In the late 1980s down to early 90s, long and middle distance races thrived in Nigerian sports, giving birth to several athletes, notable among whom was Abbas Mohammed, who ruled the sports for over a decade. Mohammed’s dominance in the long distance races saw him winning countless laurels, including the inaugural Milo marathon race despite his busy schedule as an army officer.
Abbas, as he was popularly called, gave some East African athletes serious challenges in the long distance races in his active days, but as in every aspect of the nation’s economy, lack of attention and encouragement from government ensured he did not make much impact outside West Africa.
Since his retirement from the scene, other long distance runners have emerged from the Plateau region, which has similar topographer with Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, but not much have come from them in international competitions.
But the long period of ‘neglect’ seems over, if the ‘seed’ being sowed by Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, and the Director General of the National Sports Commission (NSC), Alhassan Yakmut, is watered and nurtured to fruition.
Before his departure for Brazil yesterday for a meeting of all the Chef-de-mason ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Yakmut took time to explain to The Guardian steps already taken by Governor Lalong to develop the long and middle distance races in the country.
Plateau State has been a stronghold of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since 1999, but Governor Lalong of APC was able to change the equation at the last governorship election, beating the PDP candidate, Gyang Pwajok, a serving senator representing Plateau North at the National Assembly.
Lalong, a former amateur footballer, who featured for Daskon United in Jos north council area in the mid 1970s to early 80s, is leading the crusade for the rejuvenation of long and middle distance races in the country.
Yakmut was in Jos on Thursday to fine-tune arrangement with the governor on how to fast track the plan, which according to him, will see Nigerian athletes rob shoulders with their East African counterparts in long and middle distance races in four years time. “The Governor has agreed to partner with the NSC in fast tracking this plan,” Yakmut told The Guardian.
He has realised that so many talents from the Plateau area have comparative advantage over others in the long and middle distance races, and he is working round the clock to help them (athletes) achieve their dream. “First, the Governor wants to complete the 32,000 capacity stadium in Zaria Road, and he has mobilised the contractors handling the project to do so as quickly as possible because he also wants to use sports to promote peace in the state.”
To the NSC boss, Governor Lalong’s moves to give long and middle distance races solid foundation in the Plateau region should be supported by all stakeholders because it will serve as capacity building for youths in the state and the nation in general.
Yakmut also stated yesterday that the NSC would move round the country to meet with various state governors to formulate plans on how best to utilize athletes based on comparative advantage in their region.
Now, athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and other East African nations are beginning to challenge us in the short sprints because they have realized that they can do it. What stops us from encouraging our athletes to challenge them in the long and middle distance races? We have the potential and I am sure we can equally rule that aspect of the game if people supported this noble idea by Governor Lalong.
We are grateful to him,” Yakmut said. At the moment, one Nigerian athlete, Aderonke Olumudi, seems to be making waves in the long distance race.
But the Kogi State born athlete seems not to be enjoying the support she needs to excel in international competitions. She appealed to the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) recently to give long distance athletes the same attention given to those in short distance events.
Olumudi sponsored herself to the United States in April this year to participate in the third GE Irving marathon race. Her effort was rewarded, as the Nigerian captured a gold medal in the 10km women’s category.
She said lack of equal attention to all sports by the government of Nigeria spurred her to strive to win a laurel in long distance race in far away United States of America.
Her feat in the United States notwithstanding, Olumudi says long distance athletes should be encouraged and not assumed to be failures because so far, “our country has not proven itself in that aspect.”
Speaking further, Olumide said: “In as much as I appreciate the fact that we should improve on areas where we have strength like the short distance races, other events in athletics should not be ignored. “I believe that we have abundant talents who can make the country proud in long distance races. Countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are enjoy superiority n the sport, but I believe we can catch up with them,” Olumide said.