Nigerian Onyia Likely to Switch Allegiances

Story written by EPelle

Josephine Onyia, the 18th-ranked 100m hurdler in the world in 2006, is on the verge of exchanging Nigeria's green and white colours for the maroon and gold of Spain - a move which could be both lucrative for the Spanish resident and costly at the same time.

African newspaper This Day reported today that Onyia's consideration to represent Spain has been causing backlash in the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (source). Nigeria, which has lost two exclusive athletes to migration, construes the attempt to be a deliberate one to deny Nigeria an opportunity for a medal shot in the event in Osaka in August.

"Since last year, Josephine (Onyia) has been making moves to dump Nigeria for Spain," revealed a source to This Day.

"We understand a former Nigerian athlete who also dumped the country after the Sydney Games has been facilitating her attempt to switch country," continued the unidentified source.

European sprint champion Francis Obikwelu, who earlier this week won the 2006 Waterford Crystal European Athlete-of-the-year award (blog link), disappeared following his last appearnce for Nigeria in the 1994 IAAF World Junior Championships in Lisbon, ending up in his adoptive country Portugal.

Gloria Alozie, another high profile sprinter - and hurdler - began competing for her new country, Spain, in 2001. African record holder at 100m hurdles, Alozie won the African Championships in 1996 and 1998, and 2nd at African Junior National Championships in 1995. Alozie holds a 100m best of 10,90 seconds, and a 100m hurdles personal best of 12,44 seconds.

“She was not made in Spain but here in Nigeria,” Amelia Edet, chief coach with the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and a close friend to Alozie is quoted in The Tribune India 18-August-2001 (source).

“Her exit is a challenge to us to work hard and produce another world-class athlete.”

Alozie's coach, Gad Onumaegbu, who trained her for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, had more understanding for Alozie, stating, “Has she not tried for this country? As a Nigerian, I feel bad about her decision. But what can I do? Nothing.”

Both athletes fled Nigeria mere weeks before the IAAF World Championships were held in Edmonton in 2001.

Onyia, 20, would provide excellent competition for Alozie, who won the Spanish National Championships 100m hurdles in 2002, the Spanish National Indoor Championships in 2003 over the 60m hurdles, and then doubled as 60m hurdles/60m flat champion at her 2006 national indoor championships.

AFN chiefs seem unwilling to let go of their hurdle sensation, who has dropped a remarkable 0,70 seconds from her best two seasons ago, running 12,78 for second place in Helsinki this past summer with a slight wind (+0,76 m/s). Onyia sprinted and hurdled under 13,00-flat four times in 2006, with a windy 12,70 (+3,9 m/s) victory at Bilbao Reunión Internacional de Atletismo win her biggest accomplishment of the season.

Onyia finished the 2006 season with 1260 IAAF points in the 100m hurdles, ranking 18th in the world.

American Michelle Perry (1385 points) led the world, with Alozie (1280), 13th-ranked on the accumulated points scale, and the fifth European.

"AFN is not willing to release her, " the unidentified source revealed to This Day.

"This girl has so much potentials of winning the next All Africa Games as well as qualify for next year's Olympic in China. If AFN refuses her exit, it then means that Josephine will have to wait for almost four years before she can compete for Spain," observed the source.

AFN chiefs are purported to be waiting to block Onyia's petition to change countries by using the fact that invitations were extended to her for both the Commonwealth Games and the African Championship last year. Onyia did not accept either invitation, and did not participate in either of the events.

The IAAF approved new rules on 3-August-2005 to mandate that athletes who change allegiance wait three years after being granted citizenship to compete in a major international event - or one year if both the expatriate and new countries.

Previously, athletes could compete as soon as they had completed three years without representing their former country in any major IAAF competition.

The IAAF council narrowly defeated a proposal for a six-year waiting period, a vote which was fiercely close, 90-80.

Africa has had a great number of its athletes - predominantly distance runners - flee lands like Kenya for greener pastures in Bahrain and Qatar. Two who took a different route were 800m world-record holder Wilson Kipketer, who moved from Kenya to Denmark, and Sierra Leone's Eunice Barber moving to France.

Nigeria has had its share of athletes flee the country, with one of the most prominent - former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon - taking American citizenship in 1993 to represent the USA at the Olympics.

Nigeria seems adamant at stopping Onyia from making the grade as a Spaniard in Osaka. Not all top-level athletes have been lured to Europe by money, as Mercy Nku states.

"I have made up my mind not to take off. I love Nigeria and will remain here.”

Former AFN President Oluyomi Adeyemi-Wilson seems to have disagreed in 2001, stating that the exodus of Nigerians to Europe and abroad was due to a lack of welfare packages available to athletes.

“When athletes are assured of a brighter future,” he said, “they will not run away.”

If Onyia is unsuccessful, she will have to wait until 2010 to compete for Spain, and will miss two IAAF World Championships as well as the Olympic Games in Beijing.

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