It was in 1992, at the finals of the 100 X 4 metres relay race of the Barcelona Olympic Games in Spain.
The Nigerian female quartet ran the last 50 metres of the race at such a blistering pace that no one in the 54,000 capacity Montjuic Stadium knew for sure which country came third, including the girls themselves. It was that close, between Nigeria and France.
In the end, slow-motion, photo-finish replays confirmed that the Nigerian girls breasted the finish line just ahead of their French rivals with less than a hair’s breadth separating them. Although Nigeria came third and won the Bronze medal, the filled terraces rose in unison to applaud the Nigerian girls as they ‘flew’ around the track in exuberant and ecstatic celebration. The manner of their abundant celebration defined the true spirit of ‘winning’
In 2005, CNN chose the pictures of the celebrating girls and the spontaneous reaction of the cheering crowd to capture the essence of sport and Olympism with the eternal caption, “At the Olympic Games, you do not have to come First to be a winner”.
Those pictures and caption re-defined what it means to ‘Win’. They were used in the media blitz during the celebrations of the Centennial Games in 2006 in Athens, Greece, the original home of the Olympics.
In a totally unrelated event, earlier in 1980, the American government withdrew their athletes from the Olympic Games in Moscow, USSR, in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR.
It was the second incursion of politics and international diplomacy in sport at that level. The tradition of deploying boycotts at the World’s biggest, most powerful and prestigious Games to drive causes beyond and outside the Games had been well established in 1976. At the Montreal Olympics that year, 27 African countries had boycotted the Games on the eve of the opening ceremony. The devastating impact on the Games makes Montreal ’76 the worst in Olympic history.
There was a huge difference in how the protagonists of the 1976 and the 1980 boycotts treated the ‘innocent’ athletes who were used as pawns on both occasions to support global causes outside sport. The athletes gave up 4 years of hard work and preparation, dreams of Olympic medals and profitable careers, and all the life-time rewards and awards that could have come from being Olympic heroes. It was a big sacrifice to make.
The President of the United States in 1980, Mr. Jimmy Carter, invited the American athletes to the White House, feted them and decorated them as patriots and heroes. To this day, the USA athletes are still regarded as ‘Olympians’ in the United States of America.
Think about it: the athletes did not participate in the 1980 Games, yet they were treated like ‘winners’.
It was a lesson lost on the greater heroes and patriots from 27 African countries that were ‘forced’, earlier in 1976, to surrender their dreams and careers on the altar of politics and diplomacy. At the directives of their governments the athletes did not participate in the Montreal Games, to support an African cause outside of sport – racism and injustice against Blacks in South Africa.
The Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, SCSA, that were instrumental to the boycott and handed down the directives to the athletes in Montreal, did not have any plans to take care of the athletes after the boycott. They left the athletes in Limbo, to burn in the pain and anguish of their lost opportunities and shattered dreams.
The individual countries involved, led by Nigeria and Tanzania, also did nothing for the athletes following their sacrifice. The countries forgot to reward, recognise, celebrate, honour and even compensate them for paying the ultimate price in sport.
The athletes retired into the cocoon of other lesser interests, dreams becoming nightmares for most of them, opportunities lost forever, windows of fame and fortune shut in their faces. They were forgotten, neglected, frustrated and angry! Those that have died did so unsung. For most of the other surviving athletes involved, for 47 years since that day of July 17, 1976, the pain of their disappointment and loss has refused to go away.
It is only now, a few months ago, that some of them have started to heal with better understanding of the impact of their uncommon and painful sacrifice in 1976. Former African American Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, was the first to drive home the significance of the 1976 Games’ boycott by Africa, the rich social and political ‘harvests’ of that action.
Had the African athletes not boycotted the Games, the racist Apartheid system of governance in South Africa would have continued for several more years or decades than it did.
Had the African athletes not boycotted the Games, one of the most respected and most revered African leaders of all time, Nelson Mandela, would have remained behind bars on Robben Island longer than the 27 years he spent.
Had the African athletes, supported by athletes from Iraq and Guyana, not boycotted the Games, Nelson Mandela may never have become the first Black President of South Africa and commence Black rule in that African country.
Had African athletes not boycotted the games in 1976, the whole of Africa would NOT have lined up, several decades later, behind South Africa to become host of the first World Cup in Africa in 2010.
There are other benefits that came out of that boycott. These are huge prizes secured by the huge prices paid.
So, what do you do with the athletes that made this sacrifice, that were used as pawns by governments, athletes that did NOT participate at all in the Olympic games through no fault of their own but for a cause to which they had no say, only sacrifice?
Is what to do to forget the athletes, to let them go back to their homes with memories of lost opportunities and wasted lives, individually bearing the consequences of their involuntary action?
In the past few months, there has been a little consolation for the athletes across Africa and, particularly, in Nigeria. They now understand better the good that came out of their involuntary sacrifice. It lessens their pain a little. For such lofty goals for their Race and for Africa any sacrifice would not have been considered too much.
Nigeria is preparing to do something for the Nigerian athletes.
The country is drinking from the lessons of Barcelona ’92 – “At the Olympic Games, you do not have to be First to be a winner”, and from the American treatment of their 1980 heroes when they raised the bar of Olympism – “At the Olympic Games, you do not have to Participate to be a winner”.
Nigeria, through the vision and effort of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, and the munificence of a Nigerian patriot and philanthropist, the collaboration of the Federal Ministry of Sports and support of several organisations in the country will be setting new standards for other countries and the African Union to follow.
After July 28, 2023, when the 45 Nigerian athletes involved in that boycott in 1976 are ‘resurrected’, re-united, recognised, decorated, celebrated, rewarded and immortalised, it will be an eye-opener for the South African government and people to also show appreciation to the athletes from 27 African countries that gave up their lives and careers for South Africa to achieve freedom.
The Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, SCSA, must do something to immortalise the African athletes.
The African Union, AU, must honour and reward them.
The governments of the different countries involved must fete them, celebrate them, appreciate them and, possibly, even reward them for heeding their country’s call and changing the world!
Nigeria is belling the cat and taking the lead in this ‘restitution’.
The unsung and forgotten heroes of the 1976 boycott of the Olympic games will be re-united again in Lagos, Nigeria, after 47 years, in an unprecedented celebration on July 28th, 2023. Watch out!