It is a sad day and a sadder period for sports in Nigeria.
A few days ago, Jeremiah Okorodudu, a famous Nigerian boxer, probably the most flamboyant and loquacious boxer in the country’s boxing history, died in a private hospital in the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria.
He was only 64 years of age.
His death attracts special attention. It followed a mostly silent, 2-year battle with poor health described by some media reports as the product of Stroke and Diabetes. In the past two weeks, the public was drawn to Jerry’s plight through the social media. Pictures of him lying on a bed in a local hospital in Ikorodu, Lagos, with headlines screaming for help for the celebrated former athlete, were very pitiable, a sad commentary on the general life-after-sport of many national sports heroes. There was also a video of Jeremiah gasping, struggling to speak through obvious pain, inaudible mumbling through laboured breath. He was shown crying and appealing to the government and to Nigerians not to let him die, like that.
All that he needed at the time were about the equivalent of $2000:00 to pay for an essential life-saving surgery – amputation of his foot. This meagre amount was ‘change-money’, even for any one of those in the corridors of sports at different levels of government, particularly. Obviously, the era of sports administrators that spent their personal funds to support sports and athletes is a long way back in the dungeons of history. These days, sport is a sector to be milked of any sweet harvests. That’s why there is a fight-to-the-finish in the scramble for positions of leadership in sports by those with the least stakes in sport.
Jeremiah Okorodudu needed that paltry sum to save his life. His family could not raise it till he died despite appeals to the public. His painful death reminds me that there is a whole legion in Jerry’s shoes languishing around the country waiting for help that may not come quickly.
There are: Ngozika Ekwelum, African boxing champion, in his lonely bed in Anambra, suffering for over a decade with a case of urinary incontinence and other depression-related issues that have made his life miserable; Kenneth Abana, mercurial goal-poacher for Rangers International and the Green Eagles, with one foot already amputated, lying critically ill in a hospital in Enugu; Christopher Friday, ex- Shooting Stars and Super Eagles, completely blind in both eyes and living in perpetual darkness; Dahiru Sadi, former national team football Captain, downed by Stroke and now confined to the four corners of his room; Siji Lagunju, former Shooting Stars, national football assistant coach and player, downed in the past two years by Stroke; Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala and Charles Bassey who can no longer work or walk unaided for the rest of their lives; an innumerable number of other athletes all around us in 40 other sports, neglected, forgotten, living poorly and in pain, with nothing in place within the Nigerian sports architecture to take care of their welfare when their careers in sport end.
Jeremiah’s situation is not an isolated one. The Nigerian sports landscape is littered with similar stories of the abject poverty of former athletes, with most ending up victims of neglect and societal amnesia, forced to accept a life in abject poverty and of dying young.
This last aspect struck me when I checked Jeremiah’s age at death again – 64! He is of a common tribe in sport. One that deserves scientific interrogation and study – Do Nigerian athletes die young?
I am in the process of compiling a list of Nigerian athletes that went to represent the country some 47 years ago at the 1976 Olympics. The NIIA and Airpeace Airline are planning an uncommon re-union and celebration for the athletes outside sport. I was a young member of that contingent, a freshly minted graduate at the time.
Even as I look back now, it seems like yesterday. Most of the surviving athletes are now in their late 60s and early 70s.
I am looking at the list of the 45 athletes whose action (or inaction) created a diplomatic tsunami that changed the course of history in the world, and I ask: where are they now?
There were 3 registered boxers in that contingent. All three are dead.
All must have died before they turned 60! They all died in Nigeria.
There were 20 football players in that contingent. 9 of them are dead. All died in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. One died in his 60s. Most died in Nigeria.
There were 20 Track and Field athletes. 5 of them died in their 40s and 50s.
3 of the 5 died in Nigeria. Now the observations and questions:
Most of the athletes in track and field that are still alive have lived in the USA.
Do high-performance athletes die so young? Is that really the case? If so, why? Is it the United States general (or sports) welfare system that has kept the Nigerian athletes alive? These should be a subject for intellectual interrogation.
Of those that stayed back in Nigeria, their stories have been pathetic, gory tales of neglect, poverty and early death, afar departure from the promise in the national Anthem that fires up their spirit before and after competitions: ‘the labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain’ – a promise hardly ever delivered!
It is hard to understand why establishing a simple welfare scheme for athletes should become rocket science.
Several welfare schemes that could serve as models exist everywhere on the planet, and, indeed, have been created in Nigeria in the past. They were misused, abused or unused for the purpose. One or two of the Welfare schemes still exist but as private estates of those in the original committees set up to manage them. They may still keep the huge financial contributions made by Nigerians in their vaults, never accounting to anybody for anything, remaining in ‘office’ in perpetuity, their silence like that of the graveyard, their ‘reward’ or ‘punishment reserved for the gates of heaven, or of hell, depending on what use they put the funds contributed by Nigerians for the amelioration of the painful conditions of suffering athletes in need of help. Through the decades, the shallowness of the instruments that set them up did not protect their sustainability and supervision. So, they went into convenient hibernation, resurrecting only occasionally to service personal, narrow interests and purposes.
Jeremiah fought many battles of neglect and injustice against the sports establishment in the past, always drawing attention to his suffering. He was punished several times for his effrontery to be his own one-man army when fighting his causes.
Those leading the sector, mostly drawn from the political class, with all their good intentions to do well for sports, do not understand enough about what needs to be done to arrest this ugly scourge.
Otherwise, there is no reason on earth why a Jeremiah Okorodudu should spend two whole years in pain and suffering and neglect, and now die needlessly. His corpse, it has been reported, is still held up in a morgue and will not be released to his family because they could not pay outstanding hospital bills of less than $1000 Dollars.
Jeremiah Okorodudu’s death could have been avoided with a little more care and concern. The sports sector failed him. His colleagues failed him. Government failed him. Those who could have helped but did not, failed him.
So, he died, in pain and with regrets, abandoned at the moment of his greatest health challenge, his labour for country, in vain.
This is truly a bad commentary and poor advertisement for Nigerian sports.
As Jeremiah takes his place amongst the saints, amongst resting heroes of Nigerian sports, I pray that the great pugilist who won a Bronze medal for Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games, who narrowly failed to win a medal for Nigeria at the 1984 Olympic games, who graced several rings around Nigeria during his prime, who trained and took several Nigerian boxers to international competitions, who served boxing passionately throughout his life, who died in misery, pain and penury, will find the divine peace of the Creator of us all, to forgive Nigeria.
It is a sad day and a sadder period for sports in Nigeria.