In just 10.06 seconds, 26yearold Uchenna Emedolu finally cemented his place as the latest name in an impressive line of Nigerian sprint prodigies. By winning the 100m for Africa at the IAAF World Cup in Madrid, Emedolu received his biggest pay packet ever ($30,000) and became the second fastest African in Cup history behind compatriot, Seun Ogunkoya who ran 9.92 for second place in Johannesburg, South Africa, four years ago.
Suddenly thrown onto the biggest stage of his short career, when the original African team entrant Namibia's Frank Fredericks pulled out of the 100m to concentrate on the 200m, Emedolu emerged as an unexpected hero of an African team, who in Madrid won their fourth consecutive men’s team World Cup title.
With his 100m win, the late developing Emedolu became the first African, man or woman, to win the 100m World Cup title, a feat which came as a total surprise, even to Emedolu’s Italian manager Enrico Dionizi, and surpassed all expectations.
The favourites for the 100m medal podium were Britain's European champion Dwain Chambers (Europe), Commonwealth champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts (Americas) - behind whose win in Manchester, Emedolu had taken silver - and ex-Nigeria star, Francis Obikwelu of Portugal who was running in Europe’s colours in Madrid.
But to Emedolu himself, winning in Madrid was nothing spectacular or incredible, as according to him no warrior ever goes to the battlefront with the intention of losing.
"My victory here is not a surprise to me. I did not exceed my own expectation,” Emedolu commented the day after his historic win in Madrid.
Emedolu believes he had already served notice of his talent when he made his debut at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton. There he made the semi-finals in both the 100m and 200m, and even ran 10.06 although the wind-gauge was later reported to have malfunctioned.
Significantly, nobody seemed to take any note of these achievements, after all here was an athlete who had never competed at an international level as a junior and had only reached his first major senior championships the previous year at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Emedolu had initially even been lucky to reach the Olympics at all. Having failed to make the Nigerian Olympic team at the Mobil-sponsored trials, only a re-writing of the team qualification rules allowed him to board the plane to Australia. Finally, only by a 20.66 performance while at a pre-Sydney training camp was he able to force himself into the Nigerian starting line up for 200m.
Nothing much was expected from him at the Games and he was duly eliminated after running 20.93 in the second round but Emedolu had given notice of his potential.
Born in Adazi-Ani in Aniocha Local Government Area of Anambra State, Emedolu's entrance into competitive athletics was forced on him by circumstances beyond his control.
Like all teenagers, Emedolu was actively involved in sports, especially football where, at Agulu Boys High School in Agulu, Anambra State he was the football captain, though he was always also involved in athletics.
"I concentrated more on football. In fact I believed I was a better footballer than a track and field athlete."
Emedolu's father aided and encouraged his son to plunge headlong into sport.
"My father provided me with everything I needed to excel in sports. He bought kits for me and encouraged me a lot. Then I only thought of playing football and running and jumping as past time activities," he recalled.
His father's death in 1993 however changed his perception of sports as ‘just’ past time activities.
"When my father died and everything became difficult for me, it was then I thought of going into sports for what I could get from it in terms of material things…to take it up as a profession.”
"I was combining football with athletics until late 1997, when coach Tobias Igwe (known as ‘Toblow’) advised me to concentrate on athletics, insisting that was where I had the brightest future. I wasn't convinced, and in 1998 I totally opted for football and travelled to Malta for trials. I spent 10 months there but things did not work out at all."
Thankfully for Emedolu, when he came back to Nigeria with his football hopes in ruins and poverty staring him in the face, Toblow was ready to pick up the pieces. “I came back home in 1999, and my coach Toblow offered to continue where he had stopped prior to Malta." It was only then that Emedolu decided to concentrate solely on Athletics. "I decided to follow coach Toblow's decision and in anger sold my football boots so that I wouldn’t be seeing a sad reminder of a failed attempt.”
In the three years since his decision Emedolu has represented his country at the three greatest sporting events any top athlete can only aspire to, the Olympic Games, World Championships and the World Cup.
After his World Cup success, Emedolu returned to Nigeria and was given a heroic welcome by the Athletic Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and sports ministry officials. A first-of-its-kind Presidential reception was organised for him at the country's seat of power, Aso Rock in Abuja, where the Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo ordered that a street be named after him.
With recent high profile Nigerian athletes such as Francis Obikwelu (Portugal) and Glory Alozie (Spain) switching to other nationalities, Emedolu significantly took the opportunity to confirm he would remain Nigerian for life. "I have no intention of changing allegiance," he confirmed.
"My target next year is to win the 100m gold at the All-Africa Games," he said. "A sub 10 seconds yes but a world record, no! I don't think I need the world record. I wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure that it would bring." What about the World Championships in Paris? "I hope to win there too," he said.
"I am not afraid of anybody, not Greene, Chambers or even Tim Montgomery. I believe in just running my race, like I did in Madrid."
Oludare Esan for the IAAF