Tobias Igwe, a.k.a Toblow is a veteran grass-roots athletics coach who has carved a niche for himself in the athletics circuit. In this interview, he tells Vanguard Grass to Grace how he started as a grass-roots coach and how he used to go to different schools and streets in Lagos to scout for young talents especially during Inter-house and other competitions. Toblow, as he is fondly called by his admirers, also recalls his travails as a coach and how he was accused of vandalising the National Stadium scoreboard in Lagos, which almost ruined his coaching career. Despite that, he says, he refused to give up the fight but remained a relevant factor in the country. Excerpts:
Starting off as a sportsman
I am from Ibeame Ugiri, Isiala Mbano in Imo State but I migrated to Lagos. I am the first man from the east of the Niger to win a medal at the AFN/Mobil Championship in the 3,000 metres triple chase. I created a Lagos record in 1977 which is still existing till today.
Genesis of my Grass-root coaching My love for young talents in this country lured me into coaching in 1978. Then I used to go from school to school in Lagos and combed every nook and cranny of Lagos. I usually went to schools within Lagos to scout for young talents especially whenever there was an Inter-House sports competition. I even went out on the streets.
In fact St. Finbars and Isolo Grammar School were my pilots . In discovering these athletes, I ensured they always come to the National Stadium for training after school. I supported their transportation with my personal fund. That was how I discovered Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, she was my greatest discovery as she was made African Queen of the Track from the grass-roots. Tina Iheagwam, Sunday Uti, Henry Amike, David Omi, Abiodun Salami, the Ezinwa brothers, Davidson and Osmond, Uchenna Emedolu, Clement Chukwu Victor Oliseh, Alice Nwosu, Victor Okoli, Nkiruka Uwakwe, Josephine Omaka and Bakare among so many others. After making them champions from the grass-roots, they all made impact at national competitions before they moved to the United States on scholarship. It was at that point that I moved to the East and Anambra was my first port of call in 1988.
Best moment Winning the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was my best moment in coaching, because before then Nigeria had never won a silver in the Olympics. When I got a silver in the relay for men and bronze in the women’s relay for the first time, I was very happy because I have improved on the Nigerian record, better than I met it.
My toughest moment was when I was locked up at the Alagbon and Kirikiri prisons after I had helped Nigeria win medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I was locked up in the back cell at the Kirikiri Prisons with hardened criminals for four months for an offence I did not commit. I was falsely accused of masterminding the theft of the scoreboard at the National Stadium in Lagos.
And if I may ask, what has an athletics coach got to do with a football scoreboard?
What hurts me most was that I was not given the cash reward that was given to coaches for their achievements at the 1996 Olympics. The then national football team coach, Jo Bonfrere and his assistant, Willy Bazuaye, were given big money to go home with. The athletics coaches were given N100,000 each, but I did not receive anything.
The National Sports Commission (NSC) held onto my money for no reason. I was supposed to be a hero, but I was cheated and disgraced for no reason. When they discovered I did not do what I was accused of, the people who planned it ensured that the case did not see the living day light. That was how the matter died off without compensation. Later I got to know that some sports administrators planned to ruin me because, for them I was a vocal and controversial figure. They eventually framed me up for a crime I knew nothing about. What they did not know was that, that incident further boosted my desire to succeed in life.
Overcoming my challenges
One thing about me is that I love challenges and you can only get tested when you are really challenged. I overcame my toughest times with implicit, confidence and trust in God.
The four things I learned during my difficult moments were, to be focused, determined no matter how difficult the situation was, to be truthful and be able to trust God.
My Advice People should learn to be positive in any situation they find themselves no matter how difficult it appears to be. Life is all about challenges and the way you handle your situation goes a long way. As the saying goes, “tough times don’t last but tough people do”.