Abuja- National head coach, Gabriel Okon earlier this week had a heart to heart chat with Athletic Heat and opened up on some issues affecting Nigerian athletics, The High Performance system and the National University Games (NUGA)
What’s the position of the National University Games as at the moment Sir?
“The plan was that NUGA is to be held in November but I’m not sure if its going to hold because its University of Agriculture, Makurdi that is suppose to host it and I’m not sure the facilities are ready but Uniport is very ready to host the West African University Games (WAUG)
“Ordinarily, NUGA is supposed to be held before WAUG but in the case where NUGA is not ready I don’t know what’s happening. We held a meeting here (Abuja) about two or three weeks ago and I was there when the decision was taken that all the schools for the zonal elimination should return and so they had to return. I know some people from University of Ibadan that were in Lagos for 2 days before they were asked to return.”
Coach Gabriel went on to praise Making of Champions and Femi Ogunode for the help and support they are rendering to Nigerian athletes.
“I do applaud Making of Champions and Femi Ogunode for what they are doing because they put money into the system, they are giving athletes competition and even they are doing better than the AFN because when the athletes finish running, they are paid immediately.
“When I was directing some athletic meetings here in Abuja few years ago when Amos Adamu was Director General, we did some relays and we paid the athletes instantly. I don’t like owing athletes. For two years now, athletes haven’t been paid their Golden League and All Nigeria prize monies and I don’t like it.”
Even as he applauded the organizations for the great development, he also had some advice for them.
“Once again, I applaud MoC and Femi Ogunode but what they need to do is to meet people like us. I don’t really mean me, but experienced people who can organize meets and so we can put them right. For instance, let this competition be in the AFN calendar not to be organized by them but in their calendar whereby the meets are done before Championships in July or when athletes are still in season so they could compete well. By the time you organize a meet in September or October, it doesn’t make much sense.
“Because what the rule says is that, after the competition season, an athlete is expected to rest between 4 to 6 weeks off training and personally, I advise 6 weeks because what you need to do, your body has to be at almost zero. In this period, you are free to have fun, eat well and do what you want. Then you will be hungry to comeback and when you comeback, you will gradually burn the fat and within the 6 weeks you would been healed from any pain or injury by then and this is a time to sit with your coach and look at what went wrong during the season and make corrections. You also have to do methodology analysis to check what if your EPO is low, if your creatine is low, if your electrolyte is low and whatever is wrong in your system so you can nutritionally balance well.”
Looking at the future of Nigeria athletics and the 2020 Olympics, he had this to say;
“Currently, we have two athletes that can actually give us medals at 2020 Olympic. Firstly, Aniekeme Alphonsus and Mercy Ntia-Obong. If they are well nurtured, by the way, if you check the ladies running 10.7s or 10.8s today, 3 or 4 years ago they were running 11.2s or 11.3s which is what these girls are running but if you keep on making them run in September or October without them planning, they won’t. Aniekeme was at Youth Festival in Ilorin, 2 weeks ago while Mercy was at MoC and also at Ogunode competitions last week but they need to rest for about 4 weeks so that their bodies would heal and they would systematically load their system to come back and that’s how champions are made.
“It’s very easy to train athletes, just that people like us are not giving the opportunity. AFN would come up with their agenda, send the athletes to the US to run relays and yet we still can’t run relays. It’s a joke! Of course, it’s a joke! And if things are put in place, of course we can get people that can give us medals internationally.”
Almost everywhere else in the World, sprints competitions are not held at this time of the year, but….
He cuts in,
“At all! Right now in the US it’s called Fall Conditioning. People are doing Cross Country, getting strength, getting their ligaments, tendon and every other body part strong. They don’t compete now again. What are they competing for in September or October? So when do they athletes come back?”
Very true! People don’t have the knowledge about this…
He cuts in again,
“And nobody wants to consult! If you don’t sit down with me and talk you may not know a lot about me. I’m a High Performance Coach and I didn’t get my job because I’m good looking. No! but the point is that, you need to sit down with people who knows what training entails. High Performance training is advance way of training. You need to get some real conditioning programs to strengthen the ligaments and all those small muscles. You do single leg lift, both left and right leg. They are so many things to do. You don’t get up and do anything you want. Haba!”
Speaking on the American athletes who switched allegiance to Nigeria. Coach Gabriel had this to say;
“I have lived in America for 32 years. I left this country in 1984 and bringing all these Americans here is okay. For a matter of fact, the school I went to, some of them won’t be able to get admission into that school (University of New Mexico).
“There’s nothing wrong in bringing the Americans here, but after we have trained them, Nigerians would take over after they have mastered the system but we don’t have to master it because we all come from the same background. Why should athletes go to America to train when we already have American’s here? We have American schools here and people pay so much dollars to attend those kind of schools because the Americans come here and teach and they excel well in school. The same goes to in training. We went to school there, we trained and lived there and we can still do well in training here.”
Since you went to America, why can’t you be put in the forefront to see that you bring home based athletes to be on the same pedestrian with those that are in America?
“We both agreed on one thing earlier that athletes shouldn’t compete in September or October, right? Everyone is in his/her locality training with one coach or the other and they will be with them till March or April then AFN or National Sports Commission will call for camp and they will invite Gabriel Okon and a few others to start training them. Championships are in July, two months to go. What can we do? Well, just a few things and that’s what we have been doing in this country for the past 8 years. But no! We have one High Performance Center here (Abuja) and one in port Harcourt, the more centers that are built, the better for Nigeria. As an athlete, you are not expected to leave Sokoto and go for camp in Port Harcourt or Abuja. I live in California and I have never seen athletes leave California and go to New York for camp. No! “
Commenting on the just concluded National Youth Festival, Coach Gabriel emphasized the need for long distances and other key events to be added to such programs.
“The Youth Festival was a very good innovation but guess what! They only did 100m, 200m, 400m, Shot Put, Discus and 4x100m relay. What about the hurdles? The jumps? The long distance events? What about the northers, do you want them to run 100m and 200m? No!
“But they will never consult anyone because there’s no money. What if you just say we want to do 5 or 6 events, please help pick events for us. If you are doing 100m, you don’t need to do 200m, then do the 400m and 800m and this have covered the middle and long distance. Then one vertical and horizontal jump event. Nigerian’s were very good in the Long Jump so we can’t forget that event and we have to do hurdles because a good hurdler would be a good sprinter and jumper and as children or youth, they need to develop that way.”
Even the long distance runners, we really don’t see them at international meets like the All African Games, Commonwealth etc. Why is it so?
“It’s because we do not have a program, when they can’t start from the youth category, when will they start? If we can run 400m in this country, we can run 800m but we don’t have a program for it. We are very impatient! We have a High Altitude in Jos of over 5,000 feet above sea level and they can train there but we don’t develop them. After all, we have Cross Country, we have 10km in Okpekpe, the Lagos marathon and some few days ago in Benin, they did 10km road race and we need to develop our own. Champions are not made from competitions, they are made from what you and I are talking about, which is planning.
“But the thing about us is that, we have so much hatred for each other. If you are in one camp, you are in one camp. If you work with Ogba, oh! Na Ogba pikin! Solomon Ogba and I disagree most times but when you have a superior argument to what he says, then he will buy your argument. And there’s this mentality that if my person isn’t there, he is a bad person.”
Still making reference to the Making of Champions initiative, he said;
“A company like Making of Champions, I sincerely don’t want anything from them but call us, we can use that opportunity to create a coaching clinic/seminar and it’s just about cooperation.
“I love Bambo and his ideas but it’s just that it’s a wrong timing. He needs to sit and seek for more advice and ask how to move forward on things.
“I know many athletes he has taken hunger from in the last few weeks. I am aware! When I heard some of my athletes were there, initially I was angry but you know what? When I heard how much money was involved, I wasn’t angry again. Haha!
“I was like, you guys must chop! Take 2 0r 3 weeks break then we would start the program all over again. But what I am trying to say is that, they should put it at the right time of the year. So it could yield more results.
“I like what he is doing because he is promoting Nigeria track and field and you (Athletic Heat).
“I like our athletes to make money and it brings less trouble to me because most times I get calls. Oh coach! I don’t have money to come for training. I always tell them, please buy a car. If you give me the money I can help you get from America or even Lagos, so you could move around and when other athletes see you, they will know you are doing well. “
Still buttressing his point, Coach Gabriel threw some light on the national camp issues.
“Whenever we go for camp and AFN says there’s no allowance, I always get angry with them.
“Imagine you and I train together and I am invited for national camp and I return then I’m still asking you for money to eat. What is the motivation for you to train and go to national camp? Nothing!
“When you have run and you get to that level, when you return, you come back with 3 or 4 tights, canvas, spikes, different shirts and shorts and with about #50,000 to #100,000 naira. That’s national camp.
“This motivates athletes but now going to National Camp is a national sorrow. People go to camp and cry and I have to use my own money to give coaches and athletes. Athletes can’t even buy toothpaste and you call it national camp? It’s an embarrassment and I disagree with it.
“I have a lot of disagreements with them but I can’t run away from them because it’s my sport and we have to work together and of course, we live to agree and disagree.”
Trying to clear the air on his position in the affairs of Nigerian athletics, Coach Gabriel explained that he literally doesn’t have a right to implement any decision, “all I can do is to suggest.”
“I’m not the Technical Director, I’m not a member of the AFN board, I’m not the Director of the sports. So all I can do is to make suggestions but it’s either they take it or not. I don’t have the power to implement.
“Most people think I’m in the AFN board and I’m not but it’s just because I have been here for so long. I have spoken to Lekan (Soetan) and all the other guys that there’s no need to fight and abuse each other on Facebook, we can all have a dialogue because if we all run from the AFN, the sport will just die!
“If we hadn’t had this conversation, you wouldn’t really have known my position. I am just a coach who is hired to be one of the High Performance coaches in Nigeria. I am also a member of the AFN Technical committee “not a member of the AFN board o!” because it’s different. I’m the head coach of Track and Field when we travel. No more, no less.”
If I may ask, what’s the role of Eric Campbell and Angie Taylor in Nigeria?
You have to understand the High Performance system. Eric Campbell is the High Performance Director while Angie Taylor is the National Performance Director. It’s not a coaching position but you must know how to coach. Like me, I am in charge of the 400m athletes while Coach Mike Afilaka is in charge of 100m and 200m. So we are the two High Performance coaches in Nigeria. Eric oversees all that concerns athletics while Angie is the National Performance Director for Weightlifting, Track and Field, Boxing and Wrestling.
On a final note;
“I am going to start a coaching seminar next month and we are trying to get sponsors and put things in place. As you know, I am the head of Nigerian coaches.
“Ogba is not as bad as most people think. If everyone leaves him alone, the sport would die. Secondly, he is as credible as you think, if you have a superior argument to his, he will buy your idea.
“I implore all ex-internationals who are living abroad or in Nigeria to come and do something to improve our sport just the way Femi (Ogunode) is doing. Instead of sitting somewhere and be criticizing and talking! Come and coach, manage or even sponsor athletes. Get involved in the movement!
“I am still a legal resident of California. I have my wife and children there but I’m here to help Nigerians, so they could do the same sacrifice and come down to help our country.
“I also want our universities to include sports in their curriculum because in America, it’s the collegiate system, while in Jamaica, it’s the high school system but in Nigeria there is no system. Haha!
“AFN has to pay the Golden League and All Nigeria prize monies they are owing the athletes for about two years now and they have to stop saying that the athletes and coaches should come to camp without allowance. Hell no! Any athlete that goes to camp without getting a letter and without knowing how much he/she would be paid is a fool!
“The sports commission does not approve athletes/coaches to go to camp without given the AFN money. Only if the National Sports Commission announce that athletes/coaches should go to camp without money then AFN should accept but if they have not mandated that, I do not subscribe to that. For me, who works with the NSC, I have no choice but to go because I work for them but an athlete who doesn’t work there, has a right to demand for their money expect you aren’t qualified to become a coach or athlete. “
Thanks so much for your time Coach.
You are welcome.
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