In the annals of Nigeria’s participation in sporting events, both continental and international, the month of July of 2022 will go down in history as one of the most truly unforgettable. In the unmistakably best-ever performance by a Nigerian in an individual competition, Oluwatobiloba Ayomide Amusan put previous massive disappointments aside to engrave her name in gold and bathe her country in glory when she ran to a semi-final World Record of 12.12 seconds in the 100 metres hurdle event at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Oregon, United States. As an icing on her record-breaking feat, she topped her proud accomplishment with an eye-watering 12.06s, wind-assisted final to leave the rest of the field in her taillights as she claimed an unprecedented gold milestone for Nigeria. It was a moment of pride that was best encapsulated in the tears of joy she shed as she stood on the podium while the Nigerian national anthem was played.
On Tuesday, September 20, the 100m hurdles World Record that Amusan set at that World Athletics Championships in Oregon, America, in July, was formally ratified by the World Athletics, placing a stamp of confirmation on the status of the 25-year-old being the first Nigerian to hold a World Record and entering same into the record books. Those who doubted her abilities after her July exploits in America were soon left astounded by her accomplishments in competitions following the Oregon Championships as Amusan continued to leave her competitors in her wake. After retaining her African title ahead of Oregon, she successfully defended her Commonwealth title in a Games record of 12.30 in August before capping her season with victory in the Wanda Diamond League final with another record, this time a meeting record of 12.29. These accomplishments saw a meteoric rise in her ranking by World Athletics.
On Friday, September 18, Amusan, who was rated 43rd in September 2021, climbed an entire 38 positions to become the fifth-ranked athlete in the world. All these accolades resulted in a season-ending nomination for the World Athletics Athlete of the Year 2022. Amusan was nominated alongside nine other outstanding athletes and put forward for the public to join in deciding which of these athletes deserve to be the best overall in a two-part, three-way voting process that first determined five women finalists for the first part before a winner emerged from those five in the second part. The three-way voting was distributed thusly: World Athletics Council (50%), World Athletics family (25%) and a public vote (25%) via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube likes and Twitter retweets on the post for the specified athlete. Challenging Amusan for the prize were American shot putter Chase Ealey, who won the World Championships and Diamond League titles and holds the numbers 2-5 farthest throws in American history; the 35-year-old Jamaican 100m sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won the World Championships and Diamond League titles also and ran a record seven sub-10.70 races in one year; Peruvian Race Walk athlete Kimberly Garcia, Peru, who won World titles in the 20km, 35km events; and Jamaican 200m sprinter Shericka Jackson, who won the World Championships and Diamond League titles and notched the second-fastest time in history.
The others are Kenyan 1500m athlete Faith Kipyegon, who won the World Championships and Diamond League titles and ran the second-fastest time in marathon history; Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh, who won the World Indoor Champion, finished as a World Outdoor silver medalist while equalling the national record clearance; American 400m hurdles athlete Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who broke the world record twice, lowering it from 51.46 to 50.68, won world titles in 400m hurdles, 4x400m relay and is the seventh-fastest relay performer in history; Bahamian 400m athlete Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who won World Indoor and Outdoor titles; and Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, who won the World Indoor and Outdoor Championships and Diamond League titles as well as breaking her own indoor (and overall) world record.
Even though the American 400m hurdles athlete McLaughlin-Levrone took home the World Athletics award for female athlete of the year, the progress that Amusan made in 2022 stands her shoulders above most of the field. The height she attained came through her dedication to improvement despite the odds and these counted in her favour in being nominated for athlete of the year. In the publication of the nominations on the World Athletics website, the international governing body for the sport of athletics itself wrote in the description of Amusan’s journey: “After narrowly missing out on global medals in 2021 and 2019, Nigerian sprint hurdler Tobi Amusan established herself as the world No.1 in 2022.” These outcomes were not the result of only how Amusan performed in July but a summation of everything that had come before as part of the regimen of preparation and training all targeted at emerging as the one above every other competitor. And, that is where every cadre of Nigerian sportsmen and women can take a page out of the Amusan manual for success.
Long before her exploits of July 25 at the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Oregon, the lady, who was to put Nigeria’s flag at the top of the podium and have the world sit and listen while the Nigerian anthem played to millions watching and streaming the competition, had to scale what was her first hurdle. She had to go against her father’s wish to prevent her from taking to her dreams of becoming an athlete. It goes to show that her gift of overcoming hurdles is innate and requires the steadfastness of dedicated grooming and disciplined determination to carry her to the glory of the present. Her father’s refusal to allow her waste time running around the stadium had the potential to derail her ambitions from the onset but for her supportive mother that abetted her in escaping to practice as long as it did not impede her academic work. From that strict upbringing, she began to learn the value of time management and the priority of a good education alongside the progress of her talents and gifts. Although these talents first turned to football, it was when she began to sprint faster than well-coached contemporaries that she turned her full attention to the tracks. Glimpses of her pace continued to flash with every appearance she made on the tracks at local competitions but it was her silver medal outing at the 2013 African Youth Championships in Warri that she began to garner attention all the more. However, she immediately faced a check on her progress and ambitions at the 8th IAAF World Youth Championships World Athletics Under-18 competition in Donetsk, Ukraine that same year. As she raced towards the finish line, she inadvertently infringed onto the lane of a competitor in the 200 metres sprint semi-final race and was forthrightly disqualified. That letdown was painful and hurt the hard-working athlete, who had invested so much into reaching that stage of the competition. She was one of the country’s medal hopefuls and was putting in a proper showing before being penalised with disqualification. What may have broken the spirits of others at her age and bearing only served to buoy Amusan’s determination to succeed. It was grists to her mill.
Having been in contention for medals in the sprints so far, Amusan’s switch to the hurdles also came under circumstances that forced the decision. She was not included in the Nigerian selection to race the 4x100m relay at the trials for the African Youth Games the following year and not wanting to be completely removed from the trials, she entered the competition for representing the country in the Hurdles event. The events of July 25 prove how inspired a decision this turned out to be. There were signs from the start as she breasted the tape ahead of the field at the trials and finished second on the podium for Nigeria at the African Youth Games in Botswana. The diminutive girl from Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, was going places. She continued to do exploits with an African Under-20 gold in Ethiopia in 2015, and what truly was a significant accomplishment followed when she breezed to victory at the All-African Games in Brazzaville, Congo.
In 2016, the Ijebu-Ode born athlete qualified for the Rio Olympics in Brazil, which was a fulfillment of another personal dream of becoming an Olympian and representing the country at the Games. She went as far as the 100m Hurdles semi-final but missed the cut for the final. Amusan shook off that disappointment at Rio and returned to training with her eyes on improving her results ahead of the 17th World Athletics Championships scheduled for Doha, Qatar, at the renovated multi-purpose Khalifa International Stadium. Though her ardent efforts could only manage her a fourth-place finish and though it was tough to ingest given how close she was to bring on the medal podium, it was progress for Amusan. And, for the last child of three Amusan children, coming first was within her reach. It helped that she was incurably optimistic of her abilities and preponderantly self-motivated because her quest for Olympic medals ended up as another “almost there” as she finished fourth again at the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan last year. But, she dusted herself off and took the African record at the All Nigerian Championship in June this year.
The doggedness that has seen her surmount the odds stacked up against her is typified in one of her reactions to get world record feat where she said: “I was the ‘almost girl. I got fourth, fourth, fourth. Now I finally did it.” That is the story of her journey. It encapsulates what many have termed “The Nigerian Spirit” and have envisaged that the country can continue to reap from if other sportsmen and women can tap into it to reach enviable heights in their own specific fields of competition. Yet, it must be pointed out that Amusan’s never-say-die spirit alone could not have broken a world record and shave off extra time in the final all by itself. Amusan took advantage of every opportunity that came and with her positive attitude and determined focus on her goal, realised her set objectives. She was a scholarship recipient at the University of Texas, El Paso in 2016 and worked assiduously with Jamaican coach Lacena Golding-Clarke, three-time Olympian and the 2002 Commonwealth Games 100m hurdles winner to continuously cut down her personal best time. These are what earns her the THEWILL SportsStar of the Year.