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Wednesday August 9, 2006

Nigerian-born Obikwelu proud to set European records for Portugal

GOTEBORG, Sweden (AP): Nigerian-born sprinter Francis Obikwelu keeps winning races and setting records. 

The European 100-meter champion's next target is the 200, where he will try to become the first man to win the sprint double at the continental championships since Pietro Mennea of Italy in 1978. 

Obikwelu won the 100 on Tuesday, finishing in 9.99 seconds _ a meet record and the fastest time in Europe this year. "I want to be a double champion here,'' Obikwelu said. 

The 27-year-old Obikwelu received Portuguese nationality in 2001, but he has been living in the European country for much longer _ since he decided to stay after competing for Nigeria at a race in Lisbon. 

"I arrived in Portugal when I was 16 and I've lived there since then besides a couple of years in Spain,'' Obikwelu said. "That's a long time, so I do feel European.'' 

It was at 14 that one of Obikwelu's soccer coaches first recognized his athletic potential. Two years later, he was representing Nigeria at the 1994 African Junior Championships, where he won the silver in the 400. 

Later that same year, Obikwelu traveled to Lisbon for the world juniors, where he reached the semifinals of the 400. After the race, he decided not to return to Nigeria. 

The move was tough, and he initially had to deal with all the obstacles facing illegal immigrants, struggling with the language, hiding from authorities and working in construction to make money. 

It was only when Obikwelu decided to return to school to learn Portuguese that he met an English teacher who helped him get residency papers. 

He also managed to salvage his relationship with the Nigerian federation, which sent him to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the World Junior Championships in Sydney the same year. He won the sprint double at the juniors. 

He also won the 200 bronze for Nigeria at the 1999 world championships in Seville, Spain. 

Though he'd hoped to race for Portugal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he only received his Portuguese citizenship in October 2001. 

In his first season representing his new country, "Chico'' as he is nicknamed in his adopted country, won silver medals in the 100 and 200 at the 2002 European Championships in Munich, Germany. They were the first major medals for Portuguese sprinting. 

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he finished second in the 100 behind Justin Gatlin. The fastest European in history, Obikwelu is one of only two men competing in Sweden to have broken 20 seconds in the 200. 

"I want to go below 20 seconds in the 200,'' said Obikwelu, who leads the European rankings this season for both sprints. 

The task will be tough, though, with the 200 heats already underway. On Wednesday morning, he easily won his heat in 20.78. "Eight races in four days isn't easy,'' he said. "There isn't really much time to enjoy my victory.'' 

Though Obikwelu finished second in both the 100 and 200 at the last Europeans, he was later awarded the 100 gold after Dwain Chambers of Britain admitted to doping in 2002. 

Chambers returned to international competition this season after a two-year ban ended last November.


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