His face belies purpose. His adrenaline betrays passion. His life represents patriotism. His unextinguishable pride came with every gold medal he bites. His unrelenting pursuit of success means more trophies, laurels, and fulfillment for him. He stands tall and aims high. Nigerian-born Daniel Igali was a Canadian freestyle wrestler. In Canada, Igali won 116 consecutive matches wrestling at Simon Fraser
University between 1997 and 1999. At the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Igali won a gold medal in the men’s 69kg freestyle wrestling. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, it was a delight seeing Igali win a gold medal in the men’s 74kg freestyle wrestling. In 2007, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and later, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012. A two-term member of Bayelsa State House of Assembly, Igali later became president of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation. The Olympic and world champion shares with Stanley Nkwazema his passion, patriotism, and philosophy
Doing so much for Nigeria
I am involved because of what wrestling did for me. Wrestling gave mean education, essentially gave me life, gave me direction and that is why I feel, having been opportune through wrestling, to be a member of
the Bayelsa state House of Assembly, before that, having become a world, Olympic and Commonwealth champion through the sport and exposed and having had too many opportunities, I felt the least I could do was to give back as much as I can to the sport that got me to where I am.
Coming into wrestling
You know, in Bayelsa, especially in the days that we were growing up, virtually every kid wrestled. I grew up in a village called Enewari, in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa state, but at the time River state. There were two things you did, you played soccer, you wrestled. But everybody wrestled and that was it. I knew from the age of 9 -10 that I was talented because I was not wrestling with my age-mates but with people a couple of years older than I am. And that was how I picked interest in the sport and followed it up. At the age of 16, I was discovered by Nicholas Egbete. But at the age of 10 (in 1984) I got the urge to go to the Olympics, though, then I didn’t know what it was. Apa Macaulay our first Olympian in wrestling, had just come back from the Los Angeles Olympics and been to our village mentoring and telling us about the Olympics. I thought it was a big deal. That was how my wrestling dreams, especially at the elite level,
started. As God would have it, I was fortunate enough to make the Nigerian national team at the age of 17. And at the age of 20, I left for Canada.
Winning gold for Canada at the Sydney 2000 Olympics
That gold medal was very historic for Canada because it was the first-ever won in Wrestling for the country. It was a big deal. Though they have been in the finals thrice no one has been able to win the gold. The year before that, I had won the world championship in 1999 in Ankara, Turkey. Incidentally, when I won the world championship before then too. I made history in Canada. I don’t know if I would say I was torn because I was so happy with the opportunities I received in Canada, though I started my wrestling career in Nigeria. I think because of the organization, the welfare that is given to athletes, I doubt if I would have become a world or Olympic champion If I was back in Nigeria. Those are some of the things I am trying to correct, to give the right space to our athletes to give them the right remuneration, the right training, the right motivation so that some of our athletes can excel and we are getting very close. For the time I have been here, we have won four world championships medals. We had not won one until I came. From 2010 when I really got involved with them till now, I think wrestling has won the most world championship medals than any sport in Nigeria. so, I think if we continue this way, next year might just be the year for us.
Running the wrestling federation
I am also on the Technical Commission of the United World Wrestling and we basically write the rules. We have meetings thrice yearly, so I am very up-to-date and I like to ensure that my athletes, my referees, technical officials are also up to date as well. My forte has always been the technical aspect of wrestling. You know I am a high-performance expert. I am also very involved with the coaching of the team. I am very involved with the training plans for the team. It’s something I have to be very careful about because you have coaches whom you have given the responsibility to do the job but I still mentor the coaches while it’s a fine line when you are trying to build a program sometimes you play dual roles, that’s what I’m doing, I’m hoping that in a couple of years to come we will have coaches confident enough where I will not have to do anything and everything will run smoothly.
Bayelsa and wrestling
Wrestling in Bayelsa is our favorite pastime. And over the past 15 to 20 years, even when we were part of Rivers state, Bayelsa wrestlers always dominated the national team. I think the Governors just needed a nudge from someone who had the same passion for them to get fully involved, we started in 2009. We had about three national classics and when Governor Dickson came in as the governor, I made him understand the importance of the government sponsoring this event. We are trying to get the Niger Delta states because it is really our strength.
if you look at the past medals table you will see that it is Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, Ondo, Edo, so we are trying to ensure that they get maximum benefits from what is naturally their sport. The challenge now for us is to get other parts of the country to be as involved and as competitive so we are being deliberate. For instance, in the national team now we are having to call a coach who if we have to go by our standards may not have been involved. But because we want the northern part of the country to also have that feel and to have someone who trained in the national camp setting and take that knowledge back to the states to battle up the sport.
The Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports gives us a quota. For wrestling, the maximum number of athletes we can go with is 30 but they have given us 26 which is a sizeable number. While we had the trials, it is not the final. What we are doing is, if there were some matches which are too close to call, we will identify those weight classes and have wrestle-offs so that the absolute best person represents the country. We are almost at 90% of our trials. In my observations, I did not see more than three or four people that we will need to see again to make the final team so we have essentially selected our team. Barring injuries, we are at about 90 to 95% set. We are going to have 52 athletes, seven coaches and the secretary in camp.
A state government’s support
Bayelsa has been very supportive of the efforts of the Federation. In fact, Governor Dickson personally went to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, to support the teams. We returned with one of the best records out of every sport in Nigeria, weight medals inclusive of three gold medals. One of the gold medals was won by an indigene of Bayelsa while two gold medals went to Ondo. Adekoroye and Amina
Adeneye. The governor still hosted the National team upon his return and still gave financial rewards to the whole team, not just the Bayelsa athletes. This shows that he is a real patron of the sport. Besides that, a lot of times when we are going on African championships or world championships the State government supports financially.
Settling in Canda
It took me a while to settle in Canada because I am a family-oriented person and my entire relations were here in Nigeria. It was very difficult to feel at home but wrestling was a succour, it occupied my time and kept me busy and at home in Canada. The results, the acceptance, there was a lot of acceptance from the Canadian public and I think it helped in settling me in Canada, at no point in time did I feel discriminated against. In 1996 I was already a learned immigrant and had started getting funding and wrote to the Coach of the Nigerian national team, was willing to sponsor myself to Nigeria for 1996 Olympic trials and did not get a reply. In 1997, we had the world championships in the US, I was a student of Simon Frasier University
Criminology. I studied up to the Master’s degree level in Criminology. They were willing to sponsor me to come to represent Nigeria. Again, I wrote to the Nigerian coach, still did not get feedback from them. I found I had no chance with the Nigerian National Team. I had to look out for myself since I was already on the Olympic pathway for the 2000 Olympics and Canada gave me the opportunity to do that.
Bestriding two worlds between Nigeria, Canada
My family understands why I am here. But it cannot erase the fact that their father/ husband is not there, it’s difficult for me because I am missing out on the childhood of my kids. I go every three to four months but by the time I go I find out that even their vocabulary has changed completely. I am missing out on something great. I also know the work I’m doing here is very satisfying and is probably as important as the lives of three young men and women that are my children. I really feel for my wife but she understands, she is from
Ekeremor in Bayelsa too Wrestling as a family tradition
My oldest son wrestled until he was 10 from the age of five. But he likes soccer a bit more now. At 13 he is playing in the highest league of soccer for his age grade in Canada. He’s a very good soccer player. My younger kids like wrestling though we haven’t involved them. Right now, they are doing soccer, gymnastics, and ballet. Wrestling is a foundational sport; it has everything for every other sport. The hard work that comes with wrestling is enormous. I will encourage them to do the sport even if not to the elite level but to get that work ethic that wrestling gives you.
Politics and wrestling
I have been consistently coming to Nigeria from Canada since 2001. After the 2000 Olympics, I was spending about two to three months in Nigeria. Even while I was still very active, getting involved with the
national team, with politics though not to the same degree. After 2005, I started spending a lot more time here. In 2009 the then governor, Timipre Sylva, invited me to be his special adviser on sports, that was when I fully came down and he made me his special envoy on sports and education. I could be likened to a role model who came from this place and has made good in his field. My office was in the Governor’s Office. After a year I looked at going into the state assembly. I made my foray into the assembly and stayed for two terms.
We are looking for other opportunities and I know for sure I will always be involved in the politics of Bayelsa. Yes, the greatest good you can do for your people is when you are at the table discussing matters of state importance. I feel for me to have the best impact, I have to be very close to the seat of power.
Finding facilities for athletes
We need to have professional centres for training for all the identified Olympic sports. Facilities that are fully dedicated to sports. We have the doctors, sports scientists, the coaches, the cooks and the athletes in one facility where they can train anytime, they want to train. This habit of coming to the national camp for two weeks or three weeks before a competition is not good. The major thing I will ask for will be centers of excellence for sports that have been identified. Wrestling should have their own centre, their own facility, and accommodation that is for the medical personnel that is for them. Yes, like athletics should have their own dedicated sports facility. If it is in Port Harcourt, for example, any athlete who wants to train at any time should be able to go to that facility and get the best. From their medical personnel sports medicine, psychologist, their dieticians everything works together. We need to be a bit more professional and if there is another thing, I want to ask for will be an increase in funding of sports.
The funding models
Let us look at some other countries and government, through the UK lottery (the sports lottery) dedicates a certain amount of this lottery to funding sports and some companies adopt athletes and pick them up from there. Those are some of the models we need to borrow. We have not done that. And the funding for sports hasn’t been anywhere near where we can have success. Let us look at the wrestling team in terms of a budget; we don’t have one, I am going to the world championship, I have written to the Ministry of Youths and Sports, I have to wait for them to give me money and if there is no money then nobody is going anywhere.
The All Africa Games will not be a problem because when it is games, Nigeria is willing to fund our going but once it is a championship whether African or world or one of these Grand Prix tournaments which are very essential for the growth and development of our athletes, then we don’t have funds. Comparatively, as a country, Canada does not really spend much on sports but this year the female Canadian national team has a budget of $2.3 million, the US national wrestling team has a budget of $15 million annually and those are the people we are going to compete with. If we look at the fact that the people we are competing with have a budget of almost N1.5 billion, so we have a tournament in Cuba, they are there, one in Germany they are there, one in Iran they are there, you have in Russia they are there, if you have eight competitions in a year Nigeria might attend only one because of a lack of funding.
My Life in The Ring, Parliament And Back in The Ring
The last Championship we attended was in May, in Tunis. The Africa championships are essentially the only tournament we have attended this year but ideally, we should have attended four tournaments internationally by now. The world championship is in Astana this year and anyone who places top six will now qualify for the Olympics. We have other Olympic qualifying tournaments next year, there are three of them one of which is the African championships which are the most important, it is in Morocco in March with only the top two placements qualifying for the Olympics. It is not just Africa. It is between Africa and Australia and the top two qualify. So, from now to March next year is very important.