13 August 2017

Nigeria: Why Nigeria Is Failing in Athletics - Coach Who Helped Set African Record

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athletics track

As the curtain falls on the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London this Sunday, one record that has again failed to be matched is that of former Nigerian sprint star Olusoji Fasuba.

Fasuba ran the 100m in a time of 9.85 seconds to set a new African record in Doha, Qatar on May 12, 2006.

While some South African athletes have been edging towards matching or breaking that record, they could not; at least in London.

Nigerian athletes on their part are nowhere near this record as none has been able to break the 10 seconds barrier in recent years.

In this light, PREMIUM TIMES speaks with Pierre-Jean Vazel who is widely seen as one of the major hidden geniuses in the world of athletics.

From nowhere, the French coach propelled ex-Nigerian athlete Olusoji Fasuba to set a new African record which 11 years after, it is still standing tall.

In this exclusive interview, Vazel speaks on how difficult it was achieving the African record with Fasuba and why nobody from the continent has run fast enough to break the record set over a decade ago

PT: You are vast as far as athletics is concerned, what is your take on athletics in Nigeria and by extension Africa.

Vazel: African Athletics improved tremendously during the eighties and took over in distance running and especially marathon in the nineties.

That was the golden era for Nigeria in sprinting.

While Kenya clearly has a tradition in distance running, it didn't click in Nigeria.

It might come one day with more promotion of its champions on home soil, attracting kids, creating the conducive environment for talent development.

Nigeria might move from 7 to the 3rd most populous country with USA in the next decades, that's a big opportunity for Nigerian sports officials to catch! There will be plenty of youth ready to do sports if facilities and financial incitation are in place. It would be a win-win situation for sports, politics, and economy.

PT: How did you meet your former athlete, Olusoji Fasuba, and is he the only Nigerian you have worked with?

Vazel: I met Olu in 2004, I was an IAAF correspondent for France. I had practiced athletics for 12 years and was very into sports history and biomechanics; but as strange as it sounds Olu was the first athlete I coached. I think he liked that because I could not rely on what worked with other athletes, rather what works for him. We came up with original workouts designed specifically for his needs.

PT: How difficult was it turning him to a world beater and making him set an Africa record yet to be broken after 11 years?

Vazel: I was only 23 back in 2004 and couldn't imagine how difficult it would be, just to enter in meetings in Europe, he had to report to embassies either in Lagos or Abuja, get visas on time, sometimes he missed competitions. Results sometimes looked like chaotic, same as many Africans, because people don't know what's going on behind the scenes. It was not like some groups where everything is perfectly organised and athlete only have to think about running.

During the biggest events, I sometimes had to sleep on the floor in hotels to follow him, I won't tell you all the tricks we had to find in order to get our job done, but we know the price of the African record and the world title in 2008. We had that little smile because we knew where we came from to make it happen. And victories meant more than for others I'm sure. Olu was able to cope with all this because besides having a great talent he is very smart, clever and wise.

PT: Quitting the scene when he did, was that a good decision for Fasuba

Vazel: Quitting was Olu's decision. I respect that. I wish he had more support from the federation (AFN). After his Commonwealth game silver medal in Australia behind Asafa Powell, he came back to the athletes' village alone by taxi at 2 a.m. because nobody was with him during the anti-doping control in the main stadium, the Federation only gave me access to warm up area and told me 'you should have been with him!' In 2007, Olu placed 4th at 100m world final without wearing a Nigerian suit because there was none, he only got registered at the champs by chance. When IAAF realised he was not on the list, they called the manager and took the liberty to add him on the list - half of the Nigerian team who was already in Osaka was not able to run as they were not registered. In 2008, he won world gold medal and we had to find a Nigerian kit in rush for the podium, fortunately, the Nigerian community is quite big in Valencia and someone borrowed one to him. I could go on and on I have many stories but those ones you can easily verify.

PT: Why do you think no Nigerian male athlete has been able to step into Fasuba's shoes?

Vazel: Difficulties remain and after what I've said, one can realise that to build a professional career in these conditions is virtually impossible.

Olu was not the most talented of his generation, but he was the most adaptable to the problematic situations, until a certain point where he had to quit and make a family.

More talented athletes have disappeared; Seun Ogunkoya, Tammy Atorudibo, Franka Idoko should have made Olympic podiums. Sadly, I believe Obikwelu would have never had the career he had without defecting for Portugal. Okagbare is an exception but again she lives in the USA.

PT: Any advice that can make Nigeria athletics great again

Vazel: The TV reality show, Making of champions, really is interesting but it should be done at a higher scale with a real federal structure; hiring competent coaches not just famous names; having a sound competition calendar well planned in advance; allowing athletes to have training camps where the best athletes go in order to see what it takes to become a champion; not just a fast guy that will eventually vanish. There were too many already. South Africa is doing good, they have great facilities where they can train. Olu was attacked once in a weight room in 2007 with an iron bar, sometimes he had to train in the parking (lot) because stadium doors were closed. He was preparing for world championships! I'm not sure people realise that Nigeria could out run Jamaica in sprinting. I dream of a Nigerian Boys & Girls champs like in Jamaica. Within two Olympiads, you will see Nigerian flag on top of the stadiums again.

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