By Patrick Omorodion
From the obscure Ojo zone in Lagos state, she grewup to become a phenomenon in athletics, both in Nigeria and Africa, dominating the scene for a very long time.
She also made an impact on the world scene, Commonwealth, World Championships and the Olympic Games, winning many laurels, including an individual Olympic bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In this interview, Chief (Mrs.) Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, (MFR), a member of the Sports Development Thematic Group of the just concluded Nigeria Vision 20:2020, told Sunday Vanguard sports about her early years in athletics, why she reigned for so long and why athletics took a dangerous nose-dive in Nigeria. Enjoy it:
How did you start your athletic career?
I started at a veryÂ young age, about six years old. Then I was just playing around myÂ neighbourhood with kids running onÂ what we called flag football, not knowing what willÂ beÂ the outcome of our future. Some times we played street soccer or street football and I was just involved in all kind of games, just for the fun of it.
Were you at any time discouraged by your parents?
Like every kid in Nigeria or Africa, yes. And being a woman too, even as the first child of the family, I was definitely discouraged from the start. They told me so many negative things so as to discourage me, like you canâ€™t get anything out of sports, why are you running, who is chasingÂ you, and all kinds of negative things.
My mum, being a single mother, was very worried about my future and she wanted to make sure I leave a positive legacy for my family and my siblings. She was scared, which is normal anyway. Not only my mum though, my entire family were highly against it but with my will power and determination, my strength I was able to convince anybody why I really want to go into sports. Being able to convince them that I can do better than just running, graduate like I did, from primary, secondary school and even up to university level and stillÂ was able to participate professionally in sports.Â After years of discouragement, I was able toÂ prove them wrong and they eventually let me be.
Were you encouraged in secondary school?
My biggest courage was my family. My mother and my uncle. My schoolÂ was 100 percent supportive. Our PE(Physical Education) teachers then were all Ghanaians, they were all over Nigeria as teachers and all kinds of professions. I had a PE teacher in my primary school who wasÂ a Ghanaian, also in my secondary and they were both supportive. They were actually the ones that guidedÂ me and enlightened me on what I used in the latter part of my career to earn a scholarship toÂ university.
They were the ones that told me about the world scholarship for the first time and explained its benefit to me. Then I was till young. I didnâ€™t quite understand what they were saying but I kept it at the back of my mind. But as the years progressed, I saw the likes of Innocent Egbunike in 1983 or so when they were preparing forÂ the 1984 Olympics. I saw how clean they lookedÂ and all the glamour that they brought to the field getting ready for the 1984 Olympics.
I was like,Â so this was what my Ghanaian teachers were talking about, that I can get a scholarship and study abroad and still be able to run and participate in sports that was my first love. And I didnâ€™tÂ waste time to take advantageÂ of it. I asked further questionsÂ from Innocent Egbunike and he broke it down for me and off I went.
At what stage did you get into the national team?
I went into the national team as a junior in 1983 or 1984. I went fromÂ aÂ junior team to compete at National Stadium among the senior team and made it to Ghana. I believe GhanaÂ was my firstÂ international competition.
How were youÂ seen by your team mates/friends?
Of course they were threatened by a junior athlete coming to a dominate the senior athletics team, winning the 100 and 200. Of course anybody in the senior team would definitely be threatened about it. Then it was athletes from Saint Finbars thatÂ were in vogue.
People started saying, who is this young girl from Ojo zone, from nowhere, looking like a boy, no hair and no breastÂ on her chest(laughs..), just coming from nowhere and dominating the senior team with no spike shoes.
I mean I was just raw, as rawÂ can be. But with the kind of perseverance that I had in me, I overlooked all the negativity and envy and everything that was dished at me by the senior girls and just did what I loved to do, which was running. I just loved competition. Actually what the senior girls and boys, especially the girls,Â were doing to me especially been a threat to them, was fueling me toÂ actually beat them and do better and I showed it. Because in track and field, it is very rare for you have a photo finish. So what I did was that when I beat them I made sure I beat them with a clearÂ gap so that nobody can disputeÂ it. ButÂ even that did not hold water, because when I went for my first competition in Ghana, I won both the 100m and 200m but was not allowed to compete in either.
Because they said I had no experience, that I was too young. No 100m, no 200m which I won clearly. No 4 x100(relay). They didnâ€™t even practise the relay exchange with me. They put me in theÂ 4x400m, they put me there because they thought that 4×400 is not too technical, so let her run the 400 and Iâ€™m not a 4×400 runner. But I ran good because of my strength and my background training in the street.
How did you feel with this kind ofÂ decision?
I was hurt and alsoÂ disappointed. I cried as a junior, but nobody cared. The only person that came to my rescue all through my junior years that I was pushed down was no other person but Gabriel Okon. He was inÂ the Lagos stateÂ team then with me when I graduated fromÂ the Ojo zone into the Lagos state team and we started traveling internationally. It was like him fighting a million man battle. Even with all what he did to prevent them from disturbing me, they did not listen to him. Today I owe him in high regard.
At the Nigerian level, who were your role models?
In Nigeria then it was Innocent Egbunike. He was clear , why, because I was young. But I had the mind of an older woman like people could call me. I have the wisdom of an older woman. I watched all our professionals and internationalÂ athletes then, but I kind of chose innocent, not because he is Igbo like me but because of his ways. I just wanted to emulate the way he carried himself. He is respectful and of course he is naturally talented butÂ his mannerism, he was just a replica of who I am. And I thought it would be good to know him the more and get advice as to how to better myself whenever I get to where he is and he did a good job. He was a great mentor to me.
Internationally who is your role model?
Outside Nigeria was Evelyn Ashford. I had looked forward to running against her and also be in the same environment with her. Due to my consistence love for her, even while training, my grassroots coach Tobais Igwe (Toblow) then was always referring her to me because I admired her a lot.
Sometimes he gives me a very hard workout and when Iâ€™m tired he tried to push meÂ to a higher limit, and then Iâ€™ll break down and start crying and he would say â€œI thought you said you want to be like Evelyn Ashford, this is the only way you gonna do it.â€ He kept sayingÂ this time without number.
And I told him coach are you kidding, Evelyn was running 22 point something then which to me was like heaven. I was running like 25 and her caseÂ was quite different from mine, considering the fact that she trains in a hardÂ way and Iâ€™m below her. But he told me that she started from somewhere just like me and if you love her so much and you think she is your international idol, keep training and you will be better than her.
The day I ran against her in Italy in 100m and I beat her,Â I jubilated like I won an Olympic medal. She did not know why but it was later that I told her that she was my idol and that I had looked forward to running against herÂ and I never thoughtÂ Iâ€™ll ever beat her.
You mentioned Toblow now. Who was the first coach that actually saw the talent in you?
I remember my primary school coach, I remember him, Mr McClean. He was the first to discover the talent. I actually started as a high jumper/long jumper and ended up in the sprints. I donâ€™t know how that happened but although in my primary school I was a long jumper andÂ high jumper. It was only when I got into the secondary school that I tried out the 100mÂ and I sustained it.
What impact did coach ToblowÂ make in your life?
He was my, what the Americans call rescue ranger,Â when you are lost in the wood and the last life cell on your cell phone, allÂ you have to make one last phone call to somebody and that phone callÂ went through. I was just driftingÂ all overÂ after my secondary level, didnâ€™t know what to do. 1 was referredÂ to coach aunty Emilia Edet because she was the chief national coach then, by my father In-law, Jimi Omagbemi to brush me up since I was just fresh out of secondary school but it didnâ€™t work out with myself and Mrs. Edet.
And like Iâ€™ve done whenever I go to places I take my time, I donâ€™t say much and study my environment. While I was staying with Mrs Edet for two weeks because ofÂ negative chemistry I wasnâ€™t comfortable with her and she wasnâ€™t comfortable with me. As a result I started scouting for other coaches around the stadium andÂ Toblow stood out for me. And I left her, no quarrel, no trouble because it didnâ€™t work out.
Would you say coach Toblow is under-utilised in Nigeria? Everybody says heâ€™s a grass-root coach.
He is more than under utilized. Heâ€™s been overlooked, stumbled on but there something that both of us have in common, and that was probably the reason why our chemistry struck real good. Speak your mind and stand by it.Â Say the truth andÂ donâ€™t be afraid of the consequences. He has always been a very outspoken coach, very talented. He may not have come out on the highly polished or educated part of it but over the years he put himself through, he attended numerous coaching schools and polished his coaching ability. But still and haveÂ produced like you saidÂ numerous athletes.
He worked very well with grassroots athletes better than the senior team. Although is not like he could not handle the senior team, itâ€™s just thatÂ by the time he gets them to the senior level, they are good or even better, like already made food, ready for exploit. Anybody that Toblow coaches, does not stay in Nigeria more than ten years. From grassrootsÂ to the top, some of themÂ pay Toblow back, some forgetÂ but they can not tell you that they once came from him.
To me, he is like a grandfather of all grassroots sports development in Nigeria. But today, it is very sad that he has not been given credit for all his works. Iâ€™m sure he has a very long black book or red book of all the athletes he has brought toÂ the national level and has done well for the nation. So with this Iâ€™m asking the nation to recognize that man for what he has done and will never stop doing. Toblow would go sometimes without food and give money to the athletes even buy shoes, clothes for them, whatever it is the athletes need. And I said to myself this is theÂ kind of coach we need, the one that works from the heart and not for the financial gain.
What would you describe as the highest point of your career?
It has to be the 1996 Olympic in Atlanta where I got my first individual bronze medal.
Your lowest point?
I think it was Germany or Sweden World Championships, where for the first in an international scene I didÂ not make it to the final. I was injured and was just coming back from surgery and wasnâ€™t quite ready.
What of the All Africa Games in 2003 in Abuja after everybody had counted you out?
I would rank it as my second high. Knowing the good old Mary doesnâ€™t take no for an answer. Like you said, everybody had counted me out, the press, the federation and even my fellow athletes. They said after I had my baby and all that, that I should just go and rest. But I said none of you dictated when I should start this job so why would you tell me when to stop.
And if the fire is still burning in me to compete, it is left to you (my fellow athletes Iâ€™m talking to right now) to pick on me and dethrone me and tell me â€œhey Iâ€™m better than you, itâ€™s time for you to step out.â€ Nobody was forthcoming, so it made it very easy for me to stay on my track. And in 2003, obviously it was nearing to the end of my career.
I could feel it in my muscle, brain. I could feel it in every aspect of my life. I was naturally winding down. But when I heard all the negative things about why I should have quit, it made me bold the more. I was once again made the team captain. I was wearingÂ two, three caps at the All Africa Games. I was a captain and also a competitor, the ministry was looking up to me to lead the team. So all the negative things IÂ turned them into positive energy to competes againstÂ my opponents.
But your colleagues accused you of abandoning them and taking side with the ministry?
In 2003 in Paris I was already made the captain of theÂ team to the World Championships. I thought that if there was any decision to be made as far as the athletes were concerned, it goes to the highest authority before it goes all the way to me and I will then pass it to the athletes. But the athletes felt that I was not acting on their demands fast enough so they spear-headed the course at their own time and in their own way. My approach to everything I have done in life, especially on track and field, was slow and steady but win the race. They went about it in the mafia way, aggressive way or overtly aggressive way and I tried to hold them back, to say no on what they were requesting for. Already I had tabled it to the ministry and the federation and I told themÂ they were working on it.
But they (athletes) did not listen to me despite my promises to them. One thing about me is that I give my word and fulfil it. Although it may come slowly because I believe in working diplomatically to getting things resolved. But the rest of the athletes, spear-headed by some people who did not know how to go about things, did it in an aggressive way, for they believed if they leave the environment, the problem would not be resolved. So they took the law into their hands and got into trouble. I couldnâ€™t help them because that was the decision they chose for themselves and of course they suffered the consequences. I tried several times to intervene but they did not listen to me.
At a point in athletics, the Americans were really afraid of Nigerians but suddenly it is no longer so. They are more afraid of the Jamaicans now than Nigerians. What do you think is responsible for this?
Thatâ€™s a good one. Carl Lewis, the former sprint star was saying it in the press to his association that foreign athletes, that is Nigerians, were invading American institutions, that they should put a stop to it. I donâ€™t know how far he pushed for that course. But Iâ€™m sure somebody up there in their ministry was listening and that started the decline of our athletes being able to gain admission into their universities on the scholarships that was built to improveÂ us academically and sports wise.
I believe that was the key, they were afraid, because if you go to their NCAA which is like their highest university or for all university competition out of eight links in the 100 meter race, Nigerians were applying more than them and because of that Carl Lewis was not happy and could not find it funny. For them, we were displacing their athletes in high numbers and they wonderedÂ why donâ€™t we stay in our country and develop our athletes. They felt the universities were developing us to beat their own people on their ground. So to me that was very wrong of Carl Lewis to have initiated such a crusade.
How do you think we can get back the opportunity again?
We may get the opportunity back but it may not be the quantum amount that we used to have. Myself and other ex-internationals have realized and seen the decline in our athletes who we expected to be better than us. That was why our association,Â the Nigeria International Athletes Association (NIAA) was born in order to help enhance our athletes positively so as to enhance the countryâ€™s performance world wide. Through the organization, we also want to see what we can do to help bridge that gap between our national athletes that are ready for exploit academically and otherwise.
What are you doing now to ensure that we get replacements for you and other athletes?
I am using the platform of the NIAA which I happen to be a member and also a board member for scholarship scheme. We are doing it collectively as an organization, but as individuals in the organization, we are also acting independently to scout for talents wherever we see athletes,Â either from Nigeria or those that find their way to the United States. We send out our members, so whoever lives in the area where the athletes are residing, is expected to lead them and guide them. For those that are still here in Nigeria, people like myself who come home quite often for business and otherwise, are expected to do same.
We try to attend as much as possible, grassroots developmentalÂ programmes in each state. We are currently working in Anambra right now to see how we can help them because they say charity begins at home. And you have to catchÂ them young, you have to get them at their places of origin. Now that our international or national athletes are getting older and running slower and are less in number, it is time we decided to go down to the grass roots to find them, to encourage themÂ and grade them. Because sometimes they are there but nobodyÂ is there to giveÂ proper guidance and directives.
Who do you think can really step into your shoes right now?
I donâ€™t know where you can place the likes of Damola (Osayemi), is she junior or senior? Because to me she has just started on her track to be the next Onyali. Right now she is my number one pick and Onyali replacement. (Francesca) Idoko is another one. They are about four of them but I cannot remember their names.
If properly directed, I used that word very strongly, if properly directed, they will do well. I say so because you may see these athletes running fast right now, getting all these laurels and so on. But if you really get to sit down one on one with them, you would find out that they donâ€™t know more than 100 meters. They need to be educated, they need to be taught the depth of participating in international competitions. That is, while they are here, they run well and win all laurels, but when they step out of the country into the international scene, they are lost.
They need the guidance of people like us, to get toÂ them before they are lost and then get outside and start learning from mistakes instead of learning from experienced ones like us. The federation (AFN) and the ministry need to use professionals and ex-international athletes to work with national and grassroots athletes before they get lost in the wood.
Why is it that professional athletes donâ€™t have managers in and outside the country?
Our professional have managers but all their managers are Europeans or Americans. American or European managers donâ€™t know you, the only thing they are interested about is the money you bring to them.
So there are two things weÂ are talking about. You can have your manager but you need the guidance, support of the brotherhood, sisterhood in your country that would understand your culture. For example why would an American athlete go wrong when he or she has Carl Lewis traveling with them or being in the camp, guiding them. And they also have their international managers, with this there is no way they can go wrong.
How do you see the issue of drugs in athletics?
The use of drugs is as old as the sport itself. Evelyn Ashford was forced to retire from the sport by people like Flo-Jo. She felt she could no longer compete with such people and she quit. We knew long ago that Marion Jones was using something. You see when you are running and someone just passes you, making it look as if you are stuck to one spot, then you have to think twice. I felt I could no longer continue competing with people like that and again, age was no longer on my side hence I decided to call it a day.
How can the use of drugs be eradicated?
It cannot be totally eradicated, it can only be minimised and the IAAF is doing a lot in this regard.
How did you meet your husband?
We met at the national camp. Then we were just colleagues. It was when we met at the University in the United States that we got talking and every other thing followed.
Yours is a family of athletes, your Father in-law, your husband and yourself. Will you want your children to go into athletics?
They will decide by themselves, I wonâ€™t force them. The boy (about 2 yrs) is already showing signs of that, he keeps running round the house and everywhere.