Disabled Nigerian powerlifters disqualified as Watson wins bronze

There were tears of the good and bad variety at the para powerlifting medal events on Thursday in front of a near-full house in Birmingham but it was behind closed doors that the day’s biggest controversy played out via two dubious disqualifications.

Firstly, the good. Australia’s Hani Watson won bronze in the women’s heavyweight event, which is effectively a one-rep max for a bench press, with a best lift of 127kg – nearly 30kg more than her body weight.

Hani Watson celebrates her bronze medal.Credit:Getty Images

Watson’s father was a gym junkie who used to bicep-curl his daughter when she was younger. He died when she was 17.

“He would have been very proud,” said Watson, choking back tears. “I was about to lose my banana peel up there and start crying. It’s just really overwhelming.”

Nigeria took out the gold and silver medals in the heavyweight category. The African nation has won every gold medal on offer in para powerlifting at the Commonwealth Games, except one, on Thursday morning.

Nigeria should have had two athletes in the women’s lightweight division, but what should have been a couple of bankable medals ended in disaster.

Latifat Tijani, pictured competing at the Tokyo Olympics, was disqualified on Thursday from her powerlifting event. Credit:Getty

Latifat Tijani and Onyinyechi Gift Mark were left distraught, tears rolling down their cheeks, when they were informed by officials they had missed a routine pre-event check-in.

Tijani won a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics and was tipped for more success in Birmingham.

Both athletes, who compete in wheelchairs, were of the understanding they needed to check in by 2pm (local time) for their event at 3pm. Nigerian officials say the pair arrived at 1.55pm, with the knowledge that normally for these kinds of events the cut-off is an hour before.

However, a statement from the technical delegate disputes that version of events, saying they arrived at 2.10pm.

Either way, it was irrelevant, because the athletes were actually supposed to be present at 1.45pm.

The problem was a different Nigerian official, who attended a technical meeting held on August 1 to discuss such logistics, forgot to pass on the new information to the athletes that they had to be there at 1.45pm.

One small communications breakdown crushed their dreams right before their eyes.

Despite the minor error, despite their disability, despite their favouritism, the sport’s inflexible rules played out in ugly and heartbreaking fashion.

“It’s sad for the athletes,” said Nigeria’s media officer Oluwatoyin Ibitoye. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to compete and try and win and better their record. That opportunity is gone.

“You feel for them because you know what they have done.

“They have done hours of preparation and training for a moment like this and then [getting disqualified on] technical grounds … it’s not happening.”

Nigeria appealed the disqualification to the International Paralympic Committee but Tijani and Mark were powerless.

They were too upset to do interviews and were spotted being consoled by team members hours later while other events took place.

Hani Watson took third in the women’s para powerlifting heavyweight event.Credit:Getty Images

Watson’s demeanour couldn’t have been more different, buoyed by another vocal Birmingham crowd who have completely embraced every sport on the program.

“The energy here is buzzing,” said Watson, who was born with bilateral metaphyseal dysplasia, which is a disorder of the bones.

“As a kid I’ve grown up and wanted to be an elite athlete. I couldn’t do that because I had a disability.

“I wasn’t introduced into the right areas.

“It all sunk in when I was at the opening ceremony. To see everyone cheer you on, their energy … it was overwhelming.

“I thought ‘you know what, I am an elite athlete’. I’m not just a potato at home bench-pressing. This is real. I can’t describe what this is like for anyone.”

Get all the latest news from the Birmingham Commonwealth Games here. We’ll be live blogging the action from 4pm-10am daily.

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