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31 Years After Lee Evans

By Ikeddy Isiguzo
ONE of the reasons I believed Lee Evans was human was that he coached in Nigeria and the evidence if his efforts still abound.

I would speak of some of them, just some. Evans was ahead of his time, 41 years ago, when he won the Mexico Olympic 400m gold in 43.86 seconds. The record stood for almost 20 years (Butch Reynolds broke it in August 1988). The other world record when he anchored the 4x400m for his second Olympic gold, held sway for 24 years!

Some uncharitable folks said the performance was possible because of the rarefied air of Mexico City. They spent two decades trying to break the mark in Mexico City and the USA Olympic facility in Colorado Springs, which had the similar conditions.

Evans with his colleagues, Ron Davies, and Don Coleman, thanks to the foresight of Isaac Akioye turned Nigerians athletics around. They were gone by 1978.

The fulcrum of that programme was the schools. Not many of today’s athletics buffs knew of a young man straight from Ishan Grammar School called Felix Imadiyi, also known as Beautiful Legs, Nigeria’s most sensational 400m runner in 1977.

He ran the first sub-46 secs on Nigerian soil (in Kaduna in 1977) while still based in Nigeria. He was an Evans protégé. Kehinde Vaughan was in secondary school in Yaba in 1978 when she won the 400m gold at the All Africa Games in Algiers. The list of the Evans success includes Dele Udoh, who a policeman’s bullet fell in Ojuelegba in 1981 (accidental discharge has a long history) and the one many would remember Innocent Egbunike.

Egbunike, a former volleyball player, become one of the country’s most successful athletes and its most successful indigenous coach, with his own Olympic relay medal in 1984 (with Sunday Uti, Moses Ugbesie and Rotimi Peters), a bronze. He was coach of Nigerian Olympic teams in 1996, 2000 and 2008. His most successful outing was with the men’s 2000 Olympic 4x400m relay team, which won silver, but was eight years after upgraded to gold after some USA team members confessed to doping.

Evans’ successes hit the consistent note about KNOWLEDGE power, though it was not expressed in those terms then. Evans knew his act and worked with people who were passionate about athletics.

Akioye was remarkable. He was a footballer, a goalkeeper, yet as the Director of Sports of the National Sports Commission, he catered for all sports. The setting was conducive for a professional like Akioye to act.
The National Sports Commission was a legal entity.

The law specified qualifications for its professional cadre. The Commission had enough resources to retain the services of world-class coaches with Olympic pedigree like Evans.

Akioye was not an Olympic athlete by any stretch of the imagination. He was educated in sports, earning university qualifications in sports, practised it from primary school as competitor and teacher, promoted it all the way to University of Ife, where he was Director of Sports, and used the resources for sports to produce generations of sports people who became coaches or administrative staff. His attention to sports was total.

He could dismiss the programmes of any coach, in any sports, if he felt it was short of standards, of course, there were standards.

After he left Nigeria, Evans coached in five other African countries. He always hungered to return to Nigeria.
I ran into him at the All Africa Games in Nairobi 22 years ago, he came with the Camerounian team. His best wish that year was that Egbunike would break the 400m record. Egbunike’s best in 1987 was 44.17 seconds in Zurich and a silver medal at the World Championships in Rome.

When I read Evans’ enthusiasm to return, I fail to share the optimism of those who want to see Evans pulling off the successes from the skies. Where are the indigenous coaches he would work with? Where are the schools that would produce the athletes he would hone their raw talent?

Do Nigerians know the present Director of Sports (not to be confused with the Director General) of the National Sports Commission knows nothing about sports. I would not be surprised if he wonders why four people (actually six, two reserves) must run the relay. Are these the people to work with Evans?

The magic about Evans is that his expertise leveraged on suitable domestic conditions among them a schools system tuned to producing athletes. Until the illegalities around the National Sports Commission are sorted out, all manners of people, who believe that sports is a honey pot can find their way to it and ruin it further.

Nigeria has changed in the past 31 years, unfortunately, it is not in the ways that would enhance Evans’ ability to do the type of work that gave Nigeria sustained presence in international athletes.

Without things put in perspective, some imposters, who reaped the fading efforts of the past three decades conned Nigerians into believing they did much for Nigerian sports. It would be worthwhile to check their work just 20 years, not even 31 years, hence.  PS: Please send comments, condemnations, commendations to ikeddyisiguzo@hotmail.com


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