The Olympic medals I (never) won!
It was during the summer of 1976 that I went to my first Olympics. I was a freshly minted graduate of Mechanical Engineering getting ready to report to Lagos where I had been posted to for my national youth service when the invitation to join the national football team, the Green Eagles, came via an announcement on national television!
The team was on a six-nation European tour en-route that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Montreal, Canada. I was invited to join them by the Nigeria Football Association. In 1996, the Green Eagles were on ascendancy, having come third earlier that year at the African Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, a feat that was unprecedented at that time in the history of the country’s football.
After that, the team had also defeated the reigning African champions, Morocco, to qualify for the second time in Nigeria’s football history for the football event of the Olympic Games. The first time it did so was in 1968 for the Mexico Olympics.
By 1996, for me, going to the Olympics was like going to another planet. It was not for ordinary mortals. Only gods went to the Olympics! But then it happened. Nigeria got to the final qualifying hurdle and upset the formbooks by defeating Morocco. Thompson Usiyen, unarguably one of Nigeria’s most gifted strikers, was tormentor-in-chief of the Moroccan defense that could not believe the hurricane that hit them.
I was not a part of the team up till that point. I was a final year student somehow dangerously joggling my studies with club football duties for Shooting Stars FC that were campaigning for that year’s Africa Cup winners’ Cup.
The club was making great progress in the African club competition and my contributions had been very pivotal to its success. So impressive was I in the quarter-final match against Nkana Red Devils of Zambia in the two legs in Nigeria and in Zambia, (I scored two of Shooting Stars’ three goals in both matches that knocked out the Zambian club), that my name was hurriedly sent on the last day for submission of the final list of Nigeria’s team to Montreal to replace Jide Dina, a childhood friend and central defender for Mighty Jets FC of Jos.
That’s how I miraculously found myself drafted in at the last minute and flown alone to Germany to join the rest of the Eagles already training there en-route Montreal. It was a surreal experience to say the least – from school to Europe and to the Olympics within the space of a few weeks.I was in a trance all through the training tour, never believing my eyes that I was actually heading to the ‘moon’.
It was when our plane landed in Montreal, Canada, and I saw hundreds of other arriving athletes from other countries at the airport that it started to dawn on me that it was real. Our first evening in the Olympic village was a journey through heaven – a sea of humanity from all over the world milling together in this place of immaculate beauty, with everyone clad in their official national sports wear, making new friends as we went round the village to explore and to soak in the magnificence of the environment.
In the almost one week of our stay in the Olympic village I can still recall many of us going back and forth the round-the-clock open dining halls with their tempting array of exotic foods from different parts of the world, munching as if we were on a mission to eat and die.
A few days to the start of the Games, we played our last friendly match against Colombia. It was an absolutely stunning performance by an African team. We were truly on fire and at our very best, buoyed by the confidence we gathered after victories against several amateur clubs in Europe. At that time European national teams never accepted to play African countries because they considered the standard of African football too low.
But our massive performance against Colombia (a 3-0 pounding of the team that eventually got to the semifinals of the football event) sounded a note of warning to all our opponents. Even Brazil withdrew in ‘fear’ from the last friendly match we were to play against them. Then it happened. The Olympic rapture happened. Our ‘heaven’ came to an abrupt end.
On the eve of the games, the entire Nigerian contingent were hurriedly summoned to an emergency meeting with the leadership of the Nigerian contingent, led by Chief Abraham Ordia, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa and Mr. Isaac Akioye, the director of the National Sports Commission.They told us we had a few minutes to return to our rooms, pack our belongings and leave the Olympic village. We were heading back to Nigeria. They explained why it was necessary to do so – to register African’s protest against countries (particularly New Zealand) that were fraternizing with the Apartheid regime of South Africa.
It was a shattering blow. Most of us were at the doorsteps of our first Olympic Games only for the doors to be slammed in our faces. Departing the Olympics was a devastating blow, even though we were made to understand it was a sacrifice we had to make to support the struggle for the freedom of our fellow Black Africans. Nigeria was the first country to depart Montreal. As we arrived the airport, taxing on the tarmac was a glittering brand new DC 10 aircraft of Nigeria Airways dispatched by the government to come pick us up and take us home!
That’s how I went, saw but did not participate in my first Olympics that would have been a great outing for Nigeria with her gifted athletes in several sports and excellent preparations. Table tennis players had been training in China for a few years. Bulgaria had hosted wrestlers and weightlifters. American universities were the training ground of track and field athletes on federal government scholarships. The boxers were under the tutelage of legendary American, former World light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore. The footballers were at home in West Germany’s foremost football school in Hennef.
Obisia Nwankpa would most likely have won a medal. Charlton Ehizuelen was easily the hottest triple jumper in the world at the time. Nigeria had some of the world’s best 400 metres sprinters at the time in Bruce Ijirigho, Felix Imabiyi, Dele Udoh and so on. Godwin Obasogie was one of the leading hurdlers in the world. All those dreams evaporated in a plume of political smoke.
Four years later fate returned to continue with its unending drama. Politics that robbed us of being Olympians in 1976 also provided us the unsolicited opportunity to fulfill our dream again in 1980.
Without playing a single qualifying match the Green Eagles were invited to participate at the Moscow Olympics when the United States of America led a few Western European countries to boycott the games in Russia.So, once again in the summer of 1980, I found myself heading to Moscow at the very last minute when the thought of participating in the Olympics did not even exist in my consciousness. This time I was both captain of the Green Eagles and captain of Team Nigeria, the first Nigerian football player to occupy that position. So, I carried Nigeria’s flag during the match-past. It was a great honour for me and a dream come true at last.
My relationship with the Olympics did not end there. There was still something hollow and unfulfilled – I never won an Olympic medal. In 1993 I became an athletes representative. I had three athletes in my stable. Under my management Chioma Ajunwa and Charity Okpara went to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (some 20 years after my first taste of it) and returned with Gold and Silver medals respectively.
Their medals, through my humble and little contributions to their success, have become for me the Olympic medals I (never) won! So, as the 2016 Olympic Games commence this weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I am preparing myself to wait, to watch and to wonder what fate would throw onto my lap again this time around.