It’s hard to compile a list of the top ten Nigerian sportspeople in history. You would have to leave out some exceptionally gifted top performers, who are probably just as deserving as those left on such a list.
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That’s precisely the conundrum this writer faced while preparing this article. Perhaps an expanded piece would have done justice to it. But we’re constrained by space and duty. It’s not even clear that a list having fifteen or twenty names on it would be less difficult to make.
With these difficulties at the back of our minds, here are our top ten Nigerian sportspeople in history, arranged in no particular order.
Chioma Ajunwa earned the distinct honour of being the first Nigerian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. She’s still the only person from the country to have won an individual goal medal. She achieved this feat at the long jump event at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.
Before this, she competed in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in a different sport, the 4×100 meters relay event, and won a bronze medal. She was also once a member of Nigeria’s female football team, the falcons, and played at the Women’s Football World Cup in 1991.
Innocent Egbunike is remembered for his performance at the 4×400 event at the 1987 All Africa Games in Kenya. His final lap run overturned the host nation’s lead, not only on that track but on the medal’s table. It clinched gold for Nigeria, and victory for the country at the games.
Before that feat, he helped Nigeria win bronze at the 4×400 meters relay of the 1984 Olympics. He also won a silver medal at the 1987 World Championships.
Fasuba holds the African record for the 100 meters sprints. His time, 9.85 seconds, which he clocked at the Doha Grand Prix in 2006, remains unbeaten.
His career wins include a bronze with the 4×100 men’s team at the 2004 Olympic games; gold at the World Indoor Championships’ 60-meter event; gold at the Afro-Asian games of 2003; two golds (100 meters and 4×100 meters) at the 2007 All-Africa Games in Algiers; at silver at the Commonwealth Games in 2006.
Dick Tiger (Richard Ihetu) excelled in professional boxing. He held the World Middleweight and Light Heavyweight titles at various points in the 1960s. He was born in South-Eastern Nigeria but began his boxing career in the United Kingdom, where his performances helped the sport through tough times.
In 2002, The Ring Magazine named Dick Tiger one of the greatest boxers of the last 80 years.
In her prime, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi dominated the women’s sprint in Africa. She won bronze at the 100-meter event of the 1987 All Africa Games, and gold in the 100-meter sprint of the 1991, 1995, and 2003 editions. She was also a member of the Nigerian squads that won every 4×100 meter relay event of the All-Africa Games from 1987 to 2003.
Her other medals include a bronze at the 4×100 meters relay at the 1992 Olympics and another in the 200 meters at the 1996 Olympics. Another gold medal came at the 100 meters sprint of the 1994 Commonwealth Games. In 2004, she became the first Nigerian to appear at five consecutive Olympic Games.
Jay Jay Okocha
Okocha was probably the most skilful footballer Nigeria had ever produced. In his time as a footballer, the attacking midfielder was known for his dribbles, brilliant goals, and his ability with free kicks.
His club career had a variety to it; he played with Eintracht Frankfurt, Fernabache, Paris Saint-Germain, Bolton, and Hull City. On the home front, he was a member of the Nigerian squad that won the 1994 Nations Cup, and Olympic Gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, USA.
Teslim Balogun was such a good footballer, that legends have been spun around his time with the sport. He was known for his fearsome shots, which led to him being nicknamed ‘Thunder’. He was also Africa’s first professional footballer.
During his playing career, he reached the Nigerian Challenge Cup Final seven times, winning the competition five times. Beyond Nigeria, he played for English side QPR in the 1956/57 season, where he scored seven goals in sixteen appearances. After his retirement, he became Africa’s first qualified football coach.
A prolific goalscorer, Mercy Akide set several records in her time as a footballer. She was the top scorer at two African Women’s Championships and won the competition with the Falcons three times. While playing for the US’s Milligan College in Tennessee, she scored 49 goals in one season, a record for the side.
In 2000, she was named the first-ever African Footballer of the Year. She also played for Nigeria at two World Cups and two Olympic Games.
Two-time winner of the African Footballer of the Year award, Kanu Nwankwo, had an illustrious career, in which he picked up several trophies. He won FIFA’s under 17 World Cup in 1993, and the football event at the Olympic Games in 1996. He also clinched the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, FA Cup, Premier League, and Dutch League titles while playing for various clubs.
These wins were crowning glories for his skill, hardly matched by any Nigerian footballer during or after his playing days.
Hogan Bassey (born Okon Asuquo Bassey) was a British-Nigerian boxer, and the first person of Nigerian descent to become a world boxing champion. Born in Creek Town, Calabar, he moved to the UK in 1951 and lived most of this life in Liverpool. He won the featherweight championship in 1957 by defeating a French Algerian, Cherif Hamia.
Nigeria has produced numerous sporting heroes. This list is by no means exhaustive. But these names are a reminder of the greatness that Nigeria is capable of yielding. We could achieve more if we set our national will to make it happen.
Featured Image Source: Making of Champions
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