Nigerians have reacted with shock, anger, and disbelief after one of their own was handed a career-ending ban by an anti-doping body- the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU).
AIU, an organ of the World Athletics Council handed 33-year-old Blessing Okagbare a ten-year ban, suggesting she has in effect been retired from track and field sports.
Okagbare who previously won the long jump silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, was in Tokyo competing as one of Nigeria’s sprinters. Her woes started at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when she won her heat for the 100-meter sprint but was ruled out of the semifinals after testing positive for the human growth hormone and recombinant erythropoietin (EPO).
According to the World Athletics’ Disciplinary Tribunal, following Okagbare’s suspension from the Olympics, further investigations revealed the presence of multiple prohibited substances in her body. For this offense, she was handed a five-year ban.
“The sole arbitrator adjudicating the case concluded that the athlete’s use of multiple prohibited substances as part of an organized doping regimen in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympic Games was egregious conduct that amounted to aggravating circumstances under the Rules thereby warranting an additional period of ineligibility on top of the standard four-year sanction,” reads the statement from the AIU in part.
Okagbare was also handed another five years for failing to cooperate with the investigations, making it a total of ten years. The Nigerian track and field athlete is accused of frustrating investigations by the AIU when she refused to hand over her electronic devices, which denied the AIU a right to discover evidence of possible rule-breaking by Okagbare and others.
Brett Clothier, head of the AIU, said that a 10-year ban was “a strong message against attempts to cheat”.
In a statement on her Twitter handle, Okagbare said her lawyers were studying the details of the case, with a view to coming up with the next line of action.
“My lawyers are currently studying it for our next line of action which we will inform you soon,” she said.
Okagbare also said she was grateful to those trying to protect her mental health.
Several Nigerians appeared to support Okagbare saying the ban was outrageous, as it means she might never compete again in her chosen career of track and field. A ten-year ban means she will be 43 when it ends and that is too old to compete.
Several Nigerians including Emmanuel Tobi, a United States-based sports journalist, found the ruling by AIU unfair.
He said: “Stay strong dear! There is a conspiracy somewhere. Nevertheless, you are more than a conqueror. We will never abandon our own no matter the outcome, we love you for life”.
Emmanuel Price Eregare promised prayers, adding that God would vindicate Okagbare by showing that the AIU statement was nonsense. Others like Oshehore Innocent Okotiette called the decision by AIU racist and that it required an appeal in the court of arbitration.
Ijeoma Nwanze described how she wept when the news broke on Friday, she said: “Please be strong for us Nigerians and we shall always be there for you. I wept bitterly when I heard the story. My prayers that you come out of this victorious in Jesus Christ’s name. Nobody can ruin your career please always be assured that you have my support in my own way with my prayers for you. I will always love you so much and I really appreciate you.”
Larry Goldston wanted the AIU to explain to the world the criteria used in determining their judgment on the Nigerian athlete. He said: “I don’t think the AIU followed due process and how did they come up with multiple sentences that don’t run concurrently. This is cruel and unusual punishment that denies you livelihood.”
Okagbare has 30 days to appeal against the AIU’s disciplinary tribunal’s decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s first female gold medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Chioma Ajunwa-Opara, has words of advice for Nigerian athletes on the danger of doping. She says the athletes should quit drugs and face the reality of intense competition for world titles.
Ajunwa-Opara suffered a similar fate when she was banned for doping. She enjoined the authorities in Nigeria to sensitize the athletes on the danger inherent in the use of drugs.
“The ban will definitely affect her career, maybe her career in athletics is over. I believe the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) can give her the support she needed,” she says.
Ajunwa-Opara, however, added that ignorance was no defense for Okagbare who lives in the United States where this kind of information is easy to find.
“Okagbare should have a better knowledge than those living in Nigeria; besides this, we have something to do here at home and not pass the whole blame,” says Ajunwa-Opara.