As 2016 draws to a close and a new year beckons, the Super Falcons, the women's national team of Nigeria, weigh heavily on my mind.
I remember them because every year, at this time, I remember Chioma Ajunwa, the sole individual Olympic Gold medalist in Nigeria’s history, a member of the Falcons to represent Nigeria and Africa at the first FIFA Women’s World Cup championship in China in 1991. I always remember Chioma at this time because her birthday is January 1st.
I am using this medium, therefore, to wish her a happy birthday in advance. Thus, in the spirit of the season, I also wish to congratulate the Super Falcons, rather belatedly, for their well-earned victory at the African Women’s Cup of Nations concluded some three weeks ago in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
In thinking about the Falcons and their recent travails,permit me a small digression and the indulgence to celebrate Chioma.
She is the first Nigerian female athlete to represent the country at two different sports at the world level – Football and Track and Field.
She was the first athlete I managed in my career as a registered Athletes’ Representative with the IAAF from 1993. I later added two more athletes to my squad and spent four years living in the world of track and field athletics traversing the European circuit and managing all the girls' sports affairs. One of the other two athletes was Charity Opara. She also won a totally unexpected Olympic silver medal as a part of the triumphant 4 X 400 metres relay quartet at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Her story is also very remarkable. I hope she will tell it one day in a book to inspire a new generation!
Chioma’s four year suspension by the IAAF, her ill treatment by Nigerian sports officials by their refusal to hear her side of the story and render any form of assistance, her abandonment and frustrations in Nigeria, her relocation to the United Kingdom, her years of untold hardship and silent preparations for the 1996 Olympics, her initial rejection by meet organisers all over Europe, her return to track and field, her training under the hardest and harshest conditions in the wind and snow of London, her living in the UK with the minimum of funds, how the elements conspired to change her ‘misfortune’ of 1992 into the greatest triumph of her life four years later through her miraculous, once-in-a-life-time jump in Atlanta,USA, that turned her fate around, all became great and useful lessons for me in my course in the school of life.
It led me to fully understand and appreciate what goes into achieving any kind of success in sports – the extremely hard work, the daily grind of unending training, the single minded pursuit of a dream, the power of belief, the never-say-die attitude, the fighting spirit, the essential team work, the uncommon discipline, the regimented life style, the hot tears, sweat and blood, the acute loneliness, the endless disappointments and failures along the way, the frustrating injuries and their toll, the constant lack of funds, and the officials that know nothing about all these but lie in wait when glory comes to claim credit and add it to their own resume!
It is the very last part that irks the athlete – sports officials not doing much and claiming and enjoying all the credit.
I saw and experienced all these when I worked with Chioma Ajunwa many years ago, so I can relate to what happened to the Falcons when they went to the Cameroon, made all the sacrifices without complaints, and with little incentives went to war, passed through the crucible of fire in very difficult matches and emerged at the end, with plenty of luck on their side, victorious.
They happily and proudly brought the trophy to the country in expectation of a heroic welcome and lavish celebrations having made Nigerians happy and proud, and lifted spirits dampened by the harsh economic climate pervading the country.
Then what happened next? Nothing!
They were asked to go home and wait, not for their rewards but for even their little statutory allowances and bonuses!
The girls were livid. Conversant with the history of Nigerian sports that is full of the pathetic stories of abandoned sportsmen and women that are never remembered beyond their ‘season’ in the limelight, the girls would not have any of it. So, they revolted!
It was not a beautiful sight at all to behold the country’s two weeks old heroines marching through the streets of their country’s capital carrying placards for non-payment of their allowances and bonuses!
That picture, coupled with the conflicting rhetoric from different organs of sports administration on the issue, did not help matters at all. The girls refused to bow to empty promises that did not have the backing of antecedence or history.
As the drama unfolded, I remembered Chioma Ajunwa. She embodied in her story what it took to win and to become a champion. It is a long, hard road to travel.
So, when an athlete or a team finally wins, which is only a very few times in the life of any athlete for that matter, they rightfully expect an appreciation, a reward, anything but a handshake or a promise that may never likely be fulfilled.
The sports authorities should have understood this and be prepared, like the athletes, for the role they have to play in winning.
The case of the Falcons is an avoidable matter that should never have happened. My mind found it difficult to absorb the absurdity of such a shameful act taking place in Nigeria in the 21st century. Yet, no one has been indicted, no one has even been reprimanded.
It was ugly and preposterous – the sight of heroines marching in public to the national assembly and to the Presidency in protest for non-payment of their pittances of accumulated allowances and bonuses throughout the period of a championship they won for a nation, trying to clear its image of political crooks and thieves looting the country’s common wealth dry with impunity.
REWARDING OUR HEROES
Yet, here we had the Falcons patriotically serving their country without asking first, putting up a great show for millions of Nigerians and making the whole country happy and united behind their country’s flag, getting nothing but the cold shoulders of officials who told them to go home and wait for rewards that would never have come.
The more I think about it and examine the scenario, the more I see what could have happened. The total lack of sensitivity of the sacrifices athletes make, and a lack of appreciation for what they go through to win any championship. These are ready fuel for agitation and protest, which is why I fully appreciate how the Falcons reverted to their ugly but essential actions.
For a long time to come the pictures of the girls marching in Abuja will be our story to the world and will mirror how we mistreat our heroes and celebrate the crooks amongst us.
Now only gaffs and scandals light up the darkness into which Nigerian sports have sunk since merit disappeared in the choice of its leadership.
Like Nigeria itself, sports’ greatest problem is that of leadership, one that exemplifies the best qualities in the sea of abundant gifted people.
The immediate intervention of the Presidency in the matter spoke volumes.
Nigerians now have a government determined through its actions to abandon old and failed ways and adopt new ones that promote justice and celebrate deserving heroes.
Now, the country is waiting and watching to see what happens next. The government must properly welcome the Falcons and celebrate them in compensation for their humiliation these past three weeks. That would be more than any material reward!