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Hawkers are Usain Bolts in the making – Mary Onyali

Nigerian sprints great, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi believes that Nigeria can produce many Usain Bolts with the right approach. JOHN EGBOKHAN captures her message in this interview

What has it been like since you retired from the track?

Well, my retirement has been very very fun-filled, busy and rewarding.

So can you just cast your mind back and imagine a final with Tina Iheagwam, Falilat, Ogunkoya Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen, Chioma Ajunwa and your very self. How come we are not having that kind of finals again?

I really don’t know how to answer that question. It’s very difficult and painful because  we are facing a very long drought in talented athletes for Nigeria. I have not been very comfortable with it.

Mary Onyali
Mary Onyali

To be honest with you, it has made everybody in my time very uncomfortable and we have been doing our best to get those kind of exciting finals back. It has not been an easy feat but by God’s grace, somehow, someway, we will find a way to get right again.

How do you set about it?

All sectors of sports need to go back to the basics, hunting for talents at the grassroots level, at the primary and secondary schools, especially the secondary school level because when an athlete graduates from secondary school and goes into the university, it becomes extremely difficult to get his interest in sports. Also, it becomes a bit too late to develop them because as you know you can’t teach an old dog a new trick.

These days, people blame government for the problems  but I believe during your time, government also had its own fair share of the blame but you people made personal sacrifices.

We all made personal sacrifices in our everyday life. What I gave up to become Mary Onyali was and still is different from what someone like Beatrice Utondu gave.

What did you give up to become the Mary Onyali of high standard?

I embedded myself in these three words,  Discipline,  Determination and Dedication to everything. I am still using these 3Ds till this moment that I speak with you. I gave everything about my success to these 3Ds.

My friends would be out engaging in some activities that  a teenager  would  love to be engaged in but, I couldn’t because I had a goal, I had a strong focus as to what I wanted to achieve at the end of the day.

So parties, boys were a no go area for you…

I just could not do most of the things that my friends were doing. I set a very high standard for myself. I was not a stranger to hard word. That’s why I was extremely disciplined. My coach, in fact, all the coaches that I have been through, would testify today that I was one of the most disciplined athletes they worked with.

As they say charity begins at home, God creates and gives you talents but the coaches spot and develop the talents. So its up to you to now utilise the talent and allow the coaches to develop it for you.

Are Nigerian parents really playing enough role to lead their kids to sports excellence?

I’m not too sure as far as sports is concerned in Nigeria. It was more difficult during my time because the African culture did not readily tolerate  females in sports. My mother, for example, was completely against any sporting activities.

All she wanted me to do was to go to school, get a job like a regular person and eventually marry, settle down and do what normal people would do. But my drive for excellence, my passion for sports would not let me sleep. Also, I had to strike a bargain with my mother.

I thought of what I had to do to this woman to allow me to do the sports that I enjoyed and loved. She said, “if you give me good grades, you can run from now to heaven, just make sure you keep up with your grades. Once your grade drops you are out.”

And I said good deal because I knew I could keep up with my grade. She was just worried about my academic work because she knew as a parent, that one day my legs would not be able to sustain any more, what do I fall back on? And I am very grateful to her for having that foresight and guiding me right. I don’t know If I can speak for all parents, I’m not sure many parents understand what it means to take to sports.

That may be the reason why the parents are not  keen about allowing their children engage in sports. They think they may just completely lose focus about their education. I will advise parents to try the trick that my mother used on me. It may just work for their kids and again it depends on the upbringing of that child. .

In your time you people  enjoyed scholarships but now they are not there, what is the problem?

The scholarship are still there. The American universities are still looking for Nigerian student athletes to come to the USA. The issue is that our athletes don’t care about education anymore. They just want to compete but that is wrong. I keep telling them that “you are not going to make it to the US on that scholarship like we did if your grades are not okay”.

They thought it was just our running with our God-given sports talent that got us there, no. Your grades are first. If your grades are not up to the standard, you are not going to get any admission. It doesn’t matter  if you run 2 secs today or set the next world record. If you miss the grades you lose the scholarship.

How did you manage to face your studies and make the impact in the Nigerian team?

It was not easy. Every weekend we had a competition. Sometimes on Thursdays we were in a  bus heading to another state for a competition and by the time you returned on Sunday, your classes were waiting for you on Monday and if you missed exams  while away, you would have to do what is called make-up exam to complete it or else you didn’t get a grade in course.

And once your grade dropped below 2.5 GRA, you lost your scholarship. So  if  you went to USA to run first and be the famous athlete you call yourself without measuring up in academics, you got it wrong.

You would lose your scholarship, lose your educational certificates which will be your meal tickets, when your legs cannot carry you anymore. You will come back to Nigeria ashamed. Your family ashamed, your country ashamed. Some of the athletes who went to USA on scholarships did not eventually graduate.

Let’s talk about the country now, at the last Olympics, we know our score-card. What is our problem?

Poor preparation. Last minute approach. You call it whatever you choose, the bottom line is that we are doing things backwards, you don’t prepare for an Olympics that comes up once in four years in one month. I don’t think anybody in their rightful mind will encourage a one month preparation for the Olympics

Is it not aiding corruption?

My dear, you are delving into politics. I am not a politician and I don’t want to be one. I am a professional and I want to remain that way.

How do the professionals cope with the politicking in the sports system. It impacts on your job?

Exactly, there was this same system in my era. It ‘s not different from what is happening now. The question is how come we survived under this harsh system. What helped us was the passion we had for sports plus the fact that  we were on scholarship in US. There were three  to  four weeks that we had to compete far Nigeria and once we were done, off we went back to our schools.

So in about 12 months in a year, you only had to engage  a month for  Nigeria’s troubles. We were able to tolerate all that and moved to our base. Most of the athletes competing now are home-based, so they live here all year.  That’s probably the difference.

You were on invitee at the Delta State sports summit and a member of Africa Youth Athletics Championship in Warri. Any hopes of a new beginnining?

We all know that Delta State has been the front runner in sports development in Nigeria. It didn’t just start today. Its been like this for quite sometime. When they were Bendel State, during the Ogbemudia period, all the way to the present, Delta State has been a leading state. When you are good at something, whatever it is, as the say, please be a good one.

They have found out from early stage that they are very good in sports and they have forever built on that platform and sustained it. I am yet to see a state that will dethrone them. You know a great state when new talents are churned out and trained to take over over from the champions. Delta is always doing that.

It’s up to the champions to raise their game. That’s how I held it at the top while running for Nigeria. Anytime there was a threat, I upped my training, I raised everything I was doing to reach the next level.

You were the best then in Africa, you were competing with the best in the world and Nigerians would want to know when  we are going to have another Mary Onyali?

(Laughs) Well, the answer is neither here nor there.

Why are you sitting on the fence?

Because I wish, just like you are wishing, that we would have found another Onyali by now. In fact, I don’t want just one, I want as many as possible so that the line up you said at the beginning of this interview would be very strong and competitive. I’m back in this country, off and on, so to say, trying to see how I can help.

This question you asked has been thrown at me dozens of times before and I still cannot put my hands on the answer. Why? Because the powers that be prefer our politicians to be in  positions that technocrats are supposed to be in. Until we understand what it would need to transform our sports, it may continue to be bleak

It’s a rot that is really bad and makes one feel sad and tired. Are you regretting being part of this system?

I don’t regret. But I am sad. I am a Nigerian, I love being a Nigerian and if I should come back to this earth again, I will still be a Nigerian.

Are you sad seeing the Jamaicans dominate the sprints?


Does your head drop when you see this happening?

I feel sad that in areas of our strength like in the sprints and jumps,  we are now dropping.

 Do you think that they will heed your call to start doing the right thing?

The right thing is basic, it is looking at us everyday. Send some qualified coaches back to secondary schools and universities to train,  groom these athletes and help them secure scholarships in  local universities or abroad. If you look at my era, 98% of us were based in the USA. We were trained by the US government.

The educational system allowed us to thrive in sports and education. We need to see if there is a way we can borrow their educational system into our system here to develop our sporting prowess. They are still asking me to send some students athletes to the US but there are no qualified ones.

That’s a damning report…

I can’t find a  qualified student athlete who is ready to go, who is not over-age and who has the educational qualification and can meet the stress and demand of being in the United States where you have no mother,no father or sister, all alone. It’s a very lonely world out there, only a few survive.

There were a lot of us who went to USA on sport scholarships but few of us survived. What you saw that came home to represent Nigeria was just a handful of those that were there. Many could not make it, they fell through the class. Its a tough system. If we can borrow from the USA, like the Jamaicans did, we would succeed. That’s what the Jamaicans are using against US.

The Jamaicans were all trained by the US government, just like us. But the difference was that  they went back in droves to their country, their government gave them jobs, mandated all of them to go and find the next Camerons, put them back into the system, empowered them back into the system.

That’s where we missed it?

Now, I hear some people saying that we should go to Jamaica to do a research on what makes them run fast. One said Usain Bolt is eating a lot of yam, and the others says he is drinking some kind of water.

That’s  rubbish. There is nothing Usain Bolt is doing that we don’t have here. We have too many Usain Bolts here. They are there selling pure water on the streets, running after you to sell pure water. When you see their speed, you know that they are Usain Bolt in the making.

You don’t have to look too far to find an Usain Bolt in Nigeria, with 160 million people. These kids running on the streets, after you to sell pure water are Usain Bolts in the making.

Get them, nurture them, find what is it that they are good at, it doesn’t have to be track and field, it could be basketball for God’s sake, it could be handball. The foundation is where we get it wrong.

And it doesn’t  take much. These kids are willing and ready to do anything for you as long as they can get out of the position they are. Do you think they are happy selling pure water on the streets? It’s just to make ends meet. They can make money if they get engaged in sports.

Allowing them to roam the streets is a disservice to Nigeria.. You are giving them negative vibes as to what they will be when their legs cannot carry them anymore to be selling water and cannot get jobs. Give them education through sports and you have made their lives

That is what we call life after sports. That is what I’m living on right now. Am I still competing? No. But I am living  off the foundation that sports laid for me when I was  an athlete.


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