By Enefiok Udo-Obong

Lee Edward Evans was laid to rest in his adopted home of Wasimi, Abeokuta last week. It was such a humbling end to the life and illustrious career of one of the greatest athletes to have ever lived and probably the greatest quarter-miler of the last century. A dear friend of mine and I have waited till after his burial to eulogize the great man.

Evans was an American sprinter. He won two gold medals in the 1968 Summer Olympics, setting world records in the 400 meters and the 4 × 400 meters relay, both of which stood for 20 and 24 years respectively. Evans co-founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights and was part of the athlete’s boycott and the Black Power movement of 1968.

Lee was a lover of Nigeria. His quest for Black liberation brought him to Nigeria (as the most populous black nation) first in the late 1970s at the peak of his career to help discover the talents that he knew were in abundance here. He was so instrumental in the discovery and development of our golden generation of 400m runners. Innocent Egbunike, Moses Ugbusien, Sunday Uti, Rotimi Peters, Dele Udo, Henry Amike and a host of others. He was head of Nigeria’s athletics coaching from 1975 to 1981. Lee also headed athletics programmes in various other African and Asian countries which included Guinea, Cameroon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

His accomplishments and awards were numerous both as a coach and an athlete. Fulbright Professor, Council for International Scholar Exchange, 1968 Olympic Gold Medal winner, 400m and 4x400m relay, World Record holder 400m, World Record holder 600m, World Record holder, 4x400m relay, Member, USA Olympic Hall of Fame, Member, USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, Member, San Francisco Hall of Fame, Member, San Jose Hall of Fame, Member, San Jose State University Hall of Fame, Winner of NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, Coach of the Year, Nigeria, 1979, Sprint Coach, All-African Team, IAAF World Cup, 1979, Selected to 100 Golden Olympians, 1996, Member, 1968 U.S. Olympic Team, Member, 1972 U.S. Olympic Team, Coach of the Year 2005 Sunbelt Conference, Coach of the Year 2006 Sunbelt Conference, Coach of the Year 2007 Sunbelt Conference, just to mention some of them.

He was a Fulbright scholar in Sociology and attended San Jose State University. He also did a Masters in Arts (Education) at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria.

Lee was a becon of hope, fun and success despite that he had to struggle to win battles all his life, which he almost always did. He fought racism at its peak in the US using his Olympic podium as a platform. The Olympic Project for Human Rights began with black students protesting in order to have equal housing opportunities and was made into the black power movement after a Tommie Smith interview. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were the face of the movement, but Smith and Evans were the driving forces behind the movement. Lee was the coordinator and instigator of the group.

In 2011, Evans went through another struggle when he was diagnosed with “a large tumour in the pituitary gland area of his brain” and underwent surgery. He fought this medical battle and like the winner he is, he came out victorious. A few years later, he fought one of his longest and most painful battles. He was accused of doping a 16-year old athlete he was training. All the evidence and stories pointed to a conspiracy and “cooked up” accusations but it seems the Nigerian administrators were determined to find a scapegoat for their failures in curbing the rise in use of performance enhancing drugs that they quickly directed all charges at him. He fought this battle to save his chequered reputation and career in the courts for six years. At the end of it, he was vindicated as he was acquitted by the courts and the accusers were asked to pay him damages in lost revenue running into millions of Naira, which they have not yet paid. Yet another struggle which he emerged victorious.

Lee was an adorable man. His seemingly numerous battles never made him give up on people.

I met Lee for the first time at the twilight of my career. He was amazed at my height, stride and achievements so far telling me I would be a dream for him to coach and mentor. I smiled informing him I am at the wrong age of athletics and actually retiring that summer, he tried to convince me to stay three more years that I was still very young. Well having done over a decade and a half in high level athletics I knew I was done so this battle to convince me to remain an athlete was one that Lee was programmed to lose. But we became good friends. We communicated occasionally through his sojourn in Calabar, to Liberia, to Guinea and back to Nigeria where he was very well hosted and supported by the legendary Segun Odegbami.

It was with Odegbami that Lee felt the love once more from Nigerians. He was supported throughout his legal case in which Lee was physically present in every sitting, he was given a job at the Segun Odegbami Sports Academy, Wasimi, near Abeokuta, where he made his home and planned to bring his family there to settle. It was here he became a regular guest of our weekly Sports Talk Programme ‘The Sports Parliament’ where he shared his great knowledge of athletics with us. He was comfortable and relaxed around us. We all loved to listen and make jokes of his ‘Nigerianization’. We enjoyed his tales and much more his dexterity in eating hot fish which was our ritual after every ‘Sports Parliament’ show. Lee was a rare breed. A successful and deeply knowledgeable man. One who loved his family (Spoke a lot of his grandkids), Nigeria and his Sports. Unfortunately, Nigeria failed to tap from his rich vine of knowledge. Instead, the country tried to bury his dreams and hopes but alas, would only bury his remains as his dreams live on in many of us who believed and dared to hope with him.

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