Before July 2021, the fastest African was the 100m record holder, a Nigerian named Olusoji Fasuba. In 1986, Chidi Imoh ran the fastest time on earth for the 100m—even Carl Lewis could not match his time. Forbes wrote in 2012, “Over the last seven Olympic men’s 100-meter races, all 56 finalists have been of West African descent.”
The previous European Champion in the 100m was also born a Nigerian, and his name was Francis Obikwelu. The former Asian 100m record holder, Femi Ogunode, is also Nigerian-born. So why in 2021 was only one Nigerian male sprinter starting at the 100m final race in the Tokyo Olympics?
Of the top four fastest humans in history, three are Jamaicans. Since 2008, only Jamaicans have won Olympic gold medals in the men and women Olympics. Remember Fasuba of Nigeria? His mother is Jamaican. How is it even possible that tiny islands can produce this number of fast people? Well, it has to do with genes.
First the science
Bengt Saltin, the world’s premier human performance and race expert, has concluded that an athlete’s “environment” accounts for no more than 20-25% of athletic ability. The rest comes down to the genetic dice roll, with each population group having distinct advantages. In other words, running success is “in the genes.”
There is a gene for running, and it’s called the Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) gene. Those who have it are likely to have a larger than average heart, capable of pumping highly oxygenated blood to muscles quicker than the average human. That also gives their body a better response to training. In people of West African origin, the frequency of the variant is slightly higher than in those of European and Japanese origin. In Jamaica, it’s a little higher than in West Africa. Keep in mind that blacks in Jamaica are descendants of slaves from Africa. Micheal Brooks, in his article, “Why Jamaicans are good in sprinting,” said:
“There is a protein called alpha-actinin-3, which helps muscles generate strong, repetitive contraction. It comes in different types. The desirable variant for a sprinter is known as 577RR. While only 70% of US international-standard athletes have the desirable variant, 75% of Jamaicans have it whether they are athletes or not.“
Now, let’s destroy the science
Frankie Fredricks of Namibia is not Jamaican or West African, and he is a two-time Olympic Silver medalist. When Chidi Imoh ran the world’s fastest time in 1986, where were the Jamaicans? In fact, in 1983, Nigeria participated in the World University Games held in Edmonton, Canada, where Nigeria sent only ten athletes and won 5 gold medals. Where was Jamaica? So it’s not just genes.
How Jamaica wins
Jamaica has kept its youth program alive. Its most significant athletics event is the VMBS Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, known simply as “Champs.” This event started in 1910, and attracts crowds of 25,000 people for a secondary school event!
The secondary school that dominates Champs is called Calabar High School, and it’s an athletics powerhouse (yes, it is named after Calabar in Nigeria). When Jamaica won its first 400m relay at the 1952 Olympics, three of the quartet were Calabar alumni. The school has a sponsorship deal with Puma, the German sportswear company that sponsors Bolt.
Over 200 Jamaican athletes train in America. There are currently 21 Jamaican coaches in American universities. Still, Stephen Francis, a Jamaican coach, created the MVP club in 2001 based in the University of Technology, Kingston, Jamaica. He trained Brigitte Foster Hylton, who became commonwealth champion and Asafa Powel in Jamaica! His other clients include Shelly-Ann Fraser, the former 100m Olympic Champion.
The Jamaican Amateur Athletic Association (JAAA) built the High-Performance Training Centre in a University in Jamaica to get athletes to stay in Jamaica. Triple Olympic champion Usain Bolt trained there. Jamaica’s success is more than genes, it is a planned investment in coaches, athletics, and facilities.
So what happened to Nigeria?
What happened to our athletics program? It failed. Why? No athletics development program in schools, no sponsors, no facilities, no support for athletes. Chidi Imoh progressed from his school annual inter-house games to District championship to National championship representing Imo State, to National Sports Festival to Mobil Athletics Championship, to the World University Games in Canada, to African Champion in 1984, to IAAF World Indoor Championships in Athletics, then to Olympic Games in 1992.
Do our new athletes have this clear progression? The NNPC/Mobil joint venture confirmed in 2011 that it would no longer be the Nigerian Track and Field Athletics Championship title sponsor. That event was the major event for selecting Nigeria’s representatives to major international athletics championships. How many Nigerian schools have tracks or do annual sports events?
China is an example we should pay close attention to
In China, sports is more than sports. Chinese athletes are paid a government salary. There are government-funded academies devoted to training the next generation of Chinese athletes like the Shichahai Sports School. Six days a week, students study in the mornings and train for four hours in the afternoon. China also sent six coaches to Jamaica to study how Jamaica produces sprinters.
The results show for themselves. With a population of 1 billion, China had never managed to get a sprinter into a 100m or 200m final across the past 14 editions of the IAAF World Championships. However, China has been methodical; in the 20th Asian Championships in Pune, India, China took 100m men and women titles. Also, in Inchon, China’s men’s 4x100m team broke the Asian record. In the last World Athletics meet in China, in the 100m finals, there were nine men on the tracks, 8 of the men were Negros, all with African roots, then one man from China named Bingtian Su. No Nigerian.
Bingtian Su came last in that 100m race, but the Chinese 4x100m relay team came 3rd…a Chinese Team third. At the Tokyo Olympics, a Chinese man, Su Bingtian, ran 9.83, becoming the fastest Asian on earth and qualifying for the 100m final– the first time an Asian has run in the final since 1932!
It’s not a coincidence, and it’s not just genes
No one reading this would have believed that a Chinese sprinter would be on the starting block of an Olympic 100m final. China got there because they looked at a problem and devised a solution, even as science said it was impossible. Can anyone here bet a Chinese sprinter will not win the 100m gold in 20 years? Before you answer, note that a Chinese man, Liu Xiang, was the Olympic and World Record meters holder in the 110m hurdles in 2004 and 2007.
It is all about planning
I am writing this article about sports and sprinting. The real message is about planning and goal setting, effectively how a nation can overcome anything, even biology. There is nothing a government cannot do if they are unified in doing it. America put a man on the moon, and China put a man in the 100m final race. Both were once considered impossible. Both involved a national desire backed by a national plan. With absolutely everyone keyed into the goal. The result was a success.
There has been no issue or event that has unified Nigeria in the modern era. Suppose it was possible to take Nigeria’s raw emotions when she beat Brazil at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, bottle it, and deploy it to a national goal like infrastructure. Nigeria can do anything, absolutely anything.