Why the African Games was memorable for athletics

 

It was 6:35 pm in Accra, and the Ghanaian fans had remained inside the stadium at the University of Ghana, where the Athletics event of the 15th African Games took place. Typically, they would have begun to leave in their droves to avoid the evening traffic. Instead, the 11,000 seats in the stadium remained filled, all expectant for the men’s 4x100m final.

It was a renewal of the rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana—perhaps for the 1000th time. Rivalry spans all life work, but nothing beats the one in sport. With Ghana hosting this edition of the African Games, Nigeria had a chance to exact its pound of flesh on her West African neighbors.

You could hear a pin drop in the stadium as Sunday Okon and Gadayi Edwin prepared to take the lead leg for Nigeria and Ghana, respectively. As they took the baton around for the first three legs, it was when the anchors for both countries—Usheoritse Itsekiri for Nigeria and Joseph Amoah for Ghana—got the baton that the decibel levels of sound from the crowd went a lot higher.

Nigeria’s quartet of Emmanuel Ojeli, Samson Nathaniel, Adewale Sikiru & Chidi Okezie shook off their exhaustion to finish on the podium in men’s 4x400m.

All four have had a lot of races in five days, but they still gave it their best to secure the Bronze medal from the race. pic.twitter.com/S13TWIJSyg

— Making of Champions (@MakingOfChamps) March 23, 2024

With about 90m of track to cover, both sprinters gave it their all. With the home crowd cheering Amoah, he tried to reel in Itsekiri for the Gold as he did five years ago in Rabat. He came within whiskers of doing that but ran out of track and lost the Gold to Nigeria by 0.02s. The Ghanaian fans in the stadium jubilated as if they had won, but it was not until they saw the time on the screen. Close, but yet far away. Nigeria had won this round of rivalry.

This race exemplified how running at his core was just about getting to the finish line ahead of your rivals. Doesn’t matter how the job is done. Just do it. Itsekiri wanted it so much that he threw himself on the line. The bruises were worth every ounce of Gold. “I wanted it so much,” he said after the race. A day before, he had snagged Silver in the men’s 100m, an upgrade from the Bronze he won in Rabat. But this Gold meant more to him. “This is my first international Gold for Nigeria, and I’m glad it came on Ghanaian soil.”

Beatrice Chepkoech, champion in Women’s steeplechase, photo by Christopher Maduewesi for RunBlogRun

We also witness something of sorts in the women’s Steeplechase. Beatrice Chepkoech, the record-holder in the event, showcased her versatility by competing in the 5000m event on the second day in Accra. Although she settled for fourth place in the 5000m, Chepkoech quickly reasserted her dominance in her signature event. From the outset, the Kenyan athlete took charge, closely pursued by Uganda’s Olympic champion, Peruth Chemutai. Together, they created a formidable front, leaving no room for the Ethiopian trio of Lomi Muleta, Sembo Almayew, and Firehiwot Gesese to challenge their supremacy.

As the race progressed, Chepkoech and Chemutai surged ahead, demonstrating their exceptional endurance. Chepkoech, particularly, exhibited remarkable focus and determination, maintaining her lead throughout the race. In a stunning display of athleticism, she crossed the finish line in a championship record time of 9:15.61, surpassing the previous mark set by her compatriot Ruth Bosibori in 2007. Chemutai secured the Silver with a commendable performance, clocking in at 9:16.07, nearly 10 seconds ahead of Muleta, who claimed the Bronze.

Perhaps the most significant form of racing we saw in Accra came in the mixed 4x400m relay. In a heart-pounding display of athleticism, the Nigerian quartet embarked on a historic journey at the African Games. Emmanuel Ojeli, Patience Okon-George, Sikiru Adeyemi, and Omolara Ogunmakinju etched their names into the annals of African track and field history, propelled by an unyielding spirit and an unwavering commitment to win.

As the race unfolded, Botswana surged ahead, establishing a commanding lead that seemed insurmountable. But the Nigerian athletes refused to be deterred, igniting a remarkable comeback that would leave spectators on the edge of their seats. With sheer determination and raw athleticism, Ojeli led the charge, passing the baton to Okon-George, who valiantly fended off the fierce competition.

Nigeria’s quartet of Emmanuel Ojeli, Samson Nathaniel, Adewale Sikiru & Chidi Okezie shook off their exhaustion to finish on the podium in men’s 4x400m.

All four have had a lot of races in five days, but they still gave it their best to secure the Bronze medal from the race. pic.twitter.com/S13TWIJSyg

— Making of Champions (@MakingOfChamps) March 23, 2024

With the finish line in sight, it was Adeyemi’s turn to shine. Despite facing formidable opponents, including African 400m Silver medallist Bayapo Ndori, Adeyemi held his ground, refusing to concede an inch. And then, in a breathtaking display of grit, Ogunmakinju summoned every ounce of strength within her. As the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers, Ogunmakinju made up an almost 10m lead, crossing the finish line to claim Gold for Nigeria.

In its purest form, winning is all that matters in racing. Athletics has gotten to a point where we fixate only on the times and forget why we began to do this at the beginning. The African Games reminded us of this. Maybe we need to find a balance between wanting to see humans reach new limits by breaking records as well as enjoying the essence of athletics.

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