By Onochie Anibeze

Mary Onyali and I have always had long chats. Sometimes, when it’s on phone, they are longer than an hour.

The one on the eve of Christmas was not different. As usual, it was on Nigerian sports.

When Mary engages you on sports matters the passion knows no bounds. You’ll surely be entertained, informed and at the end there’s this tinge of hope that she transports into you and you will begin to believe in Nigeria even in the face of hopeless situations.

Earlier in the year we served together in the Local Organising Committee for the Africa Youth Athletics Championships which Delta State hosted on behalf of Nigeria in Warri. It brought us closer. We have always shared ideas and we agree on common grounds.

“I’m calling all those who have in one way or the other impacted in my efforts during the year and you are one of them. This is to wish you well and say God bless you,” Mary told me.

Momentary silence followed. I was humbled. She probably didn’t know what her words meant to me. She probably didn’t know how I revered her especially as an athlete and the respect she still commands in my estimation. She was one of those that earned you commendation from your editor if you got a story from her in those days exclusives meant the way in sports journalism.

She was a star that made Nigeria proud. Remember the Olympic medals in Spain in 1992 and in 1996 in Atlanta? Mary was an exceptional athlete. I remember the day she just finished training in one of her trips to Nigeria and the cab she hired had not turned up at the stadium.

I offered her a ride to Gbagada. It felt so great that I boasted to guys in the newsroom that Mary Onyali rode in my car. Her image appeared larger than life to some of us in those glorious days of our track and field, when, in the final of All Nigeria Open, you could have Mary Onyali, Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara, Faith Idehen(they produced that unforgettable bronze medal winning performance that attracted global attention more than the gold winners), Tina Iheagwam, Rufina Uba on the block.

And remember that Falilat Ogunkoya used to run the sprints before she changed to the quarter mile. When you cast your mind back to those days when we waited at the airport to possibly interview Onyali on arrival in the country and try to reconcile them with the same person calling to thank me for contributing to her programme and indirectly impacting on her life after retirement you would appreciate what her words did to me.

When I managed to respond I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and I expressed how humbled I was especially when I felt I did nothing for her. We exchanged pleasantries before veering into Nigerian sports. After an hour discussion network problems, usually common with our mobile phone system,  interrupted so much and we changed from one network to another, we got so frustrated that we agreed to save our credit for another day.

Mary is now a special adviser to Gbenga Elegbeleye, the Director-General of the National Sports Commission, NSC.

They just finished the National Youth Games in Abuja and Mary shared her sad and encouraging experiences with me.

“The bad thing was that the cheating tendencies were still high and good thing was that we screened the athletes well to disqualify the old ones who claimed to be young and in school,” Mary said of the games where many potential talents were discovered. It baffled that officials still wanted to cheat.

I have been an advocate of youth games.  I knew that  we would be better of if we had many youth games so that the National Sports Festival could be made more competitive and thrown open. Mary belongs to the same school.

“The number of the discovered athletes will continue to be pruned in some programmes until we arrive at a level that you could programme the athletes for bigger challenges,” Mary offered.

“I have always spoken of three tiers of development and we have just started one with the school games,” Mary said, hoping that such a programme would produce champions if the appropriate things are done.

We spent time discussing the good and bad times of our sports.

I recalled when our athletes easily gained scholarships in the USA and this helped their careers. She was one of them. She informed that some athletes were about to be so favoured among the junior athletes and this excited.

“My position is that we need to get as many athletes as possible out now and the DG has agreed and the NSC is working on it now,” she said,” adding “if, out of the athletes that are on line for American scholarships two or three make the Commonwealth Games especially among the boys, it is a good beginning.”

Lately, only our women impressed in international meets. The last time the men made us smile was at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens when Eniofok Udobong led our 4x400m relay team to win a bronze medal. Just as he did in Sydney four years earlier  Udobong ran a brilliant race to earn Nigeria the medal, taking the baton in the 5th place but outpacing two people to place Nigeria on the medal table. He did more in Sydney and his effort earned Nigeria a silver that turned gold when the US team that won the gold fell to drugs.

Mary understands that something has to be done to raise the standard of male athletes in Nigeria. With our best male athletes running between 10.3 and 10.4 in the past six years in the 100m the focus should be on new young athletes.

The discussion touched many areas – coaching, training, administration, programmes and I expressed frustration that our administrators don’t monitor the media  Mary cut in to tell me how wrong I was, recalling the piece I did to draw the attention of Okonjo Iweala, the finance minister with regard to funding of sports.

“No, Onochie you are wrong. Some of those things are being noted and some are considered. I read the one on funding and it was being referred to. Look at the Youth Games that just ended. You guys wrote and I remember  that at the last festival I granted an interview on how badly we needed such school games and how to follow up on them.

It made impact and the maiden edition just ended.  It was not in the budget but the DG, the minister all insisted that we must start something. We did the games with a lot of challenges. Subsequent ones will be better and we take it from there. The thing is that when government acts on some of the recommendations in the media they will not tell you. But, please note that the media helps a lot and you guys must continue to help. I read you either in Vanguard or in FaceBook and I know the quarters where some of the things you people write are discussed.”

It was encouraging to hear that but I still feel that government officials are largely indifferent to many genuine ideas we promote in the media. Nobody claims to know it all but when you have spent greater part of your life in a profession or in any other field field, traversing the world and interacting with professionals from countries that excel in that area, you are bound to have some ideas. And there are  many of such people in this country. But expertise appears to lose its meaning to our authorities.

Mary Onyali’s call was a tonic to me and many things we discussed may not be for public consumption. But they were revealing. I hope we could really match our potential in sports. I pray we begin well in the new year. CHAN, Commonwealth Games, the World Cup are some of the competitions that Nigerians are looking forward to. But from the bottom of my heart, I will prefer that we start genuine sports development programmes in our schools and local communities to whatever happens in these Games.

I’ll prefer that the states begin to do the proper thing by producing and developing athletes for the National Sports Commission to take over and programme them for stardom. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case. NSC, the national body,  makes the attempt to produce athletes. We’ll not get it right this way.

That’s why I’ll continue to appeal to governors to develop sports in their states. Mary agreed with me and used stronger words to condemn the state of sports in our states. It was a lovely Tuesday. The chat with Mary made it so for me. It was no interview, nothing formal and I hope she wouldn’t mind that I have recounted some of the things we discussed. I hope she knows that she is still a star and that what she does and says will always attract media attention. Happy New Year, Mary and to you all the readers. May God Bless You.


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