He was primed for podium placement at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games in Canada. He was the jumper to beat in the men’s long jump event of that Olympiad that year. He had world’s best jump leading to the Games. But fate played a cruel joke on him: Just hours before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Montreal, Nigeria led other African countries to boycott that edition in protest against IOC’s decision to allow countries with sporting links with apartheid South Africa participating in that edition. And so, Charlton Ehizuelen, missed that opportunity to go down in history as Nigeria’s first gold medalist at the Olympic Games.
Forty-three years after, Ehizuelen remembers every detail as if it was just yesterday. In this interview with DURO IKHAZUAGBE, the Nigerian track and field legend who erased American Jesse Owen’s NCAA’s records believes it was not his destiny to emerge as the first to win Olympic gold for the country. Excerpt….
It is difficult to speak with you and not recall Nigeria’s boycott of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. What memories to do you still keep of that incident?
The decision to boycott the Games was a tragic one for most of us who had sacrificed so much in preparation to finally be at the Olympic Games. It was a bitter pill to swallow because after four years of preparations and hard work, we were told that we must wait for another four years to take our final examinations.
I came into the Olympic Games determined to become the first Nigerian to win an Olympic gold medal. I had recorded one of the best long jumps in the world before arriving in Montreal. My confidence level was at its highest point.
However, I just believe I was not destined to be the first person to win an Olympic gold for Nigeria. I am however glad that it was the same Long Jump event that Chioma Ajunwa won 20 years later at Atlanta ’96 to give Nigeria her first ever Olympic gold medal.
Before going further, can we get to meet you for the benefit of the younger generation who do not know who is Charlton Ehizuelen?
My name is Charlton Ehizuelen; I was born in Kaduna in the northern part of Nigeria to Ishan parents (in present Edo State). It was a time in the north, when sport was a part of the school curriculum in primary schools.
Sports and education was synonymous to creating balance and an integral part of a complete educational process for young children in the primary school system.
It was in the primary school system that I was first introduced to any form of sports; it was a time when a 30 minutes break was set aside daily, as part of the school curriculum for young students to engage in sports, play and have fun. The platform provided the opportunities for young students to learn skills in running, jumping, kicking and socializing.
My parents and my older brother, Aaron, played an important role that encouraged me to continue to engage in sports discovery and development as a young person. My older brother Aaron also participated in sports as we grew older, we would compete against each other, and competed together against other youths in soccer and track and field.
In essence you are corroborating that the school system have important role to play in the development of sports in the country?
I remember when I was about seven years old; I would kick anything that resembles a soccer ball. I did this because I had seen adults either on TV or somewhere in my neighborhood certifies by their action of playing soccer, that it was a good thing to do the same.
As a child, we emulate and try to imitate what we see our parents and adults do in our presence, hence it is good to practice the proper application of what is right and good to our young minds, the human mind is a terrible thing to waste.
When I arrived from the north to attend a secondary in the southern part of Nigeria, the training in sports performance that I had developed as a primary
school student began to deepen its roots in training and competitive track and field competitions.
At Anglican Grammar School Evboneka, near Benin City as a student, I was fortunate to have a principal who understood the principle of using sports to promote and develop the minds and physicality of the student body.
Mr. Idahosa Osifo who was the principal at the school was a passionate man with tremendous vision; he created a sports culture that encouraged participation by creating incentives, which gave members of the school teams special privileges including dining table with better feeding amenities.
When I arrived at Edo College Benin City, I had developed the habit of training and competition. At Edo College; I had a school coach for the first time, a coach who was able to transform my potentials into improved performances.
It was at Edo College I received my first invitation to compete at the Senior Open Championships at Ibadan, a championship that is only possible by invitation as a junior athlete. Today, this is no longer the case. There where were only four junior athletes in the national team when I first represented Nigeria.
The performances I had achieved while competing in the long and triple jumps at the Junior Nationals Championships at the Police College in Ikeja, were the leading jumps in the country then. They provided me the opportunity to be invited to compete at the senior level.
At my first Senior Open Championships competition at Ibadan, I won the long jump event, defeating the great Sam Igun, a four-time Olympian. I also came second in the triple jump event. These performances I achieved earned me a position to represent Nigeria for the first time against the Ghanaians at the Nigeria /Ghana Championships held in Ibadan.
The Nigeria/Ghana championship was going to change my entire life, at the championships I placed third behind Joshua Owusu who won it and Mike Ahey both of them Olympians from Ghana.
At the end of the championships, one of the American coaches who came with the Ghanaian team approached me and offered me an opportunity to go to the USA, to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana to continue with my athletic career.
Most of Nigeria’s successful track and field stars came from the American Collegiate system. What was your experience like in the NCAA?
The Head Coach of the University of Illinois, Coach Bob Wright was a great influence along with Dr. Awoture Eleyae, Nigeria’s national coach at the time, who was at the university working on his doctorate degree. He made it possible for me to attend the university. The atmosphere at the University of Illinois provided a platform that is conducive for both education and athletics. The athletic programme was transparent in all its forms with available support systems whenever we needed them. You knew someone always had your best interest at heart.
The first competition I competed in was in January of 1974, I broke 11 records, including breaking the legendary Jesse Owens’ 39 years old record. A record he had set a year before going to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he won four Olympic gold medals.
I became the first African to win the long and triple jump events at the NCAA division 1 championships. By the end of my collegiate athletic career; I had won the NCAA four times in the long and triple jumps events.
I became the only Africa jumper to be featured till date on the front page of the Track and Field magazine considered the bible of the sport.-April, 1975.
I held the collegiate records in the long and triple jump events. In March of 1975, I long jumped the second best indoors performance in history and came within one and half inches from breaking Bob Beamon’s indoor world record. The performance I achieved is still the current Nigeria’s in door long jump record.
I represented the continent of Africa in 1977 in Germany and in 1981 in Italy, at the IAAF Continental Cup and won a bronze medal in the long jump event. I also became the first African to win the long and triple jump events at the All Africa Games in 1978 in Algiers.
I also won a silver medal at the Pre-Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada in 1975, in the long jump event and was looking forward to a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games.
As someone who has seen it all in sports, what do we need to do in Nigeria to get back to the height we previously attained in sports again?
As someone who was inducted into the Prestigious Drake Relays Hall of Fame, which includes people like Jesse Owens, Marlene Ottey, Michael Johnson, Nawal Moutawakel and Wilma Rudolph just to mention a few, I believe that to get back to the top, there is the need for parents and family members to begin the grassroots process for a young child in the family with the potential to develop to an elite level.
The segments of governments in Nigeria should not be tasked with the basic grassroots development process of a child in a family. Government functions in sports development should focus on providing the basic infrastructure and the educational tools to educate the community about family sports development.
Every family in Nigeria has a direct influence on a child’s perception and behavior as a result should get the first opportunity to shape a young mind’s views in any subject, including sports.
The provision of sports education and its benefits to the Nigerian family could provide the opportunities for families and individuals to form social systems or find an existing one to become a member. Our communities, nuclear family units, cities, secondary schools and universities campuses, corporations and industries are all considered social systems in our societies.
Sports have been my entire life; I was able to improve my educational capabilities through sports opportunities, as well as travelling all over the world to compete and made lifelong friends.
Sports is an industry with a worldwide net worth estimated at between 480 and 620 billion US dollars, according to a recent A T Kearney study of sports teams, leagues and federation.
Sports could be the next goldmines for the continent of Africa if properly harnessed and managed. Nigeria with the largest youth population in Africa could benefit the most if we get our acts right.
How can Nigeria tap from this worldwide billions of dollars sports net worth?
We must learn how to utilize the tools and platforms that are familiar to the Nigerian perception, tailor fitted for the Nigerian consumption. Trying to fit a foreign way of doing business into the Nigerian way of thinking can only create limited results that would fade away with time because of its complications.
Branding is a vital aspect of creating a long lasting identification perception and recognition. We know that Nigerians are born sprinters, jumpers in track and field. We also know that Nigerians are gifted boxers, soccer players, weight lifters and wrestlers. Nigerians have been winning medals in internationals championships in the jumps, sprints and, boxing before the country gained independence in 1960.
Hogan Bassey and Dick Tigers were world champions in boxing before independence. Josiah Majekodunmi won the first medal in track and field, a silver medal in the high jump event for men at the 1950 Commonwealth Games, also before independence.
The first medal won in the Olympic Games was by a boxer by the name of Nojim Maiyegun, he won a bronze medal in the men’s Light Middle weight category in 1964 in Tokyo, Japan.
We need to have branding in the sprints, jumps, boxing and soccer as the face of Nigeria’s sports and create the opportunity for other sports to reach their full potential. This platform will create in the minds of the Nigerian youth to dream and breathe the Nigerian sports brand and develop towards achieving it.
Kenyan youths know that running middle and long distance races can create opportunities for their families and communities, so what do Kenyan youth do? They run until they become world champions!
Jamaican youths observed from the first Olympics, when the first competitors for Jamaica won gold and silver medals in the 400m events. The tradition for sprints became a brand for the Jamaican youths and has continued till today.
In soccer, the Brazilians developed a brand that the Brazilian youths recognized and can identify with no matter what happens to soccer, every youth in Brazil wants to play soccer and qualify to play at the World Cup.
For many years I have had the opportunity to work with numerous young athletes to realize their Olympic and NCAA dreams of becoming participants and champions. The results over the years have produced Olympians and NCAA champions in the jumps in both the male and female categories. It is also possible in Nigeria.