Sunday, 3rd December 2023

Rewarding Montreal 1976 Olympic Heroes… A CSR with a difference

By By Gbenga Salau
16 July 2023   |   6:27 am
One of the lines in Nigeria’s national anthem says, “The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” And 47 years after some young Nigerians stood, not only for Nigeria but also for Africa, their heroic act of boycotting the 1976 Olympic Games, which has not been recognised either by government or corporate organisations, is about being rewarded.

• Former Green Eagles player, Segun Odegbami (left); Chief Consultant, Z-Edge Holdings, Kikelomo Atanda-Owo; and Chairman, Air Peace, Dr Allen Onyema at the event.

One of the lines in Nigeria’s national anthem says, “The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” And 47 years after some young Nigerians stood, not only for Nigeria but also for Africa, their heroic act of boycotting the 1976 Olympic Games, which has not been recognised either by government or corporate organisations, is about being rewarded.

Nigeria, with so many leading athletes in its squad, alongside 29 other countries, pulled out of the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games in protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa and New Zealand’s endorsement of that infamous policy by engaging the Nicolaas Johannes Diederichs’ led country in sports diplomacy.

Although fair-minded world leaders applauded the Africa-led boycott of the Olympics, successive governments or corporate bodies through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have not mitigated the effect on some of the athletes, whose life ambitions crumbled with the act.

The philosophy behind CSR is to complement government’s effort bridging the gap, especially where government is failing. In truth, any CSR project that is worth its salt should improve the society.

This is why the planned recognition of Nigerian sports heroes, who flew the country’s flag at the ill-fated Montreal 1976 Olympic Games and the 1980 African Cup of Nations has been commended by stakeholders.

The heroes’ wait for recognition is about to end with the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame, powered by founder of Air Peace Airlines, Dr. Allen Onyema, for these athletes.

Listed for recognition at the programme titled, ‘From Olympics’ boycotts to hosting the World- West Africa FIFA World Cup 2034,’ are members of the senior national team, Green Eagles, who in 1980 won the country’s first African Cup of Nations title at the competition hosted by Nigeria.

The Chairman, Air Peace Airlines, Onyema, said he was motivated by the need to show Nigerian youths that they would get their due reward if they served the country diligently, even when such rewards do not come immediately.

He announced that members of the Montreal Olympics team and the 1980 Green Eagles will get 12 return tickets each every year to travel within the country for the rest of their lives and also one international return ticket yearly to the routes operated by Air Peace for the rest of their lives.

These rewards, he said, are apart from some monetary awards to be announced during the unveiling of the Wall of Fame on July 28, 2023.

“They arrived Montreal, Canada and just on the eve of the opening ceremony, were asked to pack their bags and leave camp because Nigeria and the rest of Africa had resolved to boycott the Games as a result of the support some countries were giving apartheid in South Africa. The AFCON Team of 1980 will also be recognised for their feat.

“The 1976 athletes had prepared for four years. Some were on top of their events like Charlton Ehizuelen, Imadiyi, Bruce Ijirigho and our 4x400m men’s relay team that were sure gold or silver medal hopefuls. In fact, Ehizuelen had the world leading jump to the Olympics. They jettisoned their dreams because of Nigeria. Most didn’t recover and never had the opportunities to become Olympic medalists again in their lifetime. These former athletes and the 1980 AFCON winning squad are those to be honoured as Air Peace Sports Diplomacy Ambassadors come July 28, 2023.”

According to Onyema, “the athletes to be honoured are Nigerians who made the country proud in the past. These are athletes who sacrificed opportunity to be great in Canada and heeded Nigeria’s call to boycott the Olympics on the eve of the Games. The same country that ordered them to give up their ambitions has not honoured these athletes.
“We are also honouring those that won the African Cup of Nations in 1980 because that feat united the country in a way that had never happened before. The Wall of Fame has been built at the NIIA with the heroes’ names written in gold.
“Those members of the teams, now late, would get post-humous rewards, while their families will get some financial rewards, which modalities would be sorted out before the event.

On what motivates him to institute the award, he said: “I love this country and I keep on saying it, a country of 383 ethnic nationalities, that is huge diversity. This diversity should have been our strength, now it seems to be a curse instead of a blessing. So, it pains me that Nigeria has not been able to wedge together its diversity and use it for our development.

“Many countries are envious of our diversity which is supposed to be a source of strength for us. We are using it the other way round because politicians will tell you, you are Igbo, you are Hausa, you are Yoruba, you are Ibibios when it suites them, but at the end of the day, they come together and do what they know how to do best. And this has been destroying this nation.

“It pains me and I discovered when it comes to sports, football in particular, whenever Nigeria is playing, we forget our ethnicities. It shows one thing that, the ordinary Nigerian loves to be a Nigerian; I mean the people on the street don’t care. It is only when politicians come up to start telling us our difference that we all come alive to it.

“So knowing fully well that sports unite us, I decided that I am going to be supporting it, that was why I went into my aircraft at 2.00 a.m., drove myself to the international airport to meet the national team players. I pleaded with them to win that qualifier for the nation, because anytime we are playing, nobody remembers if he is Fulani/Hausa/Igbo. It is all about Nigeria, so if that is happening, let me contribute by also supporting sports, maybe some day, who knows, we might be able to get it right.

“America is the melting pot of all ethnicities in the world, but once they get that passport what they profess is, ‘I’m American.’ In Nigeria, it is the other way round. It is not helpful in a multicultural nation like Nigeria, we should not be mouthing our ethnicities. What we have in Nigeria is ethnic and religious nationalities, we don’t have nationalism in Nigeria.”

Onyema stressed that he was motivated to carry out the Wall of Fame project as a way to honour the athletes for their huge sacrifices.

Speaking on behalf of the awardees, Nigeria’s former football captain, Segun Odegbami, thanked Onyema for his enduring generosity, saying history would be kind to him for his efforts in nation-building.

Odegbami recalled the events that led to the boycott of the 1976 Olympic Games, lamenting, however, that some of the athletes affected by the decision have not recovered from its aftermath.
“We are happy that at last somebody has decided to recognise the sacrifice we made for the country in 1976 and at the 1980 African Cup of Nations.
“Here is somebody who wants to address the issue of welfare of retired and ageing athletes; to delve into history and unearth, honour, celebrate and reward forgotten sports heroes; and to celebrate members of the Green Eagles of 1980. We pray that God will continue to bless him.”

Odegbami said the decision to write the names of the athletes in gold would mark a turn-around in the lives of many of them and future retired athletes.

The former Eagles captain said: “This is a very good initiative. It is very great to recall that the 1976 Olympics team did not win any medal, but they are being honoured now for their patriotism. It was open for us then to decide to compete as individuals, but there was a collective decision to respect the stand of Nigeria by boycotting the Games.

“I recalled the then Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, provided a brand new DC 10 aircraft to take us back to Nigeria. Let me also mention that there were great athletes in that contingent. The football team defeated host Canada 3-0 in a pre-event friendly and we were all in high spirits. There were great boxers like Davidson Andeh and Obisia Nwankpa in the team as well.

“In the future, I expect more corporate organisations to emulate Air Peace by coming up with initiative that will put smiles on the faces of former athletes.”

Reminiscing on the events at the Montreal Olympics Games Village just before Nigeria led the African boycott, Odegbami Said: “We were thoroughly enjoying the tournament. The Nigerian team played a friendly match against Canada, the host and we defeated them by three goals. If you check the records, the Canadian team got to the quarterfinals, meanwhile we beat them hands down.

“On the day that this thing happened, we were actually supposed to play Brazil. We had such a fantastic team and our spirit was very high, our excitement was on top of the world. Moreso, we had some of the best athletes in the world at that time. It was a supreme team that was ready to win medals.

“We just got a notice that we should assemble at Abraham Odia’s room and they told us that, quite unfortunately, we would not be participating in the Olympics. And that we have one or two hours to move our things and leave the Olympic.

“If you know the rules of the Olympics, you can still participate but not representing your country. As an individual, you can still go ahead to participate. We had that option to participate. However, we all just obeyed, while we didn’t fully understand the meaning of Apartheid.

“Because the message was coming from the president of Nigeria, we all just rushed to pack our things and they bundled us into the bus to the airport.

“When we got to the airport, the place was jam-packed with black athletes, no flight to take them anywhere. They were all sitting on the ground. Fortunately for us, we had a president then, Olusegun Obasanjo, who ordered that a brand new plane, still in the hanger in Atlanta, be released to bring us back to Nigeria. We were the first Africans to be airlifted. But it was the most shattering experience of our lives to be at the doorstep of the Olympics games and not to go in and participate.”