The World Athletics Championships came to a glittering golden end for Nigeria’s Oluwatobiloba Amusan last night in Eugene, Oregon, USA. But Tobi was not the only one waiting for victory.
I set my alarm for ten minutes to one last night, the time shown on the timetable by the organizers for the commencement of the final evening session of the championship. The alarm woke up Wifey who thought the time was the usual 6am already, but I told her not to worry, it is for me. So I went downstairs, put on the TV and was ready for the long haul for the semi-finals and final.
Having set a new African women’s 100 metres hurdles record of 12.40 seconds in the heats, I was sure that something special was about to happen from Tobi Amusan. The second places she placed in the various Golden League events were sure prepping her for something great, but you never can tell with the hurdles though, I thought.
Let me tell you about the sprint hurdles, which is easily the most technical and tactical of all track events. It is not like the 100 or 200 metres dash where just brute force and speed can take you through. Those obstacles or hurdles are there for a reason and having represented my school at high school level in the event, with several scars and scratches still to show for it after 50 years, I can tell you that hurdling is a highly specialized form of obstacle racing, where you can pick up injuries on a regular basis.
In sprint hurdle races for women like the one Tobi Amusan does, the first hurdle is 13 metres (42ft 8in) from the starting line and the distance between hurdles is 8.5m (27ft 11in). In the 400 metres long hurdle events, whether for men or women, the first hurdle is 45 metres (147ft 8in) from the starting line and the distance between hurdles is 35 metres (114ft 10in).
Sprint hurdle races are held over 100 metres for women and 110 metres for men, where the women’s hurdles are 0.838 metres (2ft 9in) high and the men’s hurdles are 1.067 metres (3ft 6in) high. In each of the 100 metres, 110 metres and the 400 metres hurdling events, there are a total of 10 hurdles on the track that the competitor must leap over.
Three steps are all you get to create as much speed as possible in sprint hurdles, and the athlete who can do so without crashing, succeeds. Pushing for 4 steps is necessary to create the momentum needed, going into the first hurdle. Three strides in between hurdles will ensure that an athlete will clear each hurdle with the same leg lead. It is important to maintain speed in between hurdles, as the faster you go, the easier it will be to increase stride distance. Not adhering to these steps or error of judgment makes hurdlers victims of crashes in motion and some can be dangerous. A couple of Tobi Amusan’s expected challengers crashed during the heats and semi-finals.
There are many physical factors that contribute to a hurdler’s success, including speed, power, endurance, flexibility, height and quickness. While speed is unarguably the most significant factor, it is also true that, over the years, the best sprinters have not necessarily been the best hurdlers, but the best hurdlers can be very good sprinters and are usually in sprint relay teams. Coordination, timing, bounce, strength, focus, concentration and pro-active aggression in ‘sprinting’ the hurdles are required.
Hitting hurdles with the trail-leg foot is probably the most disconcerting place to hit a hurdle when moving at a high speed, as it causes the greatest loss of rhythm and balance, followed by a fall or worse.
Tobi Amusan, going into the semi-final last night, was the fastest qualifier with the 12.40 seconds she did in the heat that set the new Area and African Record the previous day.
When she broke the world record with 12.12 seconds in the semi-final, even she could not believe it and those of us watching, like me, would have been wiping our eyes to see the time again and be sure it was not a dream. The previous record of 12.20 was set in 2016 by American Kendra Harrison.
Athletics commentators like former world and Olympic great Gail Devers, who were running live commentaries, predicted that after her world record in the semi, it might be difficult for her to go and concentrate to win the gold in the final, because of all the emotions in setting the record unexpectedly.
But Tobi proved everyone wrong by making history for Africa and Nigeria. Her long wait for a global medal materialised on the last day of the Championships as she became Africa’s first ever Gold medalist in the women’s 100m hurdles as well as Nigeria’s first ever world record holder and Gold medalist. She ‘destroyed’ her challengers twice within two hours, crossing the finish line with the unbelievable time of 12.06 seconds in the final, which would not be accepted as another world record because the excess wind speed during the race was +2.5 metres per second. But the Gold medal is hers and all those years of Olympic and World championship failures were wiped out, with a bonus of $100,000 for setting the world record. Jamaica’s Britany Anderson took silver in 12.23 seconds, while Olympic champion Jasmine Camacho-Quinn of Puerto Rico claimed bronze also in 12.23 seconds.
Tobi Amusan has made history as Nigeria’s first and only World Champion in Athletics in her third World Athletics Championships appearance, finishing 4th in Doha in 2019. She was also placed 4th at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
In any competition, 4th place is considered the most painful placing, because it is just one step to a medal or prize, which is usually provided for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners. Some people think 2nd place is also painful because it is just a step to coming first, but at least you do get a prize.
All of Nigeria, Africa and indeed the athletics world are celebrating Tobi Amusan’s feat in Eugene. For all of us who did the night shift and the waiting with her for her long-awaited glory, it was indeed worth it. But her feat should not be taken for granted. While celebrating her, the honour and pleasure and joy she has brought to Nigerians in these dire times must be duly acknowledged. Yes, many governments, agencies, companies and individuals will join the bandwagon and claim her or take credit for her performance. We have done it before and it is a well-known fact that we like to associate with success, instead of working for the success and supporting our sportsmen from the beginning of their training, education and competitions.
The last top hurdler Nigeria had was Gloria Alozie who was a world leader too but due to frustration, changed her nationality to Spanish and started representing that country. Francis Obikwelu changed to Portugal about the same time. It is easier for track and field athletes to change nationality than in football. We must not do anything that will encourage Tobi Amusan to follow that line.
We must also recognise that she was not the only athlete that wiped off Nigeria’s shame in Eugene last night. Ese Brume did not fail, yet again, as she has done before, to deliver, as she won the Silver medal in the women’s Long Jump with a leap of 7.02 metres.
Ese could have won the Gold, having led for much of the event until the German defending champion Malaika Mihambo came up with the top jumps later on.
Tobi and Ese are the heroines of our time and we celebrate them. They will surely encourage others as they go straight to Birmingham for the 2022 Commonwealth Games which begin on Thursday, 28th July and end on Monday, 8th August. They should also do well there and bring more smiles to the faces of their countrymen and women, who need something positive these trying times.