Okagbare - Queen of Sprints?
One of the most poignant memories of the Commonwealth Games came at the end of the women's 200 metres. Nigerian star Blessing Okagbare had just dismantled the field in 22.25 seconds. In her post-race celebrations, she padded around barefoot to the first row of spectator stands, found a fan who hugged her, gave her a giant Nigerian flag and a high five.
That was no ordinary fan. It was the woman who preceded Blessing as the best sprinter in the history of Nigerian athletics, Mary Onyali. Twenty years earlier in Victoria, Canada, Onyali almost did the sprint double at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. She won the 100m and only lost the 200m to a rampaging finish by Australian Cathy Freeman.
Dubbed the Queen of Sprints by Nigerians, Onyali raced during a golden age of women's sprinting. She started making big finals in 1987 at age 19 when she placed sixth in the World Championships 200. Altogether, she raced in nine individual World/Olympic sprint finals, peaking with a bronze medal in the 200m at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
If not for Gail Devers, Gwen Torrence, Irina Privalova and our own terrific trio of Merlene Ottey, Juliet Cuthbert and Grace Jackson, she'd have won so much more.
When the 25 year-old Okagbare crossed the line first in the Commonwealth Games 200m, she moved past the retired Onyali by doing the double. Their joint celebration was like the passing of the baton from one generation to another. As was the case with her predecessor, Okagbare's rivals are formidable. Her improved start will be put to the test in Beijing next year when she will likely face a fit Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, experienced Veronica Campbell-Brown (VCB), Murielle Ahoure of the Ivory Coast, new US find Tori Bowie and Michelle-Lee Ahye of Trinidad and Tobago and Carmelita Jeter at the World Championships.
Bowie and Ahye are worthy new challengers who have run fast times this year. Blessing has the edge on them both since she has run in Olympic and World sprint finals in 2012 and 2013 and has a bronze from the 200 last year in Moscow.
Add reigning Olympic champion Allyson Felix to the mix at 200 metres, and sprint fans will lick their lips in anticipation.
Only two questions remain. During Onyali's era, Torrence, Ottey, Jackson, Cuthbert and Privalova all ran the 200m in times faster than 22 seconds. That's rare these days. Since 2004, only Felix, VCB and Kerron Stewart have broken 22 seconds, with the first two the only ones to cross the threshold more than once. The slim American, Felix, holds a slight edge with five sub-22-second clockings to queen V's four.
It's a challenge for today's generation in an age where sprinters seem to have lost interest in the event once called 'the deuce'.
The bigger question is whether Okagbare can crack the Jamaican-American dominance of women's sprints. VCB, Shelly-Ann, Felix and Jeter have won everything recently. In the big championship seasons of 2015 and 2016, Okagbare will have to be at her best if she wants to be World Queen of Sprints.
Hubert Lawrence has attended the Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London Olympics.