Written By: Segun Odegbami
All is now set for the 2012 London Olympics, anticipated by many as, potentially, the best Olympic games ever.
Before 1976 the Olympic Games were to me a very distant event reserved for the gods. Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Mercury, Poseidon and all the other gods of Greek mythology competed amongst themselves for the pleasure of the King sitting on his sepulchred throne on Mount Olympus. With a broad smile on his White angelic face twitching long, white beards, with several beautiful goddesses around him, his Majesty sat and watched the lesser gods as they rode winged horses and drove chariots of fire, threw the discus and javelin, shot arrows, swam across the seas, and raced against each around the earth at blistering pace. That was my understanding of the original Olympics fed into my little mind by the colourful fictional magazines that I consumed like food in my very youthful days. I never connected the Olympic games with ordinary mortals.
In the city of Jos where I grew up in the 1960s there was no television, so we never watched the games. We only followed them on the BBC or Voice of America. The radio commentaries were musical fairy tales to our ears, and when names of successful athletes were mentioned we never envisioned them as flesh and blood. It was, therefore, shocking to realise even then that the Nigerian football team that went to the Mexico Olympics in 1968, engaged the greatest football team in the world at that time, Brazil, and played a 2-2 drawn match, were really human beings. This monumental and unexpected achievement by an African team was well celebrated in the Nigerian media. Incidentally, the names of many of the actors were very familiar to me. This provoked deeper inquiry and thinking, setting in motion the slow process of my acknowledgment of the mortality of Olympian athletes.
Samuel Garba Okoye, Peter Anieke, Layiwola Olagbemiro, Ismaila Mabo, were all young men from my small locality in the city of Jos. Growing up I knew them as my seniors. They were flesh and blood. I kept wondering that they actually went to the Olympics to compete with the gods! That was my first intimate encounter with the reality of the Olympics as an earthly event with human participants.
By 1972, I had moved to Ibadan and to a higher realm of civilization. The difference between Jos and Ibadan was like the difference between the moon and the stars. Here I had the privilege to watch the Munich Olympics on a black and white television set. I was glued to the events and followed the games with very keen interest. I watched the Ugandan, John Akii Bua, win the 400 metres hurdles. I watched Kipchoge Keino of Kenya as he lost his 1500 metres title and dramatically compensated the African continent by winning the 5000 metres Steeple chase. I watched all of Mark Spitz’s 7 Gold medal swimming races. And more.
The Munich Olympics were an unforgettable experience for their excellent sports as well as for other events totally unrelated to the games proper. On the eve of the games terrorists had unleashed mayhem on the Games village. Members of the ‘Black September’ movement kidnaped some Israeli athletes. 2 of the athletes were first killed and 9 others also died during a daring rescue operation by Israeli commandos. The entire drama was captured and shown on global television. The Olympic games were never the same ever again. Security of athletes and officials became the most single important aspect of every Olympics.
The Olympics of 1976 were also dramatic but for different reasons. I became a ‘god’ also!
Some six months before the Montreal Olympics the thought that I could ever be an Olympian did no even exist in my stratosphere. Yet, through the intervention of fate, my exceptional performance in that year’s Africa Cup winners Cup championship caught the eye and attention of those in charge of Nigerian sports teams preparing for the games. I suddenly became the brightest new star in Nigerian football. I played so well against Rokana Red Devils FC of Zambia in the quarter-finals that my name was rushed to Canada to substitute that of a previous member of the national football team that had qualified, and was preparing, for the Olympics. In a few short weeks I had been fully embedded into Nigeria’s most travelled and most prepared national football team in the country’s history. Indeed, six months later on July 12, 1976, I was a member of Nigeria’s contingent that arrived in the Games Village in Montreal, Canada for the 21st Olympiad. It was more than a dream come true.
All the various national sports teams had prepared well for the Olympics, training and competing for many months in several European countries. On our way to Montreal, the different teams assembled in France and compared notes on their preparations. It was very impressive. The Green Eagles had traversed several European countries training and playing friendly matches. The table tennis team had prepared for months in China. The wrestling and weightlifting teams had turned Bulgaria into ‘home’. The Track and Field athletes were mostly based in the USA and had been under the tutelage of Legendary American sprinter and World record holder, Lee Evans and his team of coaches. They had revolutionised Track and Field and had brought up some of the best jumpers and sprinters in the world at the time. In Charlton Ehizuelen Nigeria had the best long jumper in the world. The country also had two of the fastest 400 metre-runners in the European and American collegiate circuits – Dele Udoh and Felix Imabiyi. Young boxer, Obisia Nwankpa, was razor-sharp and had become a human fighting machine under the tutorship of two of the great legends of world boxing – Nigeria’s former World featherweight Champion Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey and America’s former World Light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore.
The contingent arrived the Olympic Village with genuine expectations and in very high spirit. For one week we lived amongst thousands of other athletes from all over the world and savoured the beauty of the magnificent Olympic village.Life in the village was that of endless celebration. Everybody was delighted to be meeting everybody else in this sea of humanity of all races, colour, religion, creed and language. Life in the Olympic Village was a truly unique experience. Unless you personally experienced it you could not adequately capture it in words. Human barriers disappeared and the world of the true athlete whose main motivation is to make friends and to compete blooms.
Then the bombshell came!
On July 17, 1976, a day to the start of the games, the Nigerian contingent was hurriedly assembled by its leaders of delegation – Mr. Isaac Akioye and Chief Abraham Ordia. They had brought a ‘grave’ message from the then Head of State of Nigeria – General Olusegun Obasanjo. The contingent was to leave the games village and head back home immediately. It was devastating news. We could not believe it. For several of the athletes that meant giving up their life-long dream of an Olympic medal. That also meant putting aside four years of torturous hard work. For several it also meant never having another opportunity at the Olympics again. But for every one of the athletes it was a calamity. The only sense of consolation was the reason given for taking such a bruising, psychologically damaging decision – our brothers and sisters in South Africa needed us to lend them our voices, to put down our lives and support their cause! That was my first real contact with the word ‘apartheid’. The Nigerian officials had to explain it all to us.
Apartheid was the original ‘sin’, the cruel practise of racial segregation and discrimination. The victims were our black brothers and sisters whose struggle for emancipation the West largely disregarded. The Organisation of African Unity, OAU, then decided to use the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of the blacks in South Africa. We were told that boycotting the games would hurt the West even though it would be an essential sacrifice every Black man on earth had to make to draw attention to the ugly practice of apartheid in South Africa. Black Africa, led by Nigeria, the country with the largest population of Black people on earth, was making the ultimate sacrifice by withdrawing its youths from the games in protest against the participation of New Zealand, a country that was supporting apartheid through its vagrant disregard of the call for countries not to engage with White-supremacist South Africa in sports.
Within a few hours we had packed our things, vacated the games village and headed to the Montreal international airport. Within a few hours we had boarded our Nigerian aircraft, a gleaming brand new DC 10 and headed to Lagos. Although we were not received as heroes back home, we appreciated the enormity of our collective sacrifice.
That was my first experience of the Olympics. It was a major politically affected games that resonated throughout the world. It impacted on the next two Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 in ways that threatened the survival of the global olympic movement. Both suffered boycotts by countries that had unresolved political differences to settle.
I am extremely lucky that 4 years after Montreal I captained Nigeria’s contingent to the Moscow Olympics. Many of the athletes still hurt till now from missing Montreal. Their pain is compounded by the frail relationship that now exists between South Africa and Nigeria. The sacrifice made by Nigeria is hardly ever acknowledged or reciprocated in the social interactions between the peoples of both countries. But it goes without saying that Nigeria played a major role, through the sacrifice made by all its athletes, in the struggle for the eradication of Apartheid in South Africa. The Olympic games’ boycott was Africa’s greatest WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction)!
I have not been to another Olympics since 1980, but in 1996 I managed an athlete to win Africa’s first individual, field Gold medal! Join me next time to know how we did it!