By Onochie Anibeze
Oluchi Elechi was at the Teslim Balogun Stadi-um last Wednesday, the second day of Track And Field events of the National Sports Festival that ends today.
She is home for Christmas from her Alabama base in the United States.
Elechi has added Raymond to her name as she is now married to Nick Raymond.
Two of them watched when Rivers’ Nicholas Imoaperamhu and Peace Uko won the 100m races for men and women respectively.
Before the 100m final Oluchi was almost cursing over what fans saw in the 800m event of Heptathlon.
They jogged till the last 100m. They were awful and Oluchi yelled “these athletes are disgracing me here.”
Yes, she probably felt the shame more than anybody around. More than 20 years ago she was pacing on for the same event and expected the athletes performing on the day to run faster than they did then. But what she saw was unbelievable.
In their time, at the time she competed against the likes of Pat Itanyi, athletes were attaining almost 5,000 points to win Heptathlon. Now 3,000 points can win athletes the Heptathlon medal. That’s why they could afford to jog in the 800m final. Shame. Standards have fallen badly.
Oluchi shook the head in disappointment and that was enough to engage her in a chat that made her recall the past. She started track and field with one event. Seigha Porbeni, her coach then at the University of Ibadan increased her events to three and that was an uphill task for her.
Tougher days were to come when she met Brown Ebewele, the former decathlete champion who insisted that she was an Heptathlon material and went ahead to introduce her to the seven events that make up the Heptathlon. Oluchi recalled her story aptly. It was an interesting evening that saw us move from Teslim Balogun Stadium to the National Stadium few meters away. Interestingly, Brown was at the Teslim Balogun Stadium too.
“There were times I cried while training,” she recalled.
“Under Brown, you couldn’t be lazy. You just had to give your all. He would pet you when necessary, yell at you when necessary and psyche you up when you were down. Brown was a damn good coach and I’m thankful that I worked with such people.”
Nick Raymond enjoyed the story the wife was telling. He met Oluchi in the United States and wasn’t there when she was Africa’s queen, winning the gold medal at the Harare All Africa Games in 1995. Before then was the All Africa Games in Cairo in 1991 where she picked up silver. What surprised her was that Brown Ebewele had taken a bet on her, telling people that she would win the gold.
“I didn’t know that Brown had taken a bet on me. He even asked that his allowance should not be paid and that if I won gold the allowance should be doubled. All these happened without my knowledge. It was my first time in All Africa Games. I was a local athlete and it was amazing that my coach had such confidence in me.
But that was how competitive we were in those days. It was when I ended up with a silver medal that I found out about the betting. Brown was not only a coach to athletes. He was also a mentor, a friend and a brother. He made me earn money for the first time as an athlete.
I was at the University of Ibadan and he enrolled me as Kano State athlete when he was the head coach in Kano. Brown would send your salary to you and when it was time for training he would make sure you earned the money that he paid. I was not the only athlete. He did the same thing to many of us. He could train you anywhere, on tartan tracks or hard grounds etc.
We didn’t start on tartan tracks then and the dust from the ground chocked. But Brown had a way of making you hang in there. There were days I would go to a corner and cry after training. Training was hard but the results delighted. The money also helped. You know what it is to earn money as a student? It felt great. I could count myself lucky to have worked with the likes of Porbeni and Brown. The technique and endurance I achieved helped me when I moved to the United States.
At the Harare Games I was already in the US and came from there to win the gold. What I saw today was not competitive. We should be progressing and not retrogressing. The standard should be improving, not going down. We were concerned about the state of sports in Nigeria and formed an association in US with the aim of making inputs from there and influencing changes where necessary.
But it got politicized and the dream died. I know that we can get back on track but the right things must be done. The right people must be engaged. That is the first step otherwise whatever ideas or policies you have the wrong people will always lack the capacity to implement them.”