Olympics gold medalist, Enefiok Udo-Obong tells JOHN EGBOKHAN how discrimination in the Nigerian team fired him to win gold in the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Congratulations over the arrival of the Sydney Olympics 4X400m gold medals. What is the feeling like?
Ans: I am very glad that the medals have arrived. I am very glad that at last the International Olympic Committee (IOC)have rewarded our very honest effort. We felt very proud to have won a silver medal and when the news came out that one or two athletes of the American team failed dope tests, we felt that we should get the gold.
If you look at the American team, four of them have been indicted of using drugs. We felt that it was tainted medal but we are happy that we have gotten it. We were a confident team but we still feel sad that Sunday Bada is not around to celebrate with us.
There is an emptiness within us. It’s so sad because he worked hard for it. He was a very well decorated Nigerian athlete. He won many medals for Nigeria. The Olympics medal was his last. He would have been very proud to receive this medal. We just hope that the government will still honour us and also be able to use the opportunity to give Bada a posthumous honour.
Looking back at that race, can you just capture for us the moment when you were handed the baton and you had about four runners ahead of you and there you went running the race of your life.. It was like you were chasing death to ensure that Nigeria won something.
Ans: I had the inspiration, I was self-motivated and well motivated by my coach, who spoke to me and I thought there was a part of me that felt cheated. I was treated bad in the camp. People were given money and I was not given a dime because I was called a home-based athlete.
I thought I was doing well enough throughout the season and during the competition, when they were paying training grants and other money, out of the whole team, I was the only one who was not given anything. I was told that I could not get anything because I was a home-based athlete.
I felt gutted and almost did not want to run. In fact, I did not want to go into the field to run but Coach Innocent Egbunike was very prayerful and eventually begged me that I should do it for my country and myself. He said that it’s something that would dignify my career. I kept his words very close to my heart and that’s exactly what I did.
So can you capture the moment when you collected the baton?
It’s a moment that will forever remain etched in my memory. I am proud of what I achieved for my country. I still remember it because it was a life-defining moment for my sporting career, both as an athlete and life after athletics. Before I took hold of the baton, my prayer was that I should not fail
. When I saw Sunday Bada running, I was confident. I had the confidence in me that nobody could run faster than me and I juts calmed myself as I waited for the baton. I had to ensure that we were not disqualified because there are some lines that you must not cross when you are exchanging batons. There is a place that you must collect the baton.
So I said I would just be calm and look at those lines. So when the batons were coming, people were struggling for batons but I just kept calm and as the baton got to my hand, I now said that it is my time to run. I ran what I felt was a very tough race because there were a lot of obstacles on the way.
But I knew that I would do something special. I did not know how special it was going to be but as I was running and running, my body felt fine, it was very primed for the battle. I was just in a tough form. By the time, we reached the 200m mark, I could see the Jamaican and Bahamas athletes were in my front and as I tried to catch up with them, I felt that my body was failing me and said “God what’s happening”.
As we reached the last 100m mark, I now saw that the Jamaican and Bahamas guys were struggling and they left the inner lane open. Then I said to myself that “this is my chance, you must take it”. And that was how I outraced them.
And we gathered that you were asthmatic at the time you ran that life-defining race.. If that was the case, were you not taking a huge risk for Nigeria?
The fact is that I have been living with asthma all my life. Athletics is a sport that I am passionate about . I love sports generally. Even when I was in Military secondary school, a place noted for sports, I always did my training no matter my health conditions. Anytime I had an asthmatic attack, I would go to the hospital and would come back later for the training.
There was a time when we went to Kano for the Nigerian Classics, I ran the 400m and got an asthmatic attack. I was taken to the hospital, where I was placed on drip and when it was time for the 200m, I removed the drip from my body and went back to the venue and competed.
I won both races. It’s the passion I have that kept me going. Asthma was not going to be an obstacle. I used it to strengthen myself. It made me mentally strong. And I did not see it as any hindrance. Once the doctor has given me the all-clear to run, all I needed to do was listen to my body and control how I ran.
After that Olympics in Sydney and the next one in Greece, we started witnessing a decline in our sports. Beijing was a flop. London was a disaster, two sports retreats were held in Abuja and Asaba to identify the way out for our sports. As an Olympic gold medalist, what is the way out?
I do not completely agree that London was a disaster because even if we did not win medals, we did relatively well in athletics. We got to the finals of some races, and many of our athletes were in the semifinals of their events. Some of our athletes even set national and continental records. It was decent outing by them.
The way out is to give the athletes the right motivation and training. Athletes need financial incentives and most importantly, which is what many people do not understand, is that an athlete needs the family. Family is the singular and most neglected support system in Nigeria. To succeed in the Olympics, you need everything to be in place.
You must be very professional in your preparations. You must have professional managers, professional coaches. Athletes are special people and must be treated specially. When I was an athlete, I trained seven hours a day. Four in the morning, tree in the evening. I had two hours of sleep.
It’s a full-time job. Athletes push their bodies to the extreme. With what athletes go through, you don’t expect them to be calm and docile. Their body is ready to go and you must manage them very well. If there is anything that administrators must do in the background to ensure athletes succeed, they must do because athletes’ success is to their credit.
We have started the process and I hope that we can do more.
Are the administrators doing enough to make athletes succeed in Nigeria?
That will depend on who you are. If you asking me, I think that in a situation where you have a board of 12 people and only two are visible, then it is not good enough. There is a reason why we have a 12-man board. It gives everybody a role to play. It should not be dictatorial, it should not be a one-man show.
Everybody should get involved and do the work. I would not want to bluntly say that the administrators are not working but we have an individual doing a lot and it is the case of a broom stick on its own but when you bring them together in the bunch, it sweeps the house clean. And that is the way it must be. We must work together.
There is no doubt about that. A new team is coming. I am hearing that some former athletes are entering into the new board and I hope that one of these days that people like myself, who really have the passion, will get involved to get our athletes back to winning ways.
It is not just about the athletes. Even the administrators need to upgrade themselves. When you look at the Confederation of African Athletics, from the zonal level, how many Nigerians are there? How many Nigerians are in the committees?
How many Nigerians are in IAAF? None. It is the case of Nigeria having nobody in these places. So when our administrators are not in the world-class category, how do they expect the athletes to be world-class?
You cannot be better than your teacher. So we cannot be blaming the athletes for not winning Olympic gold when our administrators are not up there. We keep playing politics at home while neglecting international politics, which is where we should be.
The people running sports in the world now are former athletes like Sergei Bubka, Frankie Fredricks, Sebastien Coe, who was Henry Amike’s colleague. Go to Jamaica, Bahamas and see how they are doing things. Even in Cameroon, a young man, John Odong, who ran during my time but was not a successful athlete, is now the second most powerful man in African athletics.
He is the Special Assistant to the President of CAA and he will tell you that without him, the President cannot do anything. You look at Amadou Traore, who is the Director of the IAAF High Performance Centre, he ran with Innocent Egbunike and lost to him then.
These are the people who are now running athletics in the world. And we are not going in that direction. Rather, we spend our time fighting over who would be in one local committee, who would officiate in one competition and these are quite petty and lead us to nowhere.
We should be up there battling for world positions and reach out the more, not only in Nigeria but around the continent and around the world. That is the only way that we can now resolve issues affecting our athletes.
We can now say that we want our athletes to be training in the High Performance Centre in Senegal. There is an issue over why it is there but it is there. It is a centre for our region. It is not a centre for the French-speaking people of west Africa. So why are they not calling our athletes to the place? Why are athletes from Mauritius, Senegal, Ivory Coast there? Why can’t we send five athletes every year to the centre?
We must get involved. How many of our athletes are on cash-grant from the IAAF? How many of our athletes get grants from IOC or the CAA? There are courses for secretaries, coaches, but the question is how many of our people have access to these courses? It is because we are not doing the politic. We are not asking for it.
So you are basically indicting these guys?
I’m not indicting anyone. I am only saying that they are not doing enough. We are doing things but we are not doing enough. We can do more.
For you, what are you trying to do for these athletes?
To get in there, you will face a lot of challenges. You have to make people realise that you are not getting in there because of what you want to get. I am not a jobless person. I have my business to run but I can give them tips on what to do.
But I could be more influential if I am a board member or a member of a CAA committee, to carry out these things. But even if I am not, I am always ready to offer my contribution to the growth of our athletics.
I have been doing so. At one time, I worked as an adviser to the President, gave him my objective views but many people did not like me and I had to resign because people did not like my guts. We went to the Olympics and did not win any medals and with my funds, I travelled round the country to see how we can develop talents and even travelled round the world to see what methods successful athletics countries were adopting.
I went to Jamaica and Bahamas with my team. I am now doing a documentary, the making of champions, where I interviewed top Jamaican athletes, administrators, school kids, coaches and a whole lot.
Your colleague, Mary Onyali said that the hawkers running after us to sell their wares on the streets are our Usain Bolts in the making.
The athletes are in schools and that is the weapon of the Jamaicans. I went to Jamaica and saw their School Championship, which is the biggest competition in the world for them. It’s almost biggest than the Olympics for them.
The support is incredible. The whole Jamaica stops for this Championship. Jamaicans go on holidays for one week to watch school children run. The Prime Minister was there daily to watch the school children run. It is the passion. I have seen it.
I was there and Jamaicans will tell you that it is something that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. And I challenged them that we can do it in Nigeria but all hands must be on deck. I will soon show Nigerians the documentary on what the Jamaicans are doing to remain at the top. But we are bigger than them.
They have a population of just 2.9million people but we are in excess of 170 million people. We can win more than they can do. We have more talents, we have more varieties.
They are only good in the sprints but we can win in the sprints, in the long and short distance, we can win in the jumps. We are so blessed that it has become a curse to us. It is like that. It is always like that. Take the example of the crude oil we have and see all the troubles that it is causing us.
I can go on and on because I am so passionate about it. It is not enough to give money to athletes, without providing a support system for them. The schools have to be involved. The parents have to be carried along.
How many schools in Nigeria will appoint a Physical Education teacher, who is IAAF certified? That is what you get in Jamaica. They have a college that trains only coaches. Schools send their coaches to that college to get education and come back to teach in schools. You must learn the rudiments. How many certified coaches do we have in Nigeria?.
On a final note, many people have given up on our sports revival
(Cuts in). I will never give up on Nigeria. I was a Nigerian athlete, was proud to represent Nigeria and at some point, people came to me to offer me money to dump Nigeria for Canada but I rejected the offer.
It’s not only Canada who offered me a place in their team, about three other countries offered me money and full citizenship but I snubbed their offers and stayed a Nigerian.
This happened between 2000 and 2002. At that time, poaching of athletes was the in-thing but the bottom-line is that we cannot give up. Government cannot do it alone. Parents and visionaries can also make the difference.
We can all make changes that will see us emerge a great nation again. We have talents. That is where we do not see it. Once you have the talents, you can succeed. Some people do not have the talents and they are succeeding.
So how much more we who have the talents. It’s because we have the talents in abundance, which makes us to take things easy. We have to succeed. Athletics is a vibrant and very rewarding sport. All you need is a good leadership and I can tell you that we can still succeed as early as the Rio 2016 Olympics. If we have more passionate and committed people on the AFN board, we would succeed.