As the countdown to the Paris 2024 Olympics continues, Nigerian Olympian and athletics legend, Enefiok Udo-Obong, has expressed optimism that Team Nigeria will surpass her Tokyo 2022 Olympics performance by winning more medals at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France. The two-time Olympics medallist hinged his confidence on the superlative outings of Nigerian athletes at last year’s World Athletics Championships in Oregon, USA and Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. Obong also spoke to Trust Sports on his illustrious career and the future of Nigerian athletics.
As the Technical Director of the Lagos State Athletics Association, could you explain the motive behind the Athletics Clubs Series ?
The idea behind the initiative is to encourage clubs that train athletes, to provide the platform for them to showcase their athletes for everyone to see and know how they (clubs) are contributing massively to the development of athletics in the country. Yes, athletics is an individual sport, so most of the time we praise the athletes but forget that they are coming from a club. So, we organized the competition to identify and promote clubs that are developing athletics wholesomely.
What is your assessment of the first leg of the Series?
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It was an awesome experience for the athletes who took part in the competition. It was a hitch-free event and the athletes also put in their best. We are doing everything humanly possible to discover hidden talents in athletics.
You represented Nigeria twice at the Olympics. Could you share your experience with us?
I am very proud of my achievements in athletics. It has been over two decades since I attended the Olympics. My first Olympics was at Sydney 2000 and it was my first trip outside Africa. That was my biggest competition and the experience was amazing. After that, it was another fascinating experience as I attended the 2004 Olympics as one of the most experienced athletes in my team. Since I had been to the Olympics, the younger athletes looked up to me for inspiration. So, it has been an amazing experience. I won gold in my first appearance at Sydney 2000 in the 4x100m men’s relay and bronze in the same event at the Athens 2004 Olympics. So, my experiences as an athlete have been wonderful. It has sharpened my life and what I do. I am very happy that it is proving to be a great adventure not only for me but for Lagos State as a whole.
Can you share with us your most memorable and saddest moment as an athlete?
There are quite a lot. There was one when I was a young athlete. I was in very good form and was supposed to go and compete at the National Sports Festival in 1996 in Makurdi. So, after qualifying for the final in the 200m event, I slept off and I woke up after the race. I think that was one of the sad moments. And I cannot talk about my most memorable moment without mentioning my two Olympics medals, one gold and a bronze medal.
How is Team Nigeria athletics preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics and how do you fancy our chances?
Athletics as a whole is on the right trajectory. We are growing and doing well. Like I said, athletics is an individual sport and usually down to individualism. And preparations for competitions like the Olympics are done stage by stage. It is also an open secret that we have some promising athletes in the colleges that are preparing for the NCAA. They will still come for the national trials and prepare themselves. We have some that work in clubs and run for meets in the Diamond league across the world. So, our athletes are running week in week out and that is part of the preparation in athletics. You have to remain sharp, focused and on spot.
I believe that we are going to go to Paris with a very formidable team. We have wonderful ladies apart from the obvious one like Tobi Amusan that will enter there as a variety, we have Ese Brume as one of the varieties for long jump. We will also look at the pocket of our 4×100 women like our women team that went to the Commonwealth Games. They are coming back stronger. We have Favour Ofili winning the Conference in the US. We have a lot of home based athletes who are giving the foreign based athletes a run for their money. So, let’s not just think that we will go to the Olympics and come back empty handed.
We are better prepared than London 2014 and Rio 2016 where we did not come up with any medal in athletics. Nigeria is now a force to be reckoned with and it is not only in women competitions. We have a national champion Favour Ashe doing very well in the US. All we need to do is to make sure that we keep them remunerated. If it is the government or private sector, we should do everything to make their mind focused on the Olympics, so that they can concentrate on training without bothering about their welfare.
You have just touched on something very important which is remuneration for athletes. How is the Athletics Federation sourcing for training grants for athletes?
Athletics do not operate in a vacuum. So athletics funding comes from two main sources, the government which is the main sponsor and the private sector which is also referred to as corporate sponsorship. Therefore, we hope the private sector will increase their support and sponsorship while the government will bring out funds as at when due. Problem with government funds has never been availability. Funds are always available but never released at the right time. So, if the timing is right, our athletes will be motivated to do well at major international competitions.
What would you say is responsible for the increasing cases of doping among Nigerian athletes?
Well, it is saddening and the impact is also bad. Doping is cheating and as a country we will fight doping. But it can be solved by a lot of education. We have to continuously educate our athletes, coaches, parents, friends, sponsors, managers and the press to reduce the pressure on the athletes. When they attend a competition and are asked ‘how many medals do you win’ and they do not win anything, sometimes it gets to them and they are trying to do everything to relieve that pressure. Pressure of winning can result in an athlete trying to cheat although it is not an excuse. Sometimes laziness or lack of proper training can lead athletes into doping. But basically, we abhor it because it brings shame to the athletes and disappointment to the nation.
What are you doing to produce more Udo-Obongs?
I am trying my best. I have an academy called the Udo-Obong Athletics Academy and we took part in the relay of the Athletics Clubs Series in Lagos. We have some athletes that are doing very well. Some have gone to the USA. Two of my athletes represented Lagos at the last National Sports Festival in Delta State and one of them won gold. So I am doing my part as much. My target is to discover and develop athletes for Nigeria. Maybe, one day I will produce an Olympic champion.