Onyali Relives Olympic Glory: ‘I Wanted Two Medals At Atlanta’96 But Got Only One’

Onyali Relives Olympic Glory: ‘I Wanted Two Medals At Atlanta’96 But Got Only One’

Probably sensing Atlanta ’96 was going to be her only realistic chance of making the podium at the Olympics and with old Father Time winking at her, then reigning African queen of the track, Mary Onyali, was aiming to complete a double sprint podium appearance in her third appearance at the qaudrennia event.

Since she made her debut as a 20 year old in Seoul, South Korea in 1988, running as far as the semifinals in the 200m, Onyali was determined to transform into a real force to reckon with and make the podium at the games.

In 1992 in Barcelona she did make the podium but it was in the 4x100m. She led a Nigerian quartet that made history as the first African women team to win a 4x100m relay medal.

The celebration of that iconic bronze win by the quartet of Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen, Christy Opara-Thompson and Mary Onyali who anchored the team to the historic finish is one of the most enduring moments at the games, encapsulating the essence of it all.

“I still cherish the medal. It was a wonderful experience,” said Onyali who anchored the team to that bronze finish also ran in her first 100m final in Barcelona, placing seventh in 11.15 seconds. She didn’t go beyond the semifinals in the 200m.

Atlanta ’96 followed and one of the greatest sprinters the African continent has ever seen had her eyes on not just a medal in her speciality, the 200m, but also the glamorous blue ribban event!

Prior to Atlanta, she had made the finals of the 100m in three consecutive editions of the World Championships (1991,1993 and 1995) with her closest finish to the podium being her fifth-place finish (11.05 seconds) in Stuttgart in 1993. She also ran in the 200m final thrice (1987 as a 19 year old,1993 and 1995).

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She said she was ready for the podium in Atlanta in both events, but wishes weren’t horses and her beggars failed to ride in one. She made the finals in both events,placing seventh (11.13) in the 100m. Her doubles dream vanished but the multiple national 100m queen was ready to ‘die’ to make the podium in an event she told whoever cared to listen was her speciality.

With Russia’s Irina Privalova withdrawing at the quarterfinal stage due to injury and USA’s Gwen Torrence not making the USA team in the event after finishing fourth (22.25) in their trials,the coast seemed very clear for the next category of favourites to stake claims to the podium.

Onyali was one of them and she did ‘die’ on the track and got her wish: a first individual Olympic medal! She instantly raced into history books as the first Nigerian athlete to win two medals at the Olympics.


Mary Onyali (right) celebrates Barcelona’92 Olympics 4x400m relay bronze feat with teammates; Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen and Christy Opara-Thompson

She ran 22.16 seconds to place second in her semifinal hit behind Marie-José Pérec of France who later raced to gold to successfully complete a 200m/400m double at the Games.The time was the third fastest in the semis and was bettered only by Perec’s 22.07 seconds and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica’s 22.08 seconds finish.Interestingly, the duo of Perec and Ottey were the only one who finished ahead of the great Onyali, with the Nigerian literarily diving at the finish to finish third in 22.38 seconds ahead of a rapidly advancing American,Inger Miller who ran 22.41 seconds to finish fourth.

Onyali insisted the win in Atlanta is incomparable.

”Though I cherished our Barcelona Olympic Bronze medal, I still can’t shake off the chills I get when I think of how hard I fought to winning my only individual Olympic bronze medal at Atlanta 1996,’ she said.

Any regret not making the podium in the blue ribband race?

”Generally, I’ll say no I don’t regret not medalling in the 100m because that’s not my event speciality, but not medalling in it at Atlanta 1996 really hurts as I specifically prepared on coming away with two medals of any colour from both events at the Games.”

Prior to her 200m bronze win, her compatriot, Falilat Ogunkoya had won a bronze medal in the 400m three days earlier. Considering the rivalry between the two which dated back to 1986 when Ogunkoya shocked Onyali in the 200m event at the inaugural edition of the IAAF World Junior championships in Athens, Greece, washe (Onyali) motivated by Ogunkoya’s feat? Did it make her more determined more than ever to also end up at the podium?

“Nope. It didn’t. I was just focused on my own race. I knew I was prepared and was determined to give it all I have got.”

Onyali attended two more Olympics after Atlanta (Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004) to set another record as the first track and field athlete to compete in five Olympic Games.

Rank Name Nationality Time Lane
1st Marie-José Pérec France 22.12 3
2nd Merlene Ottey Jamaica 22.24 5
3rd Mary Onyali Nigeria 22.38 4
4 Inger Miller USA 22.41 7
5 Galina Malchugina Russia 22.45 6
6 Chandra Sturrup Bahamas 22.54 8
7 Juliet Cuthbert Jamaica 22.60 1
8 Carlette Guidry USA 22.61 2



Onyali made her debut in Seoul as a 19 year old,two years after failing to fulfil expectations at the inaugural edition of the IAAF World Junior Championships in Athens,Greece where she was disqualified in the 100m final won by compatriot,Tina Iheagwan and came second behind Falilat Ogunkoya in the 200m.

In Seoul,Onyali competed in the 200m and 4x400m relay and ran as far as the semifinals in both events.She finished fifth ((22.43) in the first semifinal heat of the 200m and anchored the quartet of herself,Falilat Ogunkoya,Kehinde Vaughan and Airat Bakare to a sixth place finish in 3:30.21


A much older and experienced Onyali returned to the Olympics arena with renewed confidence.She came to Barcelona as one of the top sprinters in the world after winning a pair of silver medals in the 100m and 200m at the IAAF World (Continental) Cup in 1989 and anchoring the Nigeria 4x100m team of Beatrice

Utondu,Rufina Ubah,Christy Opara-Thompson and herself to a fourth place finish and a new 42.77 seconds African record at the World Championships in Tokyo,Japan.She also ran in her first major global 100m final,finishing seventh in the competition in Tokyo.

In Barcelona,she qualified for her first final in the 100m,running 11.15 seconds to place seventh in the final while she didn’t advance beyond the semis in the 200m for the second successive Olympics.

She however didn’t leave Barcelona empty-handed as she anchored the 4x100m team to a historic bronz medal finish.


Onyali third straight appearance at the Olympics and ‘final’ one for her to make the podium.At the age of 28,she knew she was getting to the top of the

ladder and knew the next logical happening would be to start climbing down in tems of perfomance.She however made the most of the opportunity,winning her first and only individual medal at the games.

Interestingly,it was the first time she would make the final of the event after two futile efforts in 1988 and 1992.

She also made it to the final of the 100m for the second successive Olympics and it was the first and only time she would run in the finals of both sprint events at the games.She placed seventh in the final (11.13 seconds).
Onyali also anchored the 4x100m team of herself,Chioma Ajunwa,Mary Tombiri-Shirey and Christy Opara-Thompson to seventh place finish (42.56 seconds).

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At 32,not much was expected from this elegant stallion and she didn’t disappoint.She failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals in the 100m (11.40,5th) and 200m (23.03,5th) but still anchored the 4x100m relay team to place seventh (44.04 seconds) in the final.The team was made up of Glory Alozie, Benedicta Ajudua,Mercy Nku ( who made the semifinals of both sprint events) and Onyali.


It could be argued Onyali only came to Athens,the city that dashed her hopes of becoming a world champion to make history as the first track and field athlete to attend five Olympic Games.At 26,she was not expecting to make the podium and she didn’t.She competed in the 200m and didn’t go beyond the quarterfinal,placing last in her heat in 23.75 seconds after qualifying as one of the four fastest losers from across the heats.For the first time since 1988, she didn’t make the relay teams.

By Dare Esan

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