What on earth could an Olympics gold-medalist be doing behind a desk at a police station tucked away in a Lagos suburb? That’s the jolt you’ll get if you had any reason to request to see the divisional police officer of Meiran Police Station, writes Raheem Akingbolu
We often tend to forget that stars once had a life where they were anything but the centre of attraction. The name Chioma Ajunwa-Opara conjures images of that remarkable athlete who gave Africa its first Olympics gold medal in the female category of a track and field event. That was at the Atlanta Olympics, in 1996. Only a few would remember that before she shot herself into the record books with that 7.12m jump in the long jump finals, she was a cop.
She still is as a matter of fact. And her star power (she is a National Merit Award recipient) is giving the force a positive sheen. Ajunwa-Opara who once played for the force’s female football team, Police Machines, before making the switch to athletics is doing that without qualms – almost like the girl next door.
Still the girl next door
Humble and pleasant, she seems aware of how immense success can breed a standoffish attitude and is determined to keep such tendencies in check. It took four visits to the station and two personal chats for her to commit to an appointment. Even then, she would apologize profusely. “As much as I would have loved to talk to you, I have a lot of things to attend to and the truth is if I have not sorted them out, it will be difficult to concentrate on the interview. I suggest we fix another day,” she said during one such encounter.
The administrative officer at the station, an assistant superintendent of police identified simply as Mr. Ojo, tried to cheer up this reporter after the disappointment. “Journalist, you are disappointed, I guess. Well, whichever way, I can assure you madam would make you happy the next time you come around and I can bet that you will like to meet her again after the first meeting,” he said with a reassuring smile.
When the interview finally held, Ajunwa-Opara’s attitude confirmed her admin officer’s earlier statement. “For me, it was sport before police force. I loved sport and gave it all my attention as a young girl. But it would surprise you that my parents didn’t oppose my decision to join the force the way they resisted my participation in sporting activities as a young school girl.”
She simply pursued her passion, never imagining it would someday propel her to stardom. But the Atlanta Olympics changed all that. “Honestly, when I started, I never thought of such. I did not know that it would make me to be known worldwide. Moreover, I was just running for the fun of it. But I thank God, having realised that whatever one is doing, it is important that you do it well.”
Perks of an Olympics gold
Ajunwa-Opara, a native of Umuchukwu in Orumba South Local Government Area of Anambra State admitted that her exploits in sport have given her career and image some positive nudge. For instance, she was promoted two ranks ahead of her contemporaries immediately she returned from the games by the Nigerian Police.
“I became a star,” she said smiling. “The name Chioma Ajunwa then started opening doors. Frankly, I wonder sometimes whether I would be so popular without that achievement in sport.”
Such philosophical thoughts prompted another: What vocation would she have chosen if she wasn’t a policewoman? “There are other things I would have done. There were so many opportunities, while I was running, from which I would have picked. After I made it big in the Olympics, there were offers from a few countries, including the United States, where I was invited to come and work in the sports café or coach their athletes. Also, members of the Nigerian community in the US whose children were into sports asked me to come and be their director of sports. As you know, some of them came here for championship and they were also doing well up there.”
Indebted to the force
For her, she felt indebted to Nigerian Police for the support it offered and for the window of opportunity a career with the organization opened. “I believed I owe the Police, otherwise I would have been earning better salary than what I’m earning now. But believe me, I derive pleasure in what I do and I work hard every passing day to leave the police better than I met it.”
There is no question of dictating career choices for her children. “Gone are the days where parents dictate to children on what to do; whatever they chose to do, my role is just to advise them and counsel. I can’t impose.”
Sixteen years after her Olympics gold and national award, she still gets the winks of recognition from star-struck fans. But she would never be carried away by such outpouring of affection. “Honestly, I know some people are always elated whenever they meet me, but I must confess that I don’t think I am a star. I made name – there is no doubt about that – and when I walk on the street I get some respect and it makes me happy. But that is not enough for me to feel more important than anyone else.”
Recipe for success
Speaking on why Nigerian sports have been in one faltering step after another, she said: “One of the problems we have here is that people think they are better than their coaches, which is the beginning of failure. Don’t forget the first law in the 48 Laws of Power is ‘don’t overshadow the master’. To me, the moment you try to flex muzzle with your boss or superior, you are missing the target.”
As a woman in a vocation dominated by men it’s easy to feel intimidated by the sheer gender disparity both in number and achievement. Not so for the athlete. “I don’t feel intimidated because I have always loved to work hard and follow police ethics.
Again, I believe I have a God and He is the one doing the job. I am just sitting here doing what God wants me to do. I can’t be intimidated because of a mortal man. Don’t forget police job is very simple: everyday you get signal on what to do and if you follow the steps that your boss has outlined, you won’t have any problems. Some people get into problems because they are doing the opposite of the instructions they have been given. Anywhere I am, I follow the rudiments of the job and every instruction and, most importantly, I put God before me.”
One word that seems not to exist in her lexicon is relaxation. Her job gives her little room for relaxation. “It is not easy; you come to work every day and work from morning till late in the night. That is why you see some officers that slump and died in the office. The stress is intense. But as a woman, we believe that what a man can do, a woman can do even better. In fact, there are some issues in this job you can use motherly advice to handle. There are complaints you can handle better as a woman than your male counterparts.”
Bolstered by family’s understanding
“I am privileged to come from a civilised family even though we were not rich. My mother never asked me not to join the police. At a time, I was the one running when the police was chasing me. But when I could not run any longer I succumbed. But they discouraged me totally from sports. Sometimes they had to lock me indoors and I had to jump out through the window.
“They never knew that sports could bring me this glory. The perception then was that if you are into sports, there were possibilities that you would be wayward. But the story later changed. Today, I thank God that He is using sports to bring some families out of poverty. When you look at people who have made it or making it in sports, they are not from rich homes, simply because the rich hardly allowed their wards to be involved in serious sporting activities in the years past.
“After God, it is my husband. Of course, there are so many men, but it’s not easy finding a husband amongst them. If you are able to find one, you should be thankful to God. If one comes across a man who is not hers, it will be stress all through. If my husband is not my own, I don’t think I would take this post. I leave the office at 10pm or 11pm and there are times I sleep there, but he shows remarkable understanding. This is possible because he is my own husband. Come to think of it; we never dated. We met and married and have since remained like siblings. He is not a police officer but he is quite discerning. There was a time I wanted to resign to take up appointment in the US; he said ‘no, you must stay put in the police.’”
But she still has to find a way to multi-task: to combine her schedule as a police officer with the demanding role of motherhood. “I don’t think I am the only career woman that is married. So mine should not be an exception. I need to earn a living and at the same time I need my marriage. It is not a hard thing to do, but it depends on the individual involved.”
Thrill of national honour
Just like memories of her effort in 1996 that fetched Nigeria its first individual Olympics gold medal still bring immense joy, so too does she feel recalling the National Merit Award conferred on her by the federal government a few years ago.
“The merit award gladdens my heart because it happened while I’m alive. When I learnt that 50 people, both dead and alive, and I would be honoured, my joy was immeasurable. It was when I got there that I knew the scale of the award. It didn’t take long before I started shedding tears of joy. When I saw the names of the people on the list, I asked how many people were still alive and I discovered we were few. Just like when I won the Olympics medal; I never knew it was a big thing, until I got back to Nigeria and I saw crowds awaiting me.”
She is particularly bothered by the negative public perception the Nigerian police gets. But she is optimistic it would change with time. “Some people think the police are hungry people; I don’t think so. Some people have the perception that policemen are wicked; again, I don’t believe that. Rather, I believe what we are doing is a humanitarian job. Whatever challenges that come with it, we take it. We have to be tolerant. I believe the police job comes after God’s work and I don’t have any regret to be one. It is also an individual thing: somebody may be here and be doing the wrong thing, definitely people will talk and equally when you are doing the right thing, people will also commend you.”