It happened on Thursday night at the Yar Adua Conference centre, Abuja.
Some of the most outstanding athletes in Nigeria’s Olympic sports in the past six decades (therefore all Olympians), assembled for a special bi-annual re-union organised to remind their government and prick the conscience of Nigerians about the pledge embedded permanently in eternal words within their national anthem, words passionately sung by the athletes when going into ‘battle’ in their sports: “the Labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain”.
It was a very emotional night for me because I was given the privileged role of delivering the dinner-talk. Unfortunately, that meant waiting till the tail end of the event, when all the awards would have been given, tributes paid ànd the lavish citation of awardees read and dinner served.
Emmanuel Babayaro, the Secretary- General of the Nigerian Olympians Association, called me after the event and lamented that it was a poor idea to have put my speech after dinner, because soon after, the big hall emptied of the invited guests.
My dinner-talk ended up as a sermon to the Olympians. It was meant to take the audience into the world of Olympic athletes, to be presented from my personal first-hand experience of the Olympics since 1968 to date. It was to serve also as a reminder of what it takes and what it means to be an Olympian.
Before going into how that turned out, permit me to tell you about the award and awardees.
The hall was packed with awardees and their ‘supporters’. The most notable recipients included the Deputy-Governor of Edo State, the wife of the immediate past Governor of Benue State, the immediate past Minister of Sport, the President of the Nigerian Olympic Committee, and several other outstanding athletes from past Olympic games.
All of that went well.
Then, my sermon.
My earliest impression about the Olympics, derived from Greek mythology, is that the sports events at the Games were the pastime of gods on Mount Olympus. The gods would run, jump and fight to the cheers of the large population of angels. Humans were not in the picture.
Then came 1968.
The news from Mexico that hit the airwaves with a bang in Nigeria was that the Green Eagles, the national team of Nigeria, that quietly went to football’s first Olympic Games, had held ‘giant’ Brazil to an unbelievable 3-3 draw!
That attracted every Nigerian’s attention.
It was the first realisation that humans took part in the Olympics. Our footballers were human. We were familiar with them. They were flesh and blood. The Olympic ‘gods’ were actually human: Peter Fregene, Inua Lawal Rigogo, Samuel Garba, Peter Anieke, and so on. It shattered a myth.
Last Thursday night, for the first time since that team returned to Nigeria in the summer of 1968, the Nigerian Olympians Association, invited 3 surviving members of that historic team to Abuja to honour them. They were celebrated and given special awards. The gladiators were Durojaiye Adigun, Ganiyu Salami and Kenneth Olayombo. Kenneth actually scored two goals in that memorable match.
4 years later in 1972, now freed from the psychological prison that Olympians were not human, a Nigerian boxer went to the Munich Games and fought his way to Nigeria’s first medal, a Bronze. Last Thursday night, Isaac Ikhuoria was present to receive his well-deserved award.
Since Ikhuoria, boxing has become a good source of medals for Nigeria at the Games.
In 1976, Nigeria, now fully prepared for an onslaught on the Theatre of dreams, took probably the most powerful squad in the country’s history to the Montreal Olympics. The team was pulled out of the Games at the last minute to ‘fight’ a global political cause, and the athletes, therefore, missed out on fulfilling their greatest dreams.
Moscow 1980 was a most uneventful Olympics. It was marred by the politics of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR over Afghanistan. Taking a page from the book of the consequence of the 1976 boycott, led by Nigeria and Tanzania, the USA led their own boycott of the Mosçow games by Western countries.
The power of sport was now evident, a tool that can be deployed to serve various purposes even outside of sport.
For Nigeria, Moscow was barren.
1984, Los Angeles Games. The USSR avenged the treatment by the USA in 1980. They marred the Games with their own boycott, along with their allies.
But Nigerians seized the opportunity to make their mark. Led by Innocent Egbunike, Henry Amike, and a superb 4 x 400 m relay quartet, they resumed their Olympic hunt for medals with the country’s first silver medal in Track and Field.
In 1988, in Seoul, South Korea, Nigeria had a large squad that included football again and tennis for the first time.
For some reason, it was more memorable for its lack of medals.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, it was both historical and memorable for right and wrong reasons. On the eve of the Games, one of the fastest girls in the world was a Nigerian. Along with a few others, she was charged and suspended for drugs usage. For Nigeria, it was a shattering development, particularly for àthletes that had spent 4 previous years, come rain, come shine, pounding the tracks and the fields in search of a few seconds, minutes or even millimeters that could change their lives forever.
Meanwhile, some other athletes wrote their names in the history books at Barcelona ’92. Mary Onyali led a quartet relay team that also included Christy Okpara-Thompson to run a race that defined the true essence of ‘winning’ at the Olympics. Thè quartet came third but were celebrated more than the teams that came first and second because of the manner they celebrated third place. Mary and Christy were in Abuja last Thursday and were both celebrated.
The 1996 Atlanta Games came and became the best Olympics for Nigeria, ever.
For Chioma Ajunwa, it marked a vindication. From the depths of hell 4 years before, she emerged, rose and became the brightest star in the constellation with a performance and a result of a lifetime. Her Gold medal remains Nigeria’s only individual gold medal to date.
Her victory opened the flood gates to more victories: a second Gold Medal in Football; Silver medals and Bronze medals in other events.
At this point, Nigerian athletes had joined the club of gods and goddesses of the Olympics.
From Atlanta Nigeria finally launched into the spirit of the Olympics as proper and equal contenders. From Sydney 2000 and thereafter, a new generation of gods and goddesses was born and bred. Some of them were remembered and received awards last Thursday night.
It was, indeed, a great night of bright Stars.
Through the generations of these gods and goddesses, I had been a LIVE witness.
I am thinking.
Why would I, an ordinary football player, without any imprint on the Olympics landscape, be the one to tell the story of Olympians?
I think my purpose for being an Olympian is to be a part of it in order to document them, experience what it takes to be an Olympian and to regularly remind the athletes that it is the hardest status to achieve in sports. That it is a long, lonely, expensive, hard, and challenging journey, strewn all the way with the requirements of self-sacrifice, hard work, highest level of discipline, single-mindedness, supreme patience, pain, failures, injuries and disappointments.
Yet, at the end, all of these come down to a few seconds, or minutes, of competing and hoping to win against the very best opponents in the world.
It is no mean feat and should not be treated with levity, laxity, or, worst of all, taken for granted. It is hard!
If others do not, Olympians must constantly remind themselves and each other of their hard-earned successes and sacrifices in sport. They must always remind themselves never to forget what Nelson Mandela said about the power of sport to change the world. His life was influenced greatly by the boycott of 1976 when Nigerian athletes led other African patriots to make the ultimate sacrifice to boycott the Games and support his cause and that of his people in South Africa.
That sacrifice was partly responsible for the end of Apartheid in South Africa, Mandela’s release from jail, his ascension as the first Black President of a new South Africa and granting the hosting rights of the first FIFA World Cup to be held in Africa to South Africa.
That ‘power’ of sport is still available and must be deployed creatively by Nigerian Olympians to change their lives, impact their country and make the world a better place.
They can do those things if only they always remember that, indeed, they are gods and goddesses!
It happened on Thursday night at the Yar Adua Conference centre, Abuja.