By Ben Ogbemudia
Blessing Okagbare says she is ready to roll in Tokyo at the Olympics. And Nigerians believe her on the strength of her historic race at the Athletics Federation of Nigeria Olympic Trials at the Sports Complex of Yaba College of Technology in Lagos.
The 32-year-old scorched to a 10.63 seconds finish to tie Jamaican, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce time as 2021 world lead. Okagbare says the race has given her renewed confidence in a memorable performance at the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Four years ago she didn’t make it to the final of the 100m. She has not run in any final of the sprint events since 2015 when she raced to an 11.02 seconds finish to place eighth at the World Athletics Championship in Beijing, China.
Many local watchers of the sport erroneously thought Old Father Time had booked an appointment with the 2014 double Commonwealth Games champion, that her time was up.
Like a true Nigerian, Okagbare never let down her guard as she kept and still keeps working hard to erase that wrong perception, She rose from the disappointment of missing the track, her second home in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic to make a statement at the indoor season, setting two personal bests in the 60m (7.10) and 200m (23.01). That was 11 years after she last competed indoors.
Outdoors she continued from where she left off indoors, first scorching to a 53.21 personal best in the 400m. On the strength of that performance, many athletics watchers believe the long-legged sprinter would become the first African woman to run a sub-22 seconds in the 200m.
No one paid any attention to the 100m until the Sapele-born sprinter raced to a 10.90 seconds personal season’s best at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Doha, Qatar in May.
Okagbare showed a glimpse of what to come at the semifinal of the event at the AFN Tokyo Olympic trials when she effortlessly ran 10.99 seconds to set a new championship record. But not many expected she would run faster than the 10.79 seconds Nigerian record she ran in London in 2013. Like a bolt out of the blues Okagbare uncharacteristically stormed out of the blocks in first place and was never headed as she stopped the clock at 10.62 seconds before it was rounded up to 10.63 seconds.
History has been made in front of a supportive Youth and Sports Development Minister, Mr Sunday Dare and the new president of the AFN, Tonobock Okowa who were watching the events live at the venue. Okagbare has made further history not only as the first woman to run a sub 11 seconds at the National Championship but also the first to break 10.70 seconds. Her scorching 10.63 seconds performance is also a new African record. Only Florence Griffith Joyner who holds the world record at 10.49 seconds has run faster.
The Nigerian has now emerged as one of the favorites for the 100m gold at the Tokyo Olympics alongside Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who first ran 10.63 seconds this season at the JOA/JAAA Olympic Destiny Series 3 meet at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, and Sha Carri Richardson, the 2019 NCAA 100m queen who has achieved 10.72 seconds this season.