By Yemi Olus and Jide Alaka:

Before now, the defection of Nigerian athletes to other countries was considered one of the worst things that could happen to the sport. In recent times however, the scenario has extended to Nigerian coaches who are now being wooed by other countries who know their worth and are willing to tap into their experience in order to develop their own athletes.

Brain drain

Athletics coach, Tony Osheku appears to be going down that road with his recent appointment as the Head Coach of the Libya Amateur Athletic Federation, joining the likes of Taiwo Ariyo who is now Saudi Arabia’s junior sprint Head Coach, and former athlete, Innocent Egbunike now coaching in Qatar.

Osheku, one of Nigeria’s successful coaches, mentored the likes of Olympics medallist, Falilat Ogunkoya, who was the number one woman quarter miler in 1998 as well as Seun Ogunkoya, who beat former African Champion, Frankie Fredericks on two occasions. He currently coaches Noah Akwu, a finalist in the 4X400 metres in last year’s World Championships in Berlin.

His mission

Osheku, who has been in Libya since November 2009 explains his mission: “I have been in Libya since November 2009 and I’m the new head coach with Libya Amateur Athletics Association. I’m in charge of sprints, middle and long distance runners; in short, I’m in charge of the national athletes. I oversee all the national athletes and basically I’m the technical adviser. I signed a year contract which is renewable if they like my work.

“The Libyan Athletics Federation set a target that I should assist them to improve Mohamed Ashour Khowaja who is their national record holder in the 400 metres with 45.35 seconds. He won the 400 metres at the Mediterranean Games in Pescara (Italy) in July 2009. His 45:35 seconds was the third fastest in Africa last year and the Federation wants me to take him to the next level and help him and other athletes to realise their dreams for the 2012 Olympics if things work out well.”

Coping in a foreign land

Osheku admits that it hasn’t been all rosy, especially with the language barrier and not having any of his family members around:

“I’m facing a couple of challenges like the cold weather which I’m not used to again since I left the USA. Another challenge is the Arabic language which was so difficult for me when I got here. I was so smart to learn how to read 1-20 in Arabic so that I’ll be able to tell my athletes their times during practice.

“Not to forget, I am also fighting loneliness which is normal. I am here by myself and I really miss my son (Junior). But with the kindness of my athletes who take me to the city every night to drink coffee, I am managing to stamp out that loneliness. I really like their life style here because drinking is illegal and there is nothing like partying, which makes it easier to concentrate.”

Not treated fairly at home

The coach, who is from Edo State, says a prophet is not recognised in his homeland. He however bears no ill feelings towards the Athletics federation of Nigeria (AFN) and says he is simply glad another country could benefit from his knowledge:

“Regarding your question, if I was given a fair chance based on my experience and knowledge, I don’t think I should be the one to answer that question; you media know my worth and it’s left to you to say if I was given a fair chance. I paid my dues in coaching; I coached an athlete ranked number one in the world and a couple of my athletes made it to both the Olympic and World Championship finals and got medals and at the end the National Sports Commission (NSC) didn’t show appreciation.

“I stayed in Nigeria for years without getting any support from the government despite the fact I was running a club that comprises mainly junior athletes. I was in Nigeria for years and the NSC didn’t attempt to employ me but Libya wasted no time in grabbing me. All is well with me and I don’t want to dwell on the past; I’m fine here in Libya and I’m getting all the technical support.”

It was reported that the coach was presented a huge cake on his birthday (February 9), right on the track of the main stadium in Tripoli after the morning training session, with the Vice President of the Libya Amateur Athletic Federation leading the celebration party, to show the extent to which he is admired by his host country.

Also, the coach says he is now more financially buoyant to pay bills in Nigeria particularly on the Osheku Striders Club based in Nigeria.

“I still finance the team to competitions and they’re getting ready to leave for the U-18 championship in Oghara, Delta State. As a matter of fact, the club was broke when I was in Nigeria; thank God I’m now here in Libya and I have enough money to sponsor the team.”

Searching for help

Osheku believes that there are a lot of Nigerians in the Diaspora who can change the pathetic state of Nigerian athletics if given the opportunity to do so:

“Coaches need to be encouraged and given all the necessary tools to be successful. I’m just disturbed that the NSC is not doing enough to help AFN get credible people to coach their athletes. We have great ex-athletes in the USA and other parts of the world who could help AFN, to mention few.

“We have Egbunike now coaching in Qatar; we have Adewale Olukoju in California, our national record holder in discus and can also contribute in coaching our throwers and I know if the Technical Chairman (Sunday Bada) is encouraged, he can do a good job as well in coaching.”

Words of advice

With the African Championships and the Commonwealth Games around the corner, the seasoned coach has some words of advice for the AFN regarding preparation for these competitions:

“I’ll say both the African Championships and the Commonwealth Games are at the corner and there is no time to waste. I’ll advise the federation to categorise their athletes and pay them as soon as possible so that the athletes can start preparation on time. Athletes need money for vitamins, masseur, doctor, food, and let us not forget that some of the world class athletes have to pay their coaches.

“They should not expect all their top athletes to honour any camp since the outdoor season is at the corner and most of the athletes would be busy competing outside Nigeria. The federation should not forget that if they fail to assist these athletes financially, they (the athletes) will over compete and get tired before Common Wealth Games in October.”

No farewell to Nigeria

Osheku says his new appointment does not mean he is no longer interested in coaching in Nigeria. In fact he will still love to do so in future if given the chance:

“I love track and field; anything outside athletics is meaningless to me. Yes, I still want to coach in Nigeria and for your information I’m still coaching in Nigeria because I’m still sending schedule to my athletes in Nigeria including Noah Akwu who was a finalist in the 4×400 metres at the last World Championships in Berlin. I’m a Nigerian and I know I’ll be back home in the future.”

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