The Sports and Diplomacy Wall of Fame

It is the morning of July 29, 2023.

I am at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, in Lagos, Nigeria. It is a wet, cool and calm morning, and as I drive into the premises it is empty of the huge human traffic of the previous day.

I am here to confirm that all of this has not been a dream, that it is real; that yesterday was a truly memorable day in the lives of several forgotten athletes in Nigeria’s history.

I am standing alone and staring at the environment before me, breathtaking its beauty and atmosphere this morning.

The background to the scenery before me is mostly green, the lush green of artificial grass and the smell of fresh dew. There is a big, black, glittering, marbled wall like a giant Cinema Screen with inscriptions like the end-credits of a movie. Names, famous and not so famous, of Nigerian athletes are inscribed in two groups and several columns on the wall. Preceding each list of names are two short narratives that paraphrase the significance of the events before the list of names – the Olympic Games of 1976, and the 1980 African Cup of Nations.

I am staring at the names and running through all of them, one by one, picturing them the way I knew some of them some 43, or 47 years ago when we were youngsters, and letting the feeling of fulfillment seep through me as a result of what transpired yesterday. I recognize most of them but not all. We all met again, about 30 of us that are still alive, all of them in different degrees of physical wear and tear, many with walking sticks as aids and permanent companions. Age and arthritis have surely taken their toll. 20 in the 62 man list on the ‘NIIA Sports and Diplomacy Wall of Fame’ have passed on to the great beyond. Some of their children stood in for their late parents and served as reminders that their legacy lives on.

I am still staring at the beauty before me.

From the middle of a smaller wall adjacent to the ‘Wall of Fame’ is a miniature ‘waterfall’ through a small, thin opening in the wall cascading water to a channel of blue tiles below, flowing along a gentle slope for some 10 metres, or so, into a pool of water with 4 protruding statues of mermaids, their ‘mouths’ spewing out water in a fountain into the sky!

A model of an Airpeace plane sits on the ground in front of the wall in salute to a structure that has become the permanent home of sports diplomats being remembered, recognized and immortalized for their roles, not on the tracks, the pool, the ring or the field, but in the impact of their deeds in sports beyond sport, into the realm of diplomacy, in this instance.

This is not about excellence or even achievements in sport. That’s why the wall and the events are sited inside the hallowed theatres of national sports in Nigeria, in Abuja, or Lagos, but in an federal institution that shapes the foreign and international policies and affairs of the government of Nigeria.

That may be the confusion in the minds of the national sports federations that should have been present to draw inspiration from the events, but did not show up.

It is only the Secretary General of the Nigeria football Federation that sent apologies for the absence of the NFF leadership because most of them are in Australia for what is turning out to be a watershed of new developments in global football engineered by the African representatives at the Women’s World Cup led by Nigerian girls.

Fatma Diouf Samoura, Senegalese, and first female Secretary-General of FIFA must take a bow and take plenty of credit for setting new standards in how to free athletes from the shackles of the greed and financial brigandage of many African sports administrators who feed fat on their performances and enslave them to perpetual despair and penury. The threat of the Nigerian girls not to play at the start of the FIFA championship, their gutsy and brilliant performances up till now, the success of two other African countries in qualifying for the round of 16, have all contributed to taking Women’s football to new heights. This development will surely impact the rest of football and the lives of footballers around the world. In Africa, it will propel development to new and unprecedented heights also. The lives of African footballers will never be the same again, and the world had better start to watch out for what financial motivation, such as this new development, will do to the psyche and performances of African teams into the future.

At the same time, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria have been distracted by the avoidable misdemeanor of its best ambassador. Tobi Amusan was the toast of the world until her meteoric rise was punctuated by a catastrophic fall that leaves every Nigerian in shock, unable to make any sense of any of it. How could Tobi Amusan have fallen so badly for reasons outside of poor performance on the tracks?

Results on the tracks and fields are important, just as are conduct outside them. that is why Chioma Ajunwa, Mary Onyali, `Falilat Ogunkoya,`Innocent Egbunike, Enefiok Udo-Obong and many other great and legendary athletes are not featured on the ‘Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame’. This wall is about Sport and Diplomacy.

Probably, this lack of complete understanding is what kept out the swimming and boxing federations also from attending to celebrate their four athletes that were an integral part of the politics that transpired in 1976 in Montreal, Canada.

Having said that, July 27 and 28, were two memorable days in Lagos.

On the eve of the main events, on July 27, the assembly of all the athletes from different parts of the world met in a room at the Movenpick Hotel where they were lodged for a re-union, to meet each other again after 44 and 47 years, and to share their stories with their benefactors, Dr. Allen Onyema, Chairman of Airpeace Airline, and Professor Eghosa Osaghae, Director-General of the NIIA.

I now wish I had the common sense to have recorded the unforgettable 3 hours session of incredible stories and experiences told in pain, despair and tears, but ending in a closure, relief, gratitude and hope. it was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had in my life, as it was for many others too.

So, here I am standing alone and staring at the enchanting wall that holds such rich history and incredible stories.

I call on one of the security men to come take a picture of me. I shall post along with this write-up for readers to behold and join me in the celebrations that shall go on for eternity.

This is to thank Dr. Allen Onyema, the Chairman of Airpeace Airline, Professor Egosa Osaghae, the Director-General of the NIIA, Filbert Bayi the legendary Tanzanian athlete who came in from Dar es Salaam, Ron Freeman from his base in Zambia, Dr. Biyi Minyuku from South Africa, CEO of OlymAfrica, Alassanne Thierno Diack from Senegal, Kikelomo Atanda-Owo the main organiser of the events, Muyiwa Kayode, Obinna and Nnena Onyema, all the editors from the Sports, Diplomacy and Aviation desks that promoted the events, Toyin Oladije, the COO of Airppeace Airlines, all the staff of Airpeace, NIIA and other vendors that contributed to making the event most memorable.

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