain and the USA whose counts ranged in three figures – 207, 124 and 104 medals, respectively.
While Nigeria presented only 22 athletes for just four sports, China went to Tokyo with 251 for 20 of the 23 sports. Great Britain presented 227 in 19 sports while the USA had 234 in 20 sports.
With the huge size of their contingents, they competed in virtually every field and with advantage in many sports like swimming, wheelchair fencing, archery, para cycling, equestrian and more which have multiple medal events. Nigeria and most African countries do not and did not compete in those sports.
Swimming for instance had 146 medals at the Paralympics and accounted for 56 of China’s medals, 35 for USA and 20 for Great Britain.
In the same vein, Great Britain had a huge advantage in cycling with 24 medals and also a field day in equestrian, paracanoeing and rowing, just as China netted 20 medals in wheelchair fencing.
Dong Lu and Tao Zheng of China raked in four gold medals each in swimming alone for their nation. It was the same for Maksym Krypak of Ukraine who picked five gold, one silver and one bronze; Jessica Long of the USA, three gold, two silver and one bronze; Reece Dunn of Great Britain and Maria Santiago of Brazil, three gold, one silver and one bronze each, all from swimming.
China’s Shumei Tan also had three gold from fencing just as Jetze Plat of Netherlands had three gold from cycling – road race, time trial and paratriathlon.
Team Nigeria had only two areas of strength and they stood strong in them.
Para powerlifting had ten events in each of the gender categories. In the female category, Nigeria presented seven athletes and six of them won medals – three gold, one silver and two bronze with a world record to booth.
Lucy Ejike’s drop to bronze was just a matter of on the spot miscalculation in booking of weight attempts just as it happened to Nnamdi Innocent in the male category.
In Nnamdi’s attempt to chase for the gold, he faltered in lifting the 200kg he booked in his first attempt only to see the silver picked by a 191kg lifter while he could easily have started with say 195 or 198kg.
Still, Nigeria won the female contest and finished second overall in para powerlifting only behind China which won the men’s category.
It is remarkable too that Nigeria para athletics team had only five athletes and three of them won medals.
For table tennis, nobody would take it away from the Chinese who swept 16 gold, 8 silver, leaving 10 silver for their South Korean brothers, both masters in the art. Still, Nigeria got a podium finish.
In comparison with other African countries, Nigeria only fell behind three North African countries, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco with great sporting infrastructure, but matched them with same four gold medals even with the small size of its contingent and events entered for.
While Tunisia did well in topping with 12 medals from 23 athletes in three sports, mostly taking advantage of their prowess in middle distance races, Algeria had 57 athletes in five sports while Morocco had 37 in six sports.
Egypt which sent in 49 athletes in eight sports mined only seven medals with no gold to finish at distant 68th on the overall medal table while South Africa sent in 34 and had only one gold, four silver and two bronze.
Perhaps, the most miss for Team Nigeria was Yakubu Adesokan who had Covid-19 issues while in camp and had to be held back for treatment. He arrived Tokyo only a few hours to his competition after close to 20 hours flight and had difficulty adjusting his body clock to the new time zone and recovering his muscles for good lifts.
Talking about Covid-19, the Tokyo Games was bound to be difficult for athletes globally. The lockdown in 2020 disrupted training programmes and international competitions for tune ups and constrained athletes in maintaining fitness, keeping abreast with their opponents and peaking to the event.
Understandably, it was more difficult for developing countries to adjust into the games but, thankfully for Nigeria, the Minister of Sports, Chief Sunday Dare, understood the situation clearly and made proactive and timely interventions to keep the athletes up to the party.
Not only did he make provisions for the welfare of Team Nigeria athletes while the Covid lockdown lasted, he provided for three months long training camp ahead of the games to enable them catch up with their form and rhythm in view of the lost time.
The athletes testify that the motivational touches of the Honourable Minister and the general management of the team’s pre-games activities both in Nigeria and in the holding camp in Kisarazu, before entering the Olympic Village, worked effectively for them.
While we must congratulate Team Nigeria for their good performance, we need however to set new and greater targets.
We must plan to increase our entries and size of contingent to the Paris 2024 Games. This would entail improving on other existing para sports like rowing and canoeing which we just added at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, para table tennis, wheelchair tennis, para swimming, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby, and introducing new ones like wheelchair fencing, paratriathlon, cycling and archery.
These can be motivated and tested out in the trials to the 2022 Commonwealth Games which leads to the 2024 Paralympic Games.
It must however be accepted that the aim should not only be for winning medals but, especially, for providing a platform for our physically challenged persons to be more socio-economically integrated to enhance their pursuit of self fulfillment and better life.
On this, there is urgent need for the corporate community to support the ministry of sports, the Paralympic Committee and the various federations.
Perhaps, this should start with providing rewards for our Tokyo 2020 medalists to sustain them into future events and inspire other physically challenged persons to get involved.
Fred Edoreh is former chairman of Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) Lagos Chapter