Rio 2016 Olympics long jump finalist and bronze medallist at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Ese Brume, and sprinter Grace Nwokocha will be the cynosure of all eyes as the athletics event of the 20th National Sports Festival begins today at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, Benin City.
Brume, a 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, is the overwhelming favourite to successfully defend the long jump title she won at the last edition of the competition in Abuja three years ago.
The Tokyo Olympics-bound athlete is also tipped to break the 6.62m Festival record she set in 2018.
Also tipped to win is Nwokocha after her dominant displays in the 100m and 200m events in the local athletics circuit. Nwokocha raced to new personal bests in the two events last month, running a historic 11.09s in the 100m at the Making of Champions Grand Prix in Lagos and 23.17s in the half-lap at the Athletics Federation of Nigeria All-Comers event in Akure.
Former National Youth Games 400m queen, Nse Uko Imaobong, is also expected to retain the quarter-mile gold she won for Akwa Ibom three years ago in Abuja. Nse Uko is the fastest Nigerian so far in the event this year with the 52.07s she ran in Akure last month.
Athletics observers are waiting to see if the 21-year-old will go under 52 seconds for the first time in her career after coming so close in Akure last month.
In the 100m hurdles, Eseroghene Iro Awusa will be expected to build on the 13.90s she ran to win at the Making of Champions GP last month in Lagos to win the Festival title. Iro Awusa is the only athlete with a sub-14 seconds performance coming to the Festival.
In the women’s discus, Utitofon James, armed with a new 51.82m personal best set just about 11 days ago in Lagos, is expected to stroll into her first Festival title in the event especially with the expected absence of Nigeria leader in the event, Princess Kara (52.77m) and Chioma Onyekwerre (52.40m).
In the men’s 100m, Edo state’s Enoch Adegoke is expected to continue his dominance of the event at the local front especially after racing to a then world-leading time of 10.16s at the end of January. He however has a new challenger in Favour Ashe who ran a new 10.17s personal best at the last Making of Champions GP.
There is expected to be a three-way battle in the men’s 200m between Ifeanyi Ojeli, Jerry Jakpa, and Alaba Akintola with all three having gone under 21 seconds so far this year. On paper, Ojeli will be the favourite to win after running a new 20.78s personal best in Akure in January, but Jakpa (20.94) and Akintola (20.97) are expected to be his main challengers.
Orukpe Erayokan will be expected to produce a performance close to the one he gave six years ago in Brazaville, Congo when he scorched to a 44.95s finish if he hopes to retain the 400m title he won three years ago in Abuja. Erayokan is not the fastest 400m runner coming to the Festival though; that honour belongs to Sikiru Adeyemi who is the only Nigerian athlete to have dipped inside 46 seconds (45.93s) so far this year.
In the 110m hurdles, Lagos athlete Oyeniyi Abejoye showed who reigns supreme in the event at the Making of Champions GP, effortlessly scaling over the hurdles to win in 13.87s. That feat makes him the overwhelming favourite to win in Benin, same way Samuel Kure, with a 74.69m pre-Festival lead is expected to win the Javelin title.
Meanwhile, AFN president, Honourable Olamide George, has assured Nigerians the federation will deliver a near-perfect event.
“We have seen the wonderful performances our athletes have been displaying since the beginning of the year at the three competitions held for them so far. Grace Nwokocha made the Tokyo Olympics standard in Lagos last month with the 11.09s she ran in the 100m. That is the fastest time run on Nigerian soil in about two decades I believe a few more will get the standard here at the Festival,” he said.