Former WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike was notified by FIBA that her petition to play for her native Nigeria in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics was denied due to “substantial involvement” of more than 10 years with Team USA, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.
Ogwumike is exploring all her options, including a possible application to the Court of Arbitration in Sport, sources said. The court could expedite a full hearing if both sides agree. FIBA could also allow Ogwumike to participate until there is a hearing.
The Nigerian Basketball Federation filed an appeal to FIBA on behalf of Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams, the Atlanta Dream center who was also denied because of previous involvement with Team USA. The Federation wrote that Ogwumike and Williams were “two of the top players that would have made our team one of the strongest at the Games.”
The letter, which was obtained by ESPN, stated: “We do tacitly believe there are undercurrents and motivation for such a decision which is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. It is also out rightly discriminatory because players of African descent are approved to play for other countries constantly but the reverse is not the case.”
Each player was given consent by USA Basketball to play for Nigeria, paid an administrative fee of $10,000 to do so and holds a Nigerian passport.
Generally, if players have competed for the United States in FIBA-sanctioned events after having reached their 17th birthday, they are not allowed to play for another country in a FIBA event. However, according to FIBA’s regulations on player eligibility, the organization’s secretary general may authorize a player to compete for the national team of his or her country of origin if this is in the interest of the growth of basketball in that country.
One of FIBA’s pillars of emphasis currently is the growth of women’s basketball worldwide.
The IOC rules only require an athlete to be nationalized by the country they’re competing for. They can compete for a different country three years after they competed for their previous country.
Nneka Ogwumike last competed internationally for the United States three years ago in the 2018 World Cup.
Ogwumike had sought to play for Nigeria with her two sisters, Chiney and Erica, previously telling ESPN, “It’s something I know my family would be very proud of. I’m hoping it will contribute to the growth we’re experiencing for Africa in basketball.”
Chiney Ogwumike, a former No. 1 overall pick who now stars with her older sister for the Los Angeles Sparks, was approved to play for Nigeria as a naturalized player, a condition that could affect the rest of the Nigerian roster as only one player can have that status. She is also required to pay $5,000 Swiss Francs (approximately $5,468).
Sources said Chiney Ogwumike is also expected to appeal FIBA’s ruling on her status.
Erica Ogwumike was approved to play for Nigeria without any conditions, essentially giving the three Ogwumike sisters three different statuses by FIBA.
The Ogwumikes’ parents, Peter and Ify, were both born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States, where their daughters were born. The Ogwumike sisters have dual citizenship with the United States and Nigeria.
A documentary about the Ogwumikes is currently in development, led by Libby Geist at Words & Pictures, together with Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani at Hillman Grad. Joie Jacoby is set to direct the film, which will tell the sisters’ inspiring story of excellence — exploring their triumph, struggles, and the family’s Nigerian roots along the way.
In letters sent to Ogwumike and Williams, FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis explained the rationale for denying their petitions because of “the substantial involvement of the Player with the USA national team over more than ten years.”
Nneka, 31, was a longtime member of the U.S. senior national team, winning gold medals with the American squad in 2014 and 2018 at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. But she was left off the U.S. roster for the Tokyo Games, which was announced June 21, surprising many and causing some controversy. She is the only MVP in WNBA history who has not made an Olympic squad, as she was also controversially left off in 2012 and 2016.
“It was more of a hurt than a shock, because I had experienced it before,” Nneka previously told ESPN. “But there are decisions made in this life that you can’t control. I allowed myself to feel the hurt, but moving on, I decided, ‘I’m going to try to put matters in my own hands.’
Williams played collegiately for Duke; current Blue Devil senior Elizabeth Balogun, who transferred from Louisville, is also on the roster, as is another former Blue Devil, Oderah Chidom.
In fact, all the players on Nigeria’s provisional roster played collegiately in the United States, including Adaora Elonu, who won a national championship with Texas A&M in 2011.
“The last few years, I’ve had the experience of playing against Team Nigeria and seen the rise of it,” Nneka previously told ESPN. “It fills me with a lot of pride.”
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