Nigerians are some of Africa’s greatest sports people in a variety of disciplines, from boxing to athletics to weightlifting. Clayton Goodwin looks at some of the most outstanding figures from the last 60 years.
Since independence Nigerians have made impressive sporting progress. Although football remains closest to the national heart, the country can be proud of achievements across a wide range of activity.
Many participants in individual disciplines, however, have had to go abroad to further their careers for reasons of economics and opportunity – the main centres of activity and opportunity are in the UK, Europe and US – while others have been raised by Nigerian families of the diaspora.
The good record in professional and amateur boxing has been evident throughout these 60 years. Within a few weeks of independence, Dick Tiger (Richard Ihetu) from Amaigbo regained the Commonwealth middleweight crown and then won the world title two years later. His successful defences included an inside-the-distance victory over Gene Fullmer at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan in 1963.
Later, Tiger moved up a division to win the light-heavyweight championship (1966-67). With an impressive 60-19 record, he was a popular performer who fought the toughest men around and never gave less than his best. Dick, who died too young at 42 years old, had been preceded by Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey, Nigeria’s first world champion, who ruled the featherweights from 1957-59.
At amateur level Nojim Maiyegun from Lagos was his country’s first (of many) Olympic Games medallist, winning the light-middleweight bronze at Tokyo 1964.
Nigerians have been particularly prolific in the heavyweight division. Three claimants of the (often schismatic) world heavyweight crown have come from the UK diaspora. Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua is the current WBA, IBF and WBO title-holder. He is an accepted leading “role model for Black Britons” and has stated his desire to bring a world championship defence to Nigeria.
In spite of their famed amateur rivalry, knockout-specialists Herbie Hide (Herbert Maduagwu) from Owerri and Henry Akinwande, both of whom were claimants of the WBO crown in the 1990s, did not meet as professionals. Hide, who was noted for his all-action aggressive style, had two world reigns during his long career.
Samuel Peter from Akwa Ibom, nicknamed the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ because of his punching power, has been the best of a cluster of heavyweights who moved to the US. He held the WBC world crown for a time in 2008, but achieved fame also for flooring such formidable opponents as world champions Wladimir Klitschko and Lamont Brewster in contests which he ultimately lost.
Ike (Ikemefula) Ibeabuchi from Isuochi had an unbeaten record (20-0) and a formidable reputation in the 1990s but his career was cut short by troubles with the law.
David Izon (Izonritei) from Lagos, his contemporary, was a match for all but the very best, a role in which he was succeeded by Friday Ahunanya from Port Harcourt. At the moment Eje Ajagba from Ughelli, Delta State is undefeated (13-0) and is tipped to be in promoters’ plans for top fights when the current crisis is over.
Track and field
Nigeria’s strength in track and field lies in the long-jump and sprints. The relay teams have won one Olympic Games gold (men’s 4 x 400 metres at Sydney 2000), three silvers and four bronzes.
Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor from Sapele, Delta, is one of the great all-rounders of international competition. She has won the highest honours in both long-jump and the sprints.
Blessing broke into top contention with three golds in the African Championships at Nairobi 2010. Having won the long-jump silver at the Olympic Games at Beijing 2008, she excelled with two sprint golds at the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow 2014 and two further golds in the African Championships at Marrakesh in the same season. Her other medals are too numerous to mention.
Ese Brume from Ughelli, long-jump gold-medallist at Glasgow then, and coming off a World Championships bronze at Doha 2019, and Tobi (Oluwatobiloba) Amusan, the 100 metres hurdler with a Commonwealth Games gold at Gold Coast 2018, would have been formidable contenders at this year’s scheduled but postponed Olympic Games.
Long-jumper Chioma Ajunwa from Umuihiokwu had set the pace by winning the Olympic Games gold, the first by any Nigerian, at Atlanta 1996. Also a footballer, she is the only woman to compete in both the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
Although she came from a very poor background to win national recognition, Chioma complained that the tangible results were meagre compared to those given to the successful male footballers.
Other milestones were set by Commonwealth Games champions Samuel Igun from Warri, Delta state with triple-jump gold and high-jump silver at Kingston 1966, long-jumpers Modupe Oshikoya at Christchurch 1974 and Yusuf Alli from Lagos in Auckland 1990, and shot-putter Vivian Chukwuemeka at Manchester 2002.
London-born Christine Ohuruogu is the most renowned athlete of the diaspora. She has won gold at 400 metres in the Olympic Games at Beijing 2008 (and silver at London 2012), and in the World Championships at Osaka 2007 and Moscow 2013.
Nigerian athletes are said to dominate the shorter distances of UK athletics, and several European teams have contained at least one Nigerian star-performer, with sprinters Glory Alozie (Spain) from Amator in Abia state and Ezinne Okparaebo (Norway) from Imo state – the fastest woman in Scandinavian competition; middle-distance runner Florence Ekpo-Umoh (Germany) from Lagos, and Francis Obikwelu, now retired (Portugal) from Onitsha, who won Olympic Games silver at Athens 2004 and was several times the European sprint champion. Femi Ogunde (Qatar) from Ondo City has won many 100/200 metre golds in Asian and Pan-Arab championships.
Basketball has increased appreciably in popularity, especially since Nigeria won the African Championship in Tunisia in 2015. An added stimulus has been the high-profile success of their compatriots and American Nigerians, such as Emeka (Chukwuemaka) Okafor, in US basketball, both in the colleges and professionally.
However the outstanding player has been Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon. Born in Lagos and associated primarily with the Houston Raiders, he is rated among the greatest basketball players of all time. Olajuwon was a prolific scorer who won the highest plaudits for both his offensive and defensive play
Although local talent is developing quickly, the national team still relies to a substantial extent on imported talent such as Al-Farouq Aminu of Orlando Magic.
Players of Nigerian heritage have been prominent in UK Rugby Uuion since 1988, when Chris Oti became England’s first Black selection for 80 years. Steve Ojomoh from Benin City and Ugo (Ugochukwu) Monye down to current international Maro (Oghenemaro) Itoje, have been prominent among the many Nigerians in national, county and club teams.
The capacity to surprise was shown by the amateur London Nigerians’ shock victory in the Paul Bechet Cup in The Hague in 1998, defeating the Dutch national side in the first round.
Although Nigerians are keen practitioners of what might be described as the strength events, international competition has not been formalised sufficiently to bring them more than three Olympic Games medals. Ruth Ogbeifo led the way, winning silver at the 75kg class at Sydney 2000, to which Miriam Usman added bronze at Beijing 2008, followed by a Commonwealth Games gold at Glasgow 2014 (and four African Championships golds).
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