Remembering Nigeria’s Sports Heroes and Heroines

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As Nigeria marks her 60th anniversary today, DURO IKHAZUAGBE takes a journey down memory lane on some of the great sporting landmarks recorded since independence in 1960

As Nigerians mark 60 years independence of the country today, it is also time for those in the sports sector to do a reality check of how our past and present sportsmen and women have also fared. Three scores in the life of an independent nation is enough to have produced heroes and heroines in the various sectors, including sports, since 1960 when the British Union Jack was lowered for our green-white-green flag.

Sports like football, track and field, boxing, special sport, wrestling, table tennis, tennis, basketball, weightlifting, volleyball, handball, taekwondo, judo and a host of others who have produced men and women who have brought glories to this country whether at continental or global stage.

For the older generation Nigerians, boxing and not football was the sport that first brought global honour to the country barely three years old as a nation.

Dick Tiger Ihetu fought America’s Gene Fulmer and won the World Middleweight boxing title. That fight held at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan. Dick Tiger’s feat was a follow-up to the pre-Independence achievement of Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey who won the World Featherweight Boxing Championship fight in Liverpool in 1957. Nojeem Maiyegun won Nigeria’s first Summer Games bronze medal in the Light Middleweight category at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, while Isaac Ikhuoria followed up with a bronze in the 1972 Games in Munich, Western Germany.

Between those early days and when Davidson Andeh won the world amateur lightweight boxing title against a Russian and Peter Konyegwachi also picked a silver medal in the featherweight category of the Los Angeles Games in 1984, Nigerian boxers dominated the continent’s All Africa Games and were to reckoned with at the Commonwealth Games. Boxing, indeed, as a sport, lifted the country’s name as an emerging power in the sweet science.

In other sports like Track and Field, Nigeria’s real first Olympic Games medal was achieved at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles when Innocent Egbunike ran a blistering anchor leg of the 4x400m to win the bronze behind USA and silver medalists Britain. Before then, medals of several colours have been achieved at both the All Africa Games and the Commonwealth Games.

However, Nigeria’s iconic moment in athletics came at the 1996 Games in Atlanta when Chioma Ajunwa did the unimaginable, winning the Women’s Long Jump event gold with 7:12m record ahead a field of tested world champions. Falilat Ogunkoya won an individual bronze medal in the 400m behind French woman, Marie Jose Perec and Cathy Freeman of Australia.

Four years earlier at Barcelona ‘92, Nigeria’s 4x100m men quartet gave the world jitters, winning the silver medal behind Team USA in an African record. The Mary Onyali-led women’s sprint relay also won the bronze and the manner in which they celebrated that feat remains one of the highlights of that edition in Spain and is well captured in images in the Olympic museum.

It was however not until the Sydney 2000 Games in Australia that Nigeria’s 4x400m anchored by Enefiok Udo-Obong ran the race of their lives to win the silver medal that was later elevated to gold. The Team USA 4x400m relay quartet anchored by Michael Johnson was disqualified after Antonio Pettigrew was found to have failed dope test. Although he didn’t race in the final, running in the semi final was enough to take the gold from the Americans and given to the team led by the late Sunday Bada, Clement Chukwu, Enefiok Udo-Obong, Jude Monye and Fidelis Tafida Gadzama.

Of course, Glory Alozie also won a silver in the 100m hurdles at the same Sydney 2000. The Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) version contributed medals to Nigeria’s total haul. Blessing Okagbare, who has remained the country’s biggest name in the sport in the last 12 years, emerged at the Beijing Olympics. After the trip to the quadrennial Games in the Far East, medals have dried up for Nigeria to date despite two outings in London (2012) and Rio 2016.

In football, the ‘king’ of sport, Nigeria has recorded a few global firsts.

In cadet U17, Nigeria remains the undisputed champions in five editions, starting with the inaugural edition in China in 1985. Golden Eaglets have repeated the feat in 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015.

With three AFCON titles in 1980, 1994 and 2013, the senior national team, the Super Eagles, have earned respect in the continent. They have also made decent outings at the Mundial since their debut at USA ‘94. Although the team’s best performance remain a second round showings.

Emerging as the first African nation to win the Olympic men’s football at Atlanta ‘96, perhaps, remains the biggest honour for Nigeria in the beautiful game.

Dream Team, as Nwankwo Kanu-led squad was called, earned a place amongst the greatest moments in Nigerian sports history.

Glittering on a giant wall inside the Atlanta Olympic Stadium, embossed in gold letters, are the names of 22 Nigerian football players who put up some of the most spectacular and most entertaining football displays of any modern Olympics in history. They played against two of the strongest teams in the world at the time: Argentina and Brazil, and came out victorious in grandest style.

The players who made the feat possible included; Sunday Oliseh, Victor Nosa Ikpeba, Mobi Oparaku, Tijani Babangida, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro, Emmanuel Babayaro, Dosu Joseph etc.

Our women’s senior team have also dominated the continent and made appearances at the World Cup since the first edition in China in 1991.

Despite these many achievements, what then went wrong in the last decade that it has become almost impossible to replicate those feats of Nigeria’s golden moments?

According to Chief Segun Odegbami, a former Green Eagles star, unfortunate circumstances subsumed the National Sports Commission (NSC) that was developing sports from the early 1970s and doing a great job into the Ministry of Information, Youth and Sports, around 1991 or 1992. That was the era of Isaac Akioye as Director of Sports at the commission.

“The offices of the Director of Sports of the NSC (a field technician) with that of the Director of Sports in the ministry (a civil servant) became one.

“The beneficiary of the merger and new office, an academician, newly engaged by the ministry without any previous experience or grounding in the original vision of the trajectory of sports development in the NSC, was also given the responsibility to run the most powerful and complex sports association in Nigeria, the NFA. He was made the sole administrator,” recalled

the cerebral former Nigerian footballer.

In Odegbami’s conclusion, that error made by merging the NSC’s Director of Sports with that of the ministry, “became a tipping and turning point for Nigerian sports development. Needless to go into the details, but the resultant effect is that sport, in all ramifications, lost its original direction and has not recovered ever since”.

Although the current Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, is making progress with getting the infrastructure back to life through his “Adopt an Athlete” and “Adopt a Facility” to renovate projects, the fear in sports circle in the country is that the rate of turnover of leadership (ministers) in that sector may not allow him carry out a comprehensive reform that may lead the country out of the woods.

He certainly needs commendation for the move to honour men and women who have contributed to the growth of the sector as we celebrate the country’s 60 independent anniversary today.

That ceremony to honour Nigeria’s heroes and heroines scheduled for today has however been moved to Friday, October 16. It certainly is one way to tell the past sportsmen and women that their labour for the country were not in vain.