As the sun of 2020 begins to set, some of us have started to see the faint outlines of a better and more prosperous new year ahead. There are several small but significant last-minute incidents that are happening around us that portend great things to come.
I found one such thing last Monday, December 20th 2020, in Court 4 of the Federal High Court in Igbosere area of the city of Lagos, where Hon. Justice A.O. Faji was holding court. We witnessed jurisprudence at its best in a landmark case concerning sports in Nigeria.
That morning, there was a fair-skinned ageing gentleman, a familiar face after 7 years, in the court. For most of the past 7 years, he had almost always been present on the days his case was called, sitting alone, or sometimes with a friend, answering the roll call whenever his name was called as plaintiff, and registering his presence in his African-American droll of a voice that confirmed he was not from this part of the world.
During the period he was absent on two, or so, occasions for reasons not totally unconnected with why he was a diligent attendee of the court – his case was one of life or death. On the 2 occasions, he was in a hospital in the United States battling to live, undergoing brain surgery. His determination not to succumb to death until he was cleared of the massive dent on his treasured name and global reputation kept him alive. As one of the world’s great sports ambassadors and heroes, the threat of losing both was his greatest motivation to beat death and to return from the gates of ‘hell’.
Many of his friends and fans around the world had given up that he was dead until he bounced back and immediately returned to Nigeria to continue to pursue his case in court. It was that important to him.
Many could still recall his exploits and records on the tracks during the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico – two Olympic Gold medals, new World records and joining to raise his gloved fist to ‘fight’ injustice in America.
With the prayers of millions of his fans friends and family around the world, he ‘fought’ on the surgeon’s table and survived.
He confessed later that his survival was driven by his determination not to die before clearing up his name that had been soiled in Nigeria by officials who for unknown reasons threw one of the best coaches in history that had served the country in athletics under the bus.
In coming to Nigeria as a young man in 1975 it was a return to his roots, to help Nigeria become a giant in the sun of global athletics. Intermittently from that year to date, he had fulfilled that dream at different times whenever his services were needed in producing generations of athletes. Apart from Nigeria where he produced some of the greatest runners and jumpers, with a log list as evidence – Dele Udoh, Felix Imabiyi, Innocent Egbunike, Falilat Ogunkoya, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Gloria Ayanlaja, Charlton Ehizuelen, Ebeweele Brown, Sergha Porbeni, Fatima Yusuf, Kehinde Vaughn, Henry Amike, and so on –, he also worked in different countries around the world producing class athletes everywhere.
He has kept an unblemished reputation during his entire athletics and coaching careers that has earned him a place not just as one of the best athletes in the history of the world, but also as one of the finest sprints coaches, a member of America’s Sports Hall of Fame, membership of the exclusive ‘club’ of the 10 greatest 400 metres runners in history, amongst many other awards.
There was never a scandal, nor a misdeed of any sort until he came to work in Lagos 8 years ago. From the blues one day he was accused of giving a young unknown female athlete a banned substance to help her win a local event of no consequence. Based on the girl’s alleged confession that he gave her some substance, and without any serious scrutiny of the facts of the matter, he was banned for 4 years. Needless to go into the details of the inquest and procedures taken to effect such a draconian decision without any evidence and motive.
An initial state of disbelief and shock, became reality, depression and, finally, anger.
For those familiar with the nature of doping cases in sports, the usage of banned substances and the consequences thereof, to link a man of the stature, knowledge and experience of Lee Evans to a young unknown female athlete, and to get her to use a banned substance for a local event of no substance even in Nigeria, was so farfetched that extra-ordinary care should have been taken to ascertain the veracity of the charge before clamping a global suspension with all its attendant ramifications on the image and reputation of a person of Lee’s global standing without serious evidence.
To Lee it was all like a bad dream from which he could not wake up.
His last and only option was to go to the Nigerian court and seek justice.
Weary of the reputation of Nigerian courts to be corrupt, or to extend cases for so long that eventual judgements would not be helpful in any way, Lee still insisted that it was his only option to confront the athletics authorities in Nigeria and to get a fair hearing.
I agreed with him.
The elements would intervene provided he was innocent. I had experience to consolidate my support.
I was an integral part of Chioma Ajunwa’s case in 1992, an unfortunate experience she has not been able to completely wipe off her slate despite her come back aided by her Creator, stronger after 4 unjust years to make history at the Olympic games and become an even greater achiever than she would have been had she not suffered the iniquities of 1991. In the darkness of her painful experience was a bigger treasure.
No Nigerian official gave Chioma any support or fair hearing. She had to spend 4 years of her life protesting her innocence, living in ‘hell’, but waiting on the intervention of the God of justice. Today, the elements have crowned her the most successful field athlete out of from Africa in Olympic history!
There is also still the painful case of another female basketball player, a national team player, one of the best of the present generation, who was accused of using a banned substance during an inconsequential basketball tournament in Abuja.
Even the medical persons in charge of the case that I spoke with confessed to the weak evidence and the heavy punishment, but insisted she had to be punished. It was cruel and wicked. How those officials could sleep at night I do not know. How they could end the career and life of an innocent national athlete on the verge of going abroad for her studies and serving Nigeria, on the basis of unproven accusations that will never survive a serious court scrutiny without flinching, truly baffles me.
Nkechi Ashimiri, has been thrown into the dustbin of history, buried by injustice, and forgotten. She is still serving a most unjust 4-year ban since last year for a ‘crime’ everyone knew deep down she never committed. No one is fighting for her. She could not go to court because she could not afford it.
Lee Evans went to court.
For 7 years, whilst waiting for this day to come, he suffered immeasurable indignity. Fortunately, in those 7 years, he had the opportunity to present his case and provided evidence of his unjust treatment. The court found the whole process of his ‘conviction’ improper, unfair and unjust. Justice Faji struck out his ban from the records and gave back Lee Evans his freedom, his life and his clean records.
That was what happened last Monday in the Igbosere High Court, and why it was a great day for Lee Evans and his friends, fans, family and true followers of sports around the world.
To find justice in a Nigerian law court even after 7 years is a good omen, a great thing to take into a new year, with hope and trust in the possibility of a new Nigeria.
Congratulations to Lee Evans and a happy New Year to all in our world of fairness and justice in Sport.