Twenty years ago, nobody reckoned with Chioma Ajunwa, especially after her early trials in her athletics career. That was until this woman of history won Olympic gold medal at Atlanta, USA, the first Nigerian to do so. She tells The Interview the journey to that moment of glory and about her sadness that Nigeria has regressed in sports since then. She wants the right people to run sports in the country. It’s explosive!
August 2 was exactly twenty years since you won Nigeria’s first Olympic gold and the first West African gold by a woman in track and field in Atlanta in 1996. What memories still linger as you look back?
I thank God for everything at a time like this. Atlanta ’96 was a historic date for all of us Nigerians and it seems like it was just yesterday. It was twenty years ago. That is two decades since I won the gold medal and, to this day, we have not been able to produce anyone to replicate the feat. To me personally, I think we are not doing well. For a record to stay up to twenty years means that people went home and started sleeping. I know that in Jamaica, America and other European countries, records don’t stay like that. Apart from a few records, records don’t last up to 10 or 15 years. You see people smashing it. When you look at, say, America and the 100m record in the men’s category, I have not seen any that stayed for 10 years. It’s a pity.
What was it about Atlanta that produced that magic moment when you leapt 7.12 metres?
I wasn’t thinking I would be able to win gold; I wasn’t thinking in that direction. My own belief is that when that man that looked at me and believed that something good was in me, I would never disappoint him and never let him down. Even in my odd situations, I still believed it. I would go to training because I didn’t want to fail my manager. I wanted everyone to see that, actually, he saw something good in this young girl and that was what motivated me. That this man, after I refused and said that I was done with sports, could say, ‘Chioma, I see something in you; you are a raw talent.’ I would pray that God help this man but, as for me, I will do my best and that gave me a lot of motivation. I trained under the snow, I trained under the sun to make sure that I did not fail this man, and actually God crowned all my efforts. There are other managers that can do this too. If all those companies that are in this country making so much money could put, maybe, 25 per cent of such into sports, imagine the good that could do. Government could give them a tax rebate, I’ve said this before - and it works in America: give them a tax rebate and let them be free to spend the money here and, definitely, it will come back to them.
Tell us how you felt the night after that performance?
I could not sleep. The whole Nigerian camp could not sleep. I cannot describe the feeling.
You have regularly bemoaned Nigeria’s inability to win gold in any single category event since 1996; what do you think is the problem?
Sports administrators do not care about the people they are supposed to be looking after. They do not understand what needs to be done and how important sports is to a nation. There are many other things.
Are you in anyway involved in Rio?
Ha! Who will ask me?
Nigeria’s 4x400 women’s relay team has been banned in Rio because one of the members of the team, Tosin Adeloye, was indicted for drug use in Warri last year. Did the news surprise you?
In Nigeria, we are prone to failed drugs test if you are not careful because we buy medicines over the counter and from street hawkers without knowing the contents. Why won’t you be careful since you’re an international or maybe national sports person? You know full well that once something is detected in your system, nobody will come to your rescue. I have been going to competitions and telling them that this thing happened to me and it can happen to any of you, so you have to be careful. Some of our athletes don’t listen. Last time, eight were banned; this time again a good number. I’m not happy about it. In our own time, we could say we didn’t know and that nobody was educating us, but here you have somebody taking it upon herself to go round and advise you. I want to believe that she didn’t knowingly take anything but the issue is that a banned substance has been found in her system and it’s a pity.
The 4x400 women’s relay team was perhaps one of our real chances for a medal. Do you think Rio is over for Nigeria even before it started?
That is one medal. In the US team, one of them failed a test in 2006 and the medal was removed from all of them. I believe that is discipline. I always tell people not to allow what killed others to kill them. We have had the issue of this doping; I myself am a typical example. That is why I’ve been telling athletes that they cannot say that they don’t know. It happened to me and the ban stood. The IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) is not interested in the individual. The issue is that something banned has been detected in your system.
What would you say to Tosin Adeloye now?
I would say that she needs to be very careful of what she takes and eat, for example, tinned food that has expired. Our athletes should be very, very careful. They should also choose who they follow carefully; and the type of coach is another thing.
Have you been following the controversy over who should pay our athletes’ air tickets to Rio? What are your thoughts?
Is it done in any country? I read in one newspaper that they couldn’t go to Rio in time. It seemed as if I should start crying. How many hours is it to Brazil? The players need to acclimatize. Brazil is not Nigeria and we are expecting them to do well. Someone was saying that the team is coming with a gold medal. Are we going to tie the legs of the other teams? You see, we don’t need to fool ourselves. I believe in what the president of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) said because he knows about it. We didn’t do a proper preparation; so for us to say that if they don’t get a gold medal, they have failed us, is wrong. No, they didn’t fail us. It is only in Nigeria that we allow athletes to train themselves. It is not done anywhere. How can that be?
The sports minister told CNN that it was not new that athletes bought their tickets to major games and were later reimbursed. Was that your experience?
Well, some of us that ran for this nation know the truth. Sometimes they will ask you to buy your ticket for future reimbursement. Others will be crying for this reimbursement. Personally, I don’t think it is OK to ask athletes to pay for themselves. If you know that you are inviting those athletes - it wasn’t just a sudden thing, you must make proper arrangements for them. Athletes should be happy to come home to represent their country. It is wrong for us not to prepare for them. Even if that was happening in the past, it is wrong to introduce our new minister to it again. That’s an archaic idea. I think it is wrong.
Then there is my record in 100 meters that Blessing Okagbare just beat last year and, instead of saying the truth, they say it’s Gloria Alozie that holds my record. She ran 10.90 seconds and never ran 10.8 seconds, which is not even close to breaking my record of 10.04 seconds. I don’t know what I did to my federation. If there was a way for them to remove my long jump record and give it to someone else, I believe they would have done it.
You really think so?
Personally, I think so. At a time, they removed my records and when I asked, they said it was wind-assisted. I said, ‘Wind? A record that was ratified by the IAAF and in the record books and all over the internet. They decided to give it to someone else’. That is to tell you the ill-treatment these people give to me, probably because I am from the East. As somebody who has travelled wide, I don’t like to make statements that will generate controversy. I was not treated well. When I won the gold, only a little chance stopped me from sleeping in the ministry while we were begging them to give me a coach so that I could do better. Are you supposed to beg for that? I was not begging for money but a coach to train me. I went to Seville ‘97 and I had an injury because I was here begging them to attach a coach to me so that I could train better and win more laurels for my nation. They made me stay longer than necessary. My country was supposed to do all these things for me. You see, native people will say that a snake will only beget a snake. My country does not know how to invest in her athletes and it did not start today. That has been the trend.
I thank God for one man in this country - Chief Segun Odegbami, who took me outside this country. I did my training there and was going from one country to the other to test the weather and the facilities. Assuming I was here in Nigeria, I wouldn’t have been able to win the gold. I thank God for him and Remi Olowude (of blessed memory) who gave me insurance. Also I am grateful to the former Olympic Committee chairman. While I was training in the UK, he sent me £1,000; that meant a lot. I thank God for these three people. I think Chief Odegbami should be emulated.
We need to bring these kinds of people (to sports administration) because they are the kind that can manage sports better than some people that are put in that office. Nobody is an island of knowledge and it’s a pity that ministers sometimes appoint special advisers that do not advise them well. They don’t even know what to tell the minister. Sometimes I don’t blame the ministers because they do have ideas but once they enter that office, they are saddled with a lot of responsibilities. But I believe that the people they put there are not just to spread gossip to them but to tell them what these athletes need.
But surely, having experienced all of this as an athlete and seen things from the other end, have you proffered ideas to the government on improvements needed?
We have been doing it. I can remember when Emeka Omeruah was alive immediately after Sydney Olympics. I was part of a panel that was set up. They wrote to us and asked us to present a paper on what we think that Nigeria should do in order to start harvesting our skills. The majority of us were there. I remember when Tony Ikazoboh was alive. It was the same thing. As we speak, they have not used the paper. That’s why sometimes when people ask, I say that I don’t feel happy wasting my time. Even now, I am working on my thesis. Will I leave that to be talking to people that will not listen? The next thing you know, their SAs will be telling them what to do; an SA that has never visited the National Stadium. They are not sports people. It doesn’t make us ex-athletes happy. As the Olympics are on now, we watch athletes from other countries and we can’t see ours. That’s why when they are talking, even for football, I don’t have that zeal anymore. Nigeria will go and play Benin Republic, Togo, and Sudan and be beaten and we say we are the giants of Africa? Countries in the middle of war beat us and yet we that have the whole time in the world cannot measure up. Please, it is disheartening.
Have you been in touch with any member of the athletics team recently?
I don’t have the opportunity or time. I am in touch when I know them, where they camp and then, maybe, once in a while they will call you for advice.
What do you think the mood in the Nigerian camp will be now?
I cannot really say. It is a good experience and there will be team spirit. Maybe they will be demoralized by the women’s relay team business.
Nigeria is not on any prediction table for medals. Do you think a miracle might happen?
I can’t really say much about the level of performance. But you can never tell. If God wants to do something, he can perform a miracle.
What is your rating of other African teams at these games?
Kenya and Ethiopia will do well because they always take time to prepare their athletes no matter how small.
Which African teams did you fear or respect the most in your time?
Back then, when I was competing, we usually thought about the Kenyans because their quarter milers were good. We also thought about the Ethiopians and the Moroccans. We failed to do our own work. South Africa claims to be the giant of Africa, today we are not measuring up to them. Today they are doing better than us in many ways.
Even though you were banned in 1992 for drug use, you insisted on your innocence. In fact, you came short of saying that some people deliberately tried to sabotage you. Why would they do that?
Yes. I maintain that. Some people that believe they are gaining from that ban are making efforts not to allow it to be removed. I believe that one day, God will do something.
How did you cope during what must have been a very difficult period in your career?
What can you do? When you are looking for death, death will never come. Several times, I tried to do something stupid but it didn’t come. I look at it that God didn’t want me to die then. I know some who could not come back after a ban. I tell everyone to do everything they can to protect themselves. And our federation will not be there for you. Look at the Russians and how they are supporting their athletes in the ban issue. Here, the reverse would be the case.
What lessons did you learn?
What we are doing now is seeing how this can be removed because it has been for other people. So something can be done. And I have been putting in the effort so that I will be exonerated. That somebody made a mistake does not mean that person should be killed. A lot of people are making mistakes and yet they are pardoned. So what are we talking about?
You also said that you left the football team, the Falcons, because the coach was benching you without reason. Why would he do that?
I was a born footballer. I played football very well to the extent that I got to the climax, the World Cup. But it got to a time when the coach was listening to the gossipmongers in the camp. He told me that he heard that I was in athletics and went to the championship – All Africa Games - and won two gold medals and MKO Abiola gave me money, and all that. He said for that reason, as long as he remains the coach of the team, I would not see a dog’s chance of playing.
He actually said that?
Yes! That was the language he used. I cannot forget about that. I didn’t even know that a dog even had any chance. (laughs)
You accused the Nigerian government of giving you the ‘MON’ (the national honour) without the ‘EY’. Did President Goodluck Jonathan make it up to you during the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations?
I think he would have done it but it didn’t happen.
Did you meet Jonathan one-on-one?
I missed my chance. The day that the appointment was set up, I was in Staff College and we were to start exams.
But displayed in your office is a photo of you with him?
That was the Centenary Awards and there was nothing. I even paid my way to and fro. The only thing I enjoyed is that photo.
How much do you think an Olympic gold is worth?
The worth of that gold medal is something that is everlasting. I am not able to quantify or measure any price but it is something that everyone wants to have. Marlene Ottey of Jamaica and Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, with all the effort they put in, do not have an Olympic gold. I believe it is something for someone like me to get a gold for this nation. I’m proud of it, and the sports administration that is supposed to put in a platform so that we can have more of it do not see the importance of it.
Why did you join the police?
I came into the police force because of my athletics. One day, I got a message that the assistant commissioner wanted to see me. Then I had a phobia for the police and I started crying that I didn’t want to go. One of my colleagues asked me what the problem was and when I told her, she said she would go with me. We got there and the men were surprised. They asked whether it was this small girl that they were expecting. But my team replied saying, ‘Oga, if you see the way the girl runs, she is an antelope!’ The man was just looking and hoping; he didn’t believe. They told him that I had beaten some of the taller girls who already ran for the police and he was surprised. He asked me my name and told me they needed me. I shook my head. When he asked me why, I told him that I didn’t like the police. He asked me why and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I was still a young lady then.
There and then the man gave me
N200 but I refused to take it. When he asked me why, I told him that my mummy would kill me and ask me how I got the money. So, he then asked three people to go home with me and instructed them to give N500 to my mum and explain to her that the police had an interest in me and wanted me to run for them.
Some time passed and I realized that they were serious and would come back so I ran to Jos where my brother was. I started playing football for Larry’s Angels. Probably the police heard I was there and came and said that I was being arrested (ha, ha, ha). They said the then Inspector-General (Gambo) had given an order to get me recruited. So they took me. We went in there and they gave me a number.
I went to the Police Games in Kwara and got four gold medals for them. Thereafter, they transferred me to Police College in Ikeja. I was there when the national team heard how I ran at the Police Games and invited me.
Nigerians tend to have a hostile attitude to the police force. Do you think it is justified?
Well, you know that nobody can satisfy the whole world. You hear of people doing the right thing and, in some cases, you hear of people doing bad things. The way we are in Nigeria, we always see the bad ones faster than the good ones. The police is a profession anyone should want to be, but because of one thing or another that the junior ranks are doing, people are condemning the police. I can’t really tell you that the police are not good. They are good. It is not because I am a policewoman. I know what is happening and I know that the police are working. They are the only force in Nigeria that do not go home; they sleep in the office as DPOs, and at daybreak they are still there and always active. They are always out there policing the country. It’s the police that will be sent to the house of Mr. President to guard him 24/7.
There are so many things that we are doing although we are not paid well, but we are still doing it. They should encourage us, not condemn us. Policemen are being killed every day but no one reports it like when civilians are killed; nobody hears of it. And we are not complaining; after all we signed to be (policemen/women). But we should be encouraged. We should be encouraged.
You once suggested to your mum that you wanted to become a mechanic. Why?
That was where life was driving me to because I was from a home where I had no father and my mum had nine of us children. She was a trader and trained us to a certain level and stopped. I didn’t blame my mum; she tried for us. Since I couldn’t get someone to train me to the university, I decided that I didn’t want to be redundant at home. I would see my mates going to the university while I would be at home. I could not become a groundnut seller so I decided to go and do something extraordinary. I never knew that God wanted to give me something that would make me extraordinary. I decided to try to be a mechanic. They asked me, ‘For crying out loud, mechanic is not something women can do.’ I said, ‘Well, I want to be the first one to do that.’ To God be the glory, here I am today.
Your mum was influential in your life. Was she able to witness some of your success?
Of course, of course. She passed away in 2002. I really took care of her.
Many marriages are under stress these days, mostly financial stress. How do you cope as a mother, a wife, an athlete, a sports administrator and a policewoman?
It is the grace of God. When you put God first, whatever is around you, He will be able to help you. If not for God, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything. I cannot say that because I am a police officer, I will not be able to do the things that I’m supposed to as a wife, as a mother. You need to do them. I will not be the first, neither will I be the last.
How do you relax despite the many hats you have to wear?
Honestly, I cannot remember the day that I can say I have the whole day to myself. Even on Sunday, Saturday, we are here. I can’t tell you that this is the time that I have to myself. It’s not easy but what can we do? We have to keep pushing and praying for the grace of God so that God will do it for us and give us the enablement.
If you were the sports minister, what would you have done differently?
Well, I know that will never happen.
How can you be sure?
I am very sure because if it is in a country that we do things on merit, I could say yes, maybe they might select me. Things are not done on merit in this country. It might be if you are in one political party and once you are not, nothing goes for you. Nobody will even hear you.
But if magic can happen in this nation, the number one thing we should forget about is compensating people with the Sports Ministry. That’s what we are suffering here in Nigeria. We should forget about sentiment. If as an ex-international, I am put in that office, the moment you see that I am not producing, fire me and get me out of that place. Don’t say that we should manage because she is a brother or sister to someone. No. Sentiment is what is killing sports in this country. When you pick someone to run sports in Nigeria; it is paramount that you should have a kind of town hall meeting with all the parastatals in the country. Include the private individuals, the corporations and philanthropists that love sports so much. You bring them together and ask them where they think they can come in.
Sports is not something that we should leave to government. Government cannot run sports and run it well. If these people are called together and start having synergy, definitely they will help to grow sports in this country. Some people will take the aspect of bringing facilities - and that is much needed in this country. Others will come from the angle of taking care of grassroots sports. If things are not all right at the grassroots, we cannot harness anything. We cannot breed any athletes.
You will then, as minister, make sure that the sports councils in every state get to function because it is the sports councils that know the villages in their states: they know the parts where the swimmers will come from; they know where the hurdler and where the sprinter will come from. At the state and national level, they cannot be in one place and know where you are going to get these people. Let us have division of labour, for crying out loud.
Now, in the sports ministry, we should forget about football, football, football. It is only one medal. But athletics or even look at wrestling, you can get up to forty medals in it. In boxing, it is the same. Football is just one. The day we were in Atlanta, I won the individual gold medal, but in football, eighteen men were chasing one medal. When they won, they gave them $10,000 each. How much was given to Chioma Ajunwa? Nothing! I can say it anywhere. Then when we came back to the country, Oyinlola who was the military administrator of Lagos said they should give the footballers a three-bedroom house each because they won the gold. For me there was nothing. Even when I asked during our dinner night and told him that I won an individual medal and even got it before theirs, he said they should add my name, but till today, nobody added my name. So if I were minister, I have to carry everyone along. I have to take my own advice. I will call the ex-internationals that have been up there and know what the athletes need to do for us to start harnessing Olympic stars.
They give grants to athletes when they are going for competitions. That is not the time to give someone a training grant. If you want someone to train, you give them the money when build-up starts. If they get it late, then the season starts too late for them. Coaches have to be trained and re-trained. All these things have to be taken care of. Sports is important to our nation because it is the only language the people in the whole world speak and understand one another.