Nigeria’s Para athletes and the struggle to keep fit

By Ijeoma Okigbo

ABUJA, April 26, 2018 – Nigeria’s physically challenged are the talk of town after punching above their weights at the just concluded XXI Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

Not one or two but five physically challenged athletes won gold medals as compared to four from their able bodied compatriots.

“Whatever challenge the able bodied face, we the physically challenged face it thrice,” Esther Oyema, world record holder in para power-lifting says.

“When we train, we do it with all our heart because some of us see sports as the only medium to express ourselves.”

Oyema, alongside six other compatriots, pulled a medal each, raising Nigeria’s medal haul to 24 in Gold Coast.

The 36-year-old, who set a world record in women’s lightweight by lifting 126kg in Glasgow 2014, smashed the record by lifting an incredible 131kg in Gold Coast.

It is only stating the obvious when one rate the para athletes well high above their able bodied counterparts in Nigeria.

Sport fans follow ardently para events as they are assured of nothing short of success.

The XVII 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester, England, was the first major international multi-sport event to include para athletes in its main sports programme and medal table.

As usual, Nigeria’s Adekunle Adesoji shined in the Men’s 100m EAD (Elite Athletes with a Disability) category pulling a world record of 10.76s in the T12 event which earned him gold.

Adesoji replicated the feat four years later in Melbourne, obtaining gold as well. Since Adesoji, the country cannot be less proud of her para athletes who colour the sporting world with their aura of excellence in almost all events they feature.

The sad tale is that the goose that lay the golden egg is not adequately motivated. “All we need is facilities, early preparations for tournaments and support from all spheres of the society,” Oyema told AIPSmedia following the team’s return from the Games.

“Big thanks to Peak Milk Nigeria Limited who provided some top class facilities for us in Lagos (Nigeria’s western and largest city) which was instrumental to our success at the Games.

“The challenge is that we (para athletes) cannot access Lagos all the time. It is quite far from our various locations.”

Affirming the limited work tools, Roland Ezuruike, a 42-year-old paralympian who resides in Imo state, an eastern part of the country says he goes through very difficult situations to train regularly.

“We do not have the necessary weight we need. We have no gym centers,” Ezuruike, who won the country’s first gold medal in lightweight para power-lifting category in Gold Coast said.

“The bar bell we have is outdated and when you come across the recent one it seems as though you have to start all over trying to get used to it.

“If I am not in Lagos, I make do with whatever I can lay my hands on. Sometimes I carry concrete blocks, bags of rice and cement just to stay fit.”

He said it would difficult for a beginner to survive with the present situation thereby reducing the possibilities of developing young talents to replace the old ones.

“At my age now, I can manage any situation but I don’t know how the generation after us will cope with the situation. It is going to be very difficult for them,’’ Ezuruike said.

The Rio 2016 Paralympic gold medalist however wants empowerment for the para athletes to enable the aged ones retire well.

“Sport is about motivation. When athletes do well, the government should show appreciation for representing them.

“There is also life after sports. You cannot be representing your country and when you retire you have nothing to boast of.

“We should be empowered by possible employment so that we can rely on pension and gratuities when we retire,” he concluded.

Also adding a voice to the plea, Queen Uboh, president of the Nigeria Para Power-lifting Federation, says provision of employment and training facilities will see the end of the physically challenged living on the streets.

Uboh said the physically challenged who are considered second class members of their families and society have been reduced to become road-side beggars.

“The physically challenged is no different from every human. Some of them are opportune to be sportsmen and women and have become the bread winners of their families.

“It is just sad that we have many potential talents who are out there doing nothing. Some of our present athletes just have the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to feature in before they retire.

“If provision of facilities can be provided for them and gaining employment in various sectors of the society, then we can say we have done a whole lot of good to humanity,” she said.

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