• Laments Nigerians’ defection to Bahrain
Former Nigerian 400m champion and Olympics team captain, Bruce Ijirigho, says he does not believe that performance-enhancing drugs are responsible for the rising profile of Nigerian-born Bahrain World 400m champion, Salwa Eid Naser, who is currently being investigated by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU).
Naser, formerly Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu, who was born in Anambra State, Nigeria, switched allegiance to Bahrain in 2014 and became the first Asian woman world champion in the 400m at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championship in Doha. She ran 48.14 seconds, the third-fastest time in athletics history.
The athlete was provisionally suspended a few days ago by AIU, which claimed she missed four anti-doping tests, including a “fourth whereabouts failure” in January 2020. The athlete is insisting she only missed three anti-doping tests, which is “normal”.
However, Bruce Ijirigho, a grassroots sports development consultant, is of the opinion that the 48.14 seconds Naser achieved at Doha 2019, was through her natural talent.
Speaking with The Guardian, Ijirigho, whose sports programme has produced several stars for Nigeria, said Naser’s rise to the top was as a result of hard work and determination.
“Being a former 400 metres runner myself, I can attest to the fact that the 400m final at Doha 2019 was one of the best race executions I ever saw at that level of competition. Salwa’s race was a complete display of guts, plan execution, determination and total inner conviction that she would win,” Ijirigho stated.
“I first met Ebelechukwu (Salwa) in 2012, when she came to Calabar to participate in the South-South All-Comers Athletics Championship, which I organised in Cross River State from 2011 to 2015. That year, she won the 200 metres race in the U-15 category. Ebelechukwu has always been a very good athlete with a beautiful running form, driving her sprint from the hip joint.
“In early 2014, I got a call from her coach, Johnny Igboka, that Ebelechukwu had taken up Bahrain citizenship. I thought it was too early in her career (at 15 years old), but Bahrain has turned out to be a more conducive and nurturing environment with good remuneration, facilities, coaching and competition for her career to blossom.
“Perhaps, if Ebelechukwu had remained in Nigeria, she would not have made the 400m final in Doha, talk less of winning it and becoming the world champion. Also, remember that she won a bronze medal in the mixed 4×400 meters relay, a team that comprised four Nigerian athletes, who are now citizens of Bahrain. They are happy to be out of Nigeria where they were unappreciated and treated like dirt. Three athletes from my programme in Calabar are also in Bahrain and doing very well.”
Team Nigeria returned from Doha 2019 with only one bronze medal won by Ese Brume in the long jump.
“I blame our government for not appreciating our athletes. That was why we lost Ebelechukwu and other star athletes to Bahrain,” Ijirigho stated.