Nigerian athletes launch Olympic Village protest after admin error leads to Games ineligibility

Nigeria's track and field athletes staged a protest at the Olympic Village in Tokyo on Friday after administrative lapses by the Athletics Federation of Nigeria led to them being declared ineligible to compete.

Marching through the Olympic Village, the athletes carried placards to air their grievances in a protest sparked by a statement from the Nigeria Ministry of Sports.

"The 10 athletes are principally alternate and foreign students athletes, whose tests did not meet with World Anti-doping Authority (WADA) sample collection and analysis standards," the Ministry's statement said. "The situation is being managed by the Ministry and the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) which have requested all athletes in the Games Village to remain focused on doing our motherland proud.

"It's worthy to note that the 10 athletes did not test positive for any banned substance, but rather did not meet up with the last of the three out-of-competition tests due to the aforementioned reason."

The athletes took exception to their characterisation as "alternates and student-athletes," insisting that they were genuine medal potentials

"We're not just alternates, but potential medalists," read the message on one placard.

Among the athletes are Chioma Onyekwere, who holds the African record in the women's discus; Rosemary Chukwuma, the Youth Olympics 100m champion, who also won a bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth games and gold in the 4x100m at the Africa Games.

There is also Ruth Usoro who holds the indoor African record in the triple jump; Favour Ofili, who holds the indoor African record in the women's 200m as well as being an African Games silver medalist; Annette Echikunwoke, the African record holder in the women's hammer throw and Chidi Okezie, the Africa Games bronze medalist in the men's 400m.

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) had ruled that these competitors, along with others, would be unable to take part in Tokyo because of non-compliance with out-of-competition drug testing requirements in the run-up to the Games.

The AIU announced that a total of 20 athletes from seven countries -- including Morocco, Kenya and Ethiopia, who are on World Anti-doping Agency's (WADA) Category A watch list when it comes to anti-doping violations -- had been ruled out.

AIU said in a statement: "Nigeria is the most affected country, not meeting the minimum testing requirements under Rule 15 for 10 athletes. Nigeria was included in Category A at the start of 2020 following a continued period of weak domestic testing levels."

In response, the AFN said in a statement that it had accepted responsibility for the administrative error.

"The AFN bears responsibility for any lapses that may have occurred during the process and reassures Nigerians that our performances will not be negatively impacted," the organisation said.

"All our athletes resident in Nigeria and who qualified for the Olympic Games completed the three mandatory tests.

"Most of our top athletes resident in the USA also completed their tests. However, a few athletes in the American collegiate system were tested, but those tests were deemed not to have complied with WADA sample collection and analysis standards.

"It must be noted that no Nigerian athlete tested positive to prohibited substances.

"The AFN has taken proactive steps to avoid future occurrences by appointing Professor Ken Anugweje as the head of the Medical and Anti-Doping Commission of the Federation."

Echikunwoke, who received the news on her birthday, said it was as a "mentally and emotionally exhausting" time.

"On my 25th birthday, I was officially informed that I cannot compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to the negligence of the federation I was set to compete for," she posted on social media.

"I can't even begin to explain how heartbroken I am.

"It honestly feels like a fever dream. To think of all the hours of throwing sessions, hundreds of hard lifts, all the moments when my body aches in pain and reminding myself 'it'll be worth it,' just to keep pushing on, sacrificing time with loved ones... and all I'm left with is this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

"This has been the most mentally and emotionally exhausting time of my life."

The hammer thrower warned this should never be allowed to happen again.

"TO BE CLEAR: The Athletics Federation of Nigeria did not go through the processes to set up proper testing for us athletes," she posted.

"They left us in the dark about this whole drug testing issue until the last minute where we were left helpless. We cannot let anything like this happen again to athletes, devastating dreams and crushing opportunities."

The track and field athletes were not alone in speaking out, with Team Nigeria captain Aruna Quadri and Olympic silver medalist Blessing Okagbare defending the 10 affected athletes.

Quadri said after a meeting with Nigeria's sports minister, Sunday Dar, ,that some of the issues related to training grants of overseas based players were being resolved.