By Duro Ikhazuagbe
The story of Nigeria’s participation in the All Africa Games can never be complete without the mention of the name Amelia Okoli (later Mrs Okpalaoka). The then young talent won the first high jump gold medal of the maiden edition of the continental sports fiesta in then Brazzaville in 1965 for Nigeria.
Mrs Okpalaoka belongs in the realm of great Nigerian sports men and women like theEmmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna who also won Nigeria’s first Commonwealth Games gold medal on July 31, 1954 in Vancouver, Canada. The likes of Abdul Karim Ohimai (A.K.) Amu, K.A.B. Olowu, Musliu Aremu Arogundade and Edward Ajado were the stars of Nigeria’s men’s 4×100 metres relay. Olowu had the high jump event in addition to the sprint just like Okpalaoka.
Of course, who will easily forget the exploits of Modupe Oshikoya, an all round athlete who also excelled in the high jump like Okpalaoka at the second edition of the Games Nigeria hosted in Lagos in 1973.
Before achieving the gold medal feat at the Brazzaville Games, Okpalaokawas one of the eight girls selected to represent Nigeria for the first time at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. She participated in the West Africa Games from 1958 to 1965
She was also one of the first two girls to represent Nigeria at the Olympics Games in Tokyo, Japan in 1964. She held the Nigeria record in High Jump until it was broken in 1970.
Apart from High and Long Jumps, Okpalaoka was also into Sprints, Javelin and Discus. She held Regional, National and African records in some of these events.
She was born as the third child to Venerable Sylvanus Nwoha and Irene Epuerie Okoli of Akokwa in Ideato North of Imo State on the 14th day of May 1941 at Asaba Delta State while there on missionary posting.
She attended various primary schools depending on the place of posting of her parents from 1947 to 1955. Such places included Enugu, Akokwa, Onitsha, Ufuma and Nkwerre. She also attended St. Catherine’s, Nkwerre, for her School Certificate from 1956 to 1960 and obtained her Grade II Teachers Certificate at St. Mark’s College Nibo-Nise between 1961 and 1962.
The young Amelia started her career in sports very early at the primary school level where she took part in various events such as Egg and Spoon, Threading the Needle and Sack Race culminating in her participation in the Empire Day competition, which was the Queen’s birthday celebration.
Later, she graduated to more recognized events like High and Long Jumps, Sprints, Javelin and Discus. The High Jump however remained her favourite event.
Interestingly, it was not only in the track and field she excelled, Okpalaoka was also an astute administrator of the sport.
After retiring from active participation Okpalaoka continued in serving in various capacities in the sports administration, both at regional and international levels.
She was the Games Mistress at Egbu Girls Secondary School from January 1963 to June 1984, producing sprinters, hurdlers and discus throwers who represented Eastern Nigeria at National Championship.
She served at the Eastern Nigeria Sports Commission, which later became the Anambra Sports Council, from July 1964 to February 1971.
After her tenure there, she joined the National Sports Council/Commission, which later became the Federal Ministry of Youth, Sports and Social Development, where she remained until her retirement in May 2001, as a Chief Sports Officer.
Amelia travelled with many teams to various Games and Championships such as: Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992; All Africa Games in Nairobi Kenya in 1985 and Harare Zimbabwe in 1995; and the Commonwealth Games in Victoria Canada in 1994 and Manchester UK in 2002.
Amelia was married to the late Chief Charles Ikebuna Okpalaoka (Nnabuenyi Uga) who was a retired Comptroller of Customs and their union was blessed with three children: Chief Azubuike Okpalaoka, Nze Chukwuemeka Okpalaoka and Mrs. Nneka Offiah (nee Okpalaoka). She was also a beloved grandmother of nine.
Amelia relocated to Los Angeles, California, to live with her daughter and her family from June 2008 to November 2014 and visited them again briefly from January to July 2016. Some of the many awards she received include; Sportsman Award (1959), Member of Order of Niger (1965) National Sports Award (1987 and 2006) Mother of Faith (2006)
She was the President of Uga Improvement Union (Women) Lagos Branch for several years. She was also the President of the Christian Women Fellowship of All Saints (AHQ) Church Abalti Barracks from 2003 to 2008. She took her breath on this earth on 1st November 2017 at the age of 76.