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INTERVIEW: Why I am vying for World Athletics Athletes’ Commission slot – Rilwan Alowonle

INTERVIEW: Why I am vying for World Athletics Athletes’ Commission slot – Rilwan Alowonle

Nigerian hurdler, Rilwan Alowonle, is vying for a seat on the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission in an election which will be held at the 2023 World Athletics Championships starting in Budapest, Hungary on Saturday. In this interview, he talks about his reasons for vying for a place in the Athletes’ Commission and what he plans to bring on board if elected

What has your career been like as an athlete?

I have been running with Team Nigeria. My first competition with the senior team was in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. I finished fifth there at the competition, and that was the start of my journey with Team Nigeria. Some of the other notable championships that I qualified for were the 2019 African Games in Rabat, Morocco. Later that season, I participated in the 2019 World Championships in Doha, and I also competed in some of the African Championships in the last few years. I have also helped with some of the relay teams, but my primary focus has been on the 400m hurdles.

Rilwan Alowonle at 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha

What has made you come out to vie for a slot on the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission?

I see track and field has a lot of potential. If you look at the Olympics and how popular the sport is for that small window every four years, there is a lot of excitement for athletics in that small window. But I think there is a major opportunity to elevate the sport in that window. You have to do two things there; promote individual athletes, and you want to make sure you are promoting the sport as a whole. When you have some athletes that are generational, it will bring more eyeballs. Similar to when Usain Bolt was in the sports, people were going to watch the Olympics the more. However, that’s a great opportunity for World Athletics to start capturing casual fans. So that when Usain Bolt retired, ideally you would have hoped to pick up new fans. I would have World Athletics continue to grow the sport, to bring the level of excitement outside of the Olympics to the sport at a consistent level. I think there are a lot of opportunities to do that.

In addition to my athletics background, I have a business background working as a Marketing and Consulting Strategist for professional services firms around the world. I really have built the skill set of helping the largest organisations develop products and promote products to gain users and bring value to a user. This is done in a way that not only gives them a great initial first impression but also leaves a lasting impression so that they continue to enjoy it. I think my background within athletics, understanding how it works from the athletes’ perspective, what the athlete needs for support as well as understanding the business side. With my background of how I have worked hand-in-hand with these organisations, as I have been building marketing campaigns to make sure that it resonates with the right audience, growing their organisations as well. My background is a good thing for this position and I wanted to bring the background to World Athletics.

You and others in the Commission will be the link between the athletes and the World Athletics, looking at what is happening at the moment, are there one or two things that you think should have been done better for athletes or improvements on how athletes are treated?

One specific example that is very relevant right now for the Nigerian audience is in the form of testing. It is terribly unfortunate what’s happening with Tobi (Amusan) right now, and I hope that everything can get sorted out as soon as possible. But I personally think that the tools that World Athletics is using right now for doping are not necessarily at the level of the technology that we have, the ADAMS tool is very difficult for athletes to use. I’ve helped plenty of organisations develop applications, software, and tools to enhance some of the things they do.

I think a very simple solution could be that every day, you receive a notification when you are in your 60-minute window. The notification would pop up and ask, “Hey, you are in your 60-minute window. Is your location setting accurate for where you will be for the next 60 minutes?” That is a simple solution that ensures the person does not forget as they are getting a notification to ensure that “Oh, I am actually not in that location, I should update that.”

It could work in two ways: the app could also track location. It would be an opt-in feature, obviously, so you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. However, if you do have a smartphone device (and most of the athletes who are using ADAMS use it on their phones), and if you do have a smartphone device, most of them take it with them wherever they are. So, you could have it track your location and show that you are not trying to dodge the testers, it would show where you are. And I just think that there are a lot of solutions that, if World Athletics helped, could bring together the perspective of individual athletes and also people like myself, who have an athlete’s perspective but also have experience in helping large organizations develop these technologies and different features. These solutions could help the organization meet their immediate needs.

And I think that the main thing is to meet its needs for World Athletics with the ADAMS app, aiming to ensure that they know where the athletes are, so that they can test them and ensure that we have a clean sport. But I believe that is the primary objective. As for the athlete, it’s making sure that they can continue to input their information in the easiest way possible that reflects where they actually are, so that testers can come, the testers can test them and they can show that they are also a clean athlete. I think right now the tools that we have don’t necessarily achieve those in a way that optimizes both of those two scenarios.

This is just one example where World Athletics could definitely improve both from the athlete experience as well as the overall sporting experience. This will lead to more thorough testing and fewer missed tests, consequently helping to identify those who are doping. So, people would have a harder time to dodge the testers if they are dirty. And I think that one thing we want to make sure is people aren’t missing test because they accidentally forgot to update ADAMS. But we also want to make sure that people are getting around the testers by missing tests as well.

There have been controversies around testosterone levels in female athletes, with some like Caster Semenya, Christine Mboma, and Beatrice Masilingi being stopped from competing due to having high levels. How do you think World Athletics can better address this?

I believe that there needs to be differentiation between something that occurs naturally and something that is enhanced by doping. I understand there are like level limits of what people are able to have, but if it is naturally based… because for Caster, hers is. She naturally has a higher level of testosterone, and they banned her for that reason. I don’t think that’s right.

To me, it’s similar to Usain Bolt, who I believe is six foot three or six foot four, and there are other athletes. He takes, I believe, 41 steps in the 100m, while the average runner takes 44. And that is a natural ability that he has. The fact that he’s taller, he’s not banned because he has a natural advantage in his height.

Similarly, I don’t believe these athletes should be disqualified solely due to their natural advantages, which, once again, is comparable to all athletes. Natural advantages such as height, power, strength, body type, and body structure are inherent factors that can provide both advantages and disadvantages. And we really just want to see the best athletes out competing. I think that the difference happens when these athletes are taking unnatural substances to enhance their individual performances, that’s where I think the line needs to be drawn.

Specifically for these women who are not doing that, who are not enhancing their abilities in any way. I believe World Athletics needs to do a better job of allowing them to continue competing, because that’s no fault of their own that they have that, it’s not that they did something unnatural to gain an unfair advantage I think that focusing on eradicating unnatural methods of gaining unfair advantages is what World Athletics should prioritise, and that’s what we should eliminate from the sport.

Even though the position you are vying for is on a global scale, a number of Nigerian athletes will also, when you get the position, even in matters concerning their relations with the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, expect you to speak for them either publicly or interfacing with the federation to make things get better done for them, what are the things that will be on the front burner for you regarding Nigerian athletes?

This is something I consider highly important in my candidacy. It’s not just for Nigerian athletes and the Athletics Federation Nigeria. I believe the World Athletics can do a much better job in creating more consistency between the athletes and their member federations. I believe that World Athletics has not sufficiently ensured a consistent experience for athletes across the various member federations. And I believe that this is a situation where representation is crucial.

I believe that in countries like the U.S. and various European nations, there exists a more standardized approach in the athlete-federation relationship… And when I mean athlete, I mean, any athlete within their organisation, top level, bottom level, anyone who kind of makes their team in their experience are going to have to federation.

In some of the African countries, there’s not as much of a consistency, and that’s unfortunate. I think that World Athletics might know that, but I don’t think that they do enough to address that issue. And I think that I want to stand in the place to make sure that I’m fighting for those athletes, to make sure that they’re getting a consistent experience, that they’re getting the resources that they need, that they are getting the right information.

We’ve had very unfortunate situations at some of these major competitions with Team Nigeria where athletes qualified for the competition, they get to the country and they’re not able to compete because of a technical issue. Something with signs like that has happened to me twice. In 2014, I qualified for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, I was in the country and I was unable to compete. That happened a second time in 2018 where I qualified for World Indoors, I went to Birmingham, was ready to run, was in very good fitness and I wasn’t able to run. So, those type of opportunities were kind of taken from me.

And as an athlete, you only get some time to run, you can’t run forever. At some point, you kind of age out and your legs are not going to be as fast as they were at one point. And I want to make sure that I’m fighting for those athletes so that they can maximize their window and make sure that the interactions that they have with their federation, that’s a Nigerian athlete, obviously I’m going to have a very big interest in making sure that especially Nigerian athletes have that. But I also want to fight for, if there are other countries that have experience that I also want to make sure that the athletes are not impacted as well because again, it’s more about a consistent positive experience for all the athletes. And I know that there have been times, unfortunately, where I know specific athletes that that wasn’t the case and I want to make sure that I can do everything in my power and start to illuminate that to World Athletics and the other officials at World Athletics who have the power to really step in and ensure that they can fix some of these issues, that they’re actually looking at these problems and really fixing these issues.

Rilwan Alowonle

What level of support are you currently receiving?

In order to become one of the nomination pool for the Athletes’ Commission, you have toyou’re your federation’s blessings. So, I’ve worked with Niels at World Athletics as well as the Secretary General, and they were gracious enough to grant me that. So, I’m very thankful for the AFN for that and making sure that they believe in me enough to give me that nomination.

And so, I’m just taking that and I have been developing my campaign, kind of developing some of the ideas that I have where I really think we can improve one, the sport and then also improve just the experience of the athlete. And I am doing my best to take the opportunity that I was given by getting the nomination and hopefully win.

So how has been your campaign period been, what has been the experience, what are the new things you have learned?

I guess you can say it is politicking. For me, this is how I operate a lot of times anyways. I try to ask and listen to athletes all the time. Before I was interested in a position like this, I’ve always had discussions with athletes on how their experiences have been, what are the things they think could do better. And this has been years long journey of talking to different athletes at all levels. Some that have medaled at major championships, some that have just qualified and barely made it. So, I think I have a pretty wide range of experiences, perspectives and the ability to connect with a lot of those different athletes. So, yes, it is politicking in a way, but I think it comes a little bit naturally, as I am naturally curious, and also I am someone who is big on improving processes, learning experiences and this position really is just a great blend of all of the things that I naturally kind of do, and naturally I am good at.

What has been the acceptance level of your message as you speak to people?

I think it’s been good, obviously, there’s no telling until I guess the vote comes around. So, I hope for the athletes who qualify, who have qualified and are going to be at Budapest that they give me a chance. My main tagline is “Empowering athletes and transforming athletics.” Because again, I do want to make sure that the athletes does have this voice. But I also think that athletics as a sport can grow and transform so much and we can rise the tide of all the athletes by really enhancing the profile of the sport in general.

So, obviously I believe in my message, I hope that other athletes see that and they also can see the benefit of making sure that, yes, we are focusing on kind of a two pronged like we want to focus yes, on the individual athlete, but also focusing on this as a whole, because we want to make sure that the sport is in a good base and the sport can continue to grow for years and years and decades to come.

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  1. Pingback: Rilwan Alowonle fails World Athletics Athletes' Commission bid | Bold Sports

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