Hamstrung Enoch Adegoke gives Nigerians a glimpse of magical Atlanta ‘96 Olympics
Atlanta '96 was a special sporting moment for Nigeria
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“Even though I wasn’t able to get a medal for Nigeria, for a moment, the whole country was hopeful that something good could come out of the sport.”
On July 24, 2021, sports enthusiast Gershom Davis started a Twitter thread to track Nigeria’s performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games. “I might be screaming in the void or keeping people interested,” was the first tweet in the thread. His cynicism was understandable; Nigeria has had many forgettable Olympic outings. Across four Olympics games — 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 — Nigeria won eight medals, none were gold. Two days into the Tokyo Olympics, it was starting to look like regular programming, and Gershom tweeted, “When I committed to making this thread, I didn’t know it would be so depressing.” To his credit, he kept the thread going for two more days, and then he called it quits. A few days after the death of that thread, Enoch Olaoluwa Adegoke reached the men’s 100 meters final.
“We finally have a 100 meters finalist since 1996,” another tweet reads, recalling Nigeria’s magical Atlanta ‘96 Olympics. That was when Chioma Ajunwa, an unused substitute for Nigeria in the 1991 Women’s Football World Cup, won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold. The men’s national football team also took a romantic route to gold, coming back from 3-1 down to beat Brazil in the Semifinal. As far as sporting glory goes, nothing can top 1996 for Nigeria. So it is remarkable that on August 1, 2021, Enoch Adegoke, who was trending on Twitter by the end of the men’s semi-final round, made us dream of Olympic gold, after advancing to the final with a second-place finish.
Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, is eight hours behind Tokyo, so the 100 meters final is in the middle of the workday. 21-year-old Enoch Adegoke, the youngest athlete on the starting line, is now a household name. Google searches say little about him, but by now, clips of his blistering pace in the first round of the 100m race are already being retweeted over a thousand times. “He’s our best hope for a medal,” another person tweets, perhaps because his personal best time of 9.98 seconds is only bettered by two athletes at the final. The commentator, who likely has no dog in the race, is more measured when he introduces Adegoke; “He was a Commonwealth finalist three years ago, and what a run to make it to this final, the biggest race of his life.”
Tokyo 2020 may be the biggest race of Adegoke’s life, but he’s not a stranger to being the unknown quantity in a room full of big dogs. At 18, while he was an undergraduate at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, he qualified for the finals of the Commonwealth games alongside Yohan Blake, Akani Simbine and another Nigerian, Seye Ogunlewe. He finished 7th at the final of the games, running a time of 10.35 seconds. While you may consider that a poor finish, Adegoke says the Commonwealth Games was a good outing. “I was running with senior men in my first ever international competition,” Adegoke tells me over a Whatsapp voice call.
Another reason Adegoke was pleased with his Commonwealth outing is that he struggled with injuries in the run-up to the games; balancing recovery with trying to pass exams at school. He recovered from a quadriceps injury in time for the games, and while that all-important muscle healed, his confidence would need some more time. Despite being nervous throughout the games, he ran a personal best time of 10.19s in the first heat. He was on his way to bigger things and finishing with a time of 10.35s at the finals was not going to be a damper. As far as he was concerned, the games were over, and the next goal was qualifying for the Olympics.
For many athletes, competing at the Olympics is the pinnacle of their career, but getting there is difficult. Adegoke’s journey to the Olympics is a study in hard work, but like all the best stories, it also features timing and good fortune. “As of February 2020, I hadn’t qualified for the Olympics because my personal best was 10.19s,” he shares. To qualify for the 100m event of the Olympics, athletes need to run a time of 10.05s. Adegoke’s time meant he would not attend the Olympics, but then the global pandemic forced the Athletics federation to postpone the qualifiers in March 2020. The trials did not resume until December 2020. At the semi-finals of the trials, Adegoke ran 10.06s, close enough to make his Olympic dream within reach. At the finals, he ran a new personal best of 10.02s. It had been a long time coming.
Yet, he didn’t arrive at this moment alone; his coach, Ayokunle Odelusi, is pivotal to everything Adegoke is achieving. An unpaid mentor who took Adegoke under his wings since he was at the university, his coach doubles as a nutritionist and life coach. Adegoke calls his coach after every run, and acknowledges that none of this would be possible without Ayokunle, stays abreast of the latest trends in athletics to give his athlete a cutting edge. Unfortunately, Adegoke’s coach did not attend the Tokyo Olympic games. But he sent his charge off with a target: to clock a 9-second finish for the first time in his career.
“I try not to see any event as too big because that will affect my psyche; I just tell myself I need to run,” Adegoke says of his thinking ahead of the Olympics. At the Tokyo Olympics, fears over a new variant of the Covid-19 virus meant daily tests, sleeping on cardboard boxes, and restrictions. Adegoke fell into the routine of training, eating and sleeping; at the top of his mind was to give a good showing while wondering if he would run under 10 seconds for the first time. Running the 100m under 10 seconds is now widely considered the mark of an athlete that can win medals,and only ten Nigerians have ever achieved the feat. Divine Oduduru, who ran 9.86s in June 2020, was Nigeria’s most apparent chance at a podium finish. But he crashed out in the semi-finals after finishing third — he was disqualified from the 100m event after a false start.
Adegoke’s 100m heat was so tough, it didn’t seem he could qualify, so a lot of people didn’t pay any attention to him. “We saw the line-up five hours before the race, and the fastest man in the world this year was in my heat. Nobody knew me.” Yet, by the end of the heat, Adegoke finished first. “After I finished, the first thing I did was to check the time, and it was 9.98s, and I knew that we finally did it. My coach had always said we would do it.” After packing his bags, he went to a part of the stadium that had WiFi to call his coach in Nigeria. “My coach was more excited about the fact that I executed the plan than the time that I finished. The plan was for me to get out early, quicken my drive phase, and improve on my transition phase, which I had always struggled with.” While he was worrying only about the technical details, Enoch Olaoluwa Adegoke was trending on Twitter in Nigeria, a country where people were defying a Twitter ban by the government to make one of their own famous.
If there were still sceptics, Adegoke won them over in the semi-finals when he finished second in 10.00s. By now, there were dreams of the finals and a podium finish. For the second day running, Adegoke was top of the Twitter trends list in Nigeria, and he might never have known about the love he was finding back home. “There wasn’t WiFi at the stadium, and there wasn’t often time after the events to check my phone. But after the semi-final, I picked up my phone and found WiFi, and there were so many messages. My friend told me I was trending on Twitter in Nigeria; I had to change my location on my app before I saw it. It gave me so much joy.” Yet, there wasn’t a lot of time to soak up his newfound celebrity status; the 100m final was a few hours away.
“I asked the physios for some help because I could feel some tightness, and after that, I did my stretches. I was confident that all I needed to do was to repeat my strategy from the first two races, and I would win something.” But, a few meters into the race, Adegoke pulled up with a hamstring injury. Three years of training, juggling school and training, and going it almost alone in an expensive sport seemed to come undone. But Adegoke feels differently; he’s cheerful. And like he has said through our conversation, he’s grateful to God for even coming this far.
It’s impossible to talk to Adegoke without forming the picture of a religious young man. He grew up in a religious household in the tiny town of Igbeti, Oyo state, which a 2006 census tells us has 81,000 people. While secondary school was at a Federal Government college, studying at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) also nurtured his religious side. “Everyone who has been to OAU knows that it’s religious; I joined the Baptist Students fellowship in my first year, but soon, I knew that I had to know God for myself.” For him, that was beyond attending church or going to a fellowship. He credits his personal relationship with God for deciding on a career in athletics. “I started with God; there’s no way I’ll turn my back now that I’m here.” It’s why his Pastor, who is also his mentor, is also an influence in his life.
Yet, the influence of his family is significant; he calls his parents and shares his joys and frustrations with them. There’s always an origin story for many athletes — Eliud Kipchoge says he often had to run to school; Usain Bolt has a similar story. The nearest one Adegoke can come up with is that his parents said they also ran when they were younger, but they never got to the level he is now. It’s not bad at all for a boy from Igbeti.
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