By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Emmanuel Ifeajuna is without question one of the most controversial names in Nigerian history. His achievement in sports won him the adulation of Nigerians. His later activities in the military however enraged some Nigerians so much that they no longer want to hear of the honour he brought the country through his excellence as an athlete.
Ifeajuna was yet to join the military when he made history as a world class high-jumper. He was only a junior clerical officer at the chief secretary’s office in the seat of the colonial British government in Lagos. He was one of the athletes selected to represent the country in the Empire Games held at Vancouver, Canada in 1954.
On July 31, 1954, in faraway Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, the 19-year-old Ifeajuna had a date with history. The high jump bar was set at a staggering height of 6 feet 8 inches. This was 132 inches above his own head. This young lad however was determined. He had scaled height after height, outclassing many other white competitors.
The time to go for broke had come and Ifeajuna gave it his all. He knocked down the bar in his first attempt. In his second attempt, he did something uncannily dramatic. He removed one of his spike shoes. Then he measured the height with narrowed eyes and …one…two…three… he scaled over the bar, thus becoming the first ever Nigerian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal.
Ifeajuna’s feat threw the entire nation into an orgy of celebration. Even one British paper, writing on the Ifeajuna feat, said: “Africans have a natural spring”. He made headline news across the then British Empire. Editorials extolling his accomplishment were written in purple prose. The jumping Ifeajuna was on the cover of school exercise books. He instantly became a folk hero and everybody hailed “The Man Vancouver” or “Emma Vancouver” as he was variously dubbed. His unique style of jumping became the rave as all other high jumpers strove to emulate him. It was not until the coming of the Fosbury Flop style of jumping in 1968 that Ifeajuna’s patented straddle was displaced.
Curiously on 24 April 1987, when the first National Sports Awards Ceremony for Heroes and Heroines of yesteryears was held at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, Ifeajuna’s name was missing from the list of seventy-one sportsmen and women, administrators, philanthropists, referees, sponsors and sportswriters honoured. Incidentally K.A.B Olowu who won a silver medal in long jump at the same Empire Games was the first name on the honours list.
This sparked off heated controversy. An editorial on the 4 May 1987 edition of The Guardian said: “What the Sports Heroes committee failed to admit is that its members were working according to a political wicket. They would not want to admit it, but it is clear that Ifeajuna’s participation as the leader of the military coup d’etat of 15 January, 1966 informed the effort to make the first not just the last but nothing.”
The government-owned Daily Times in its editorial of 20 April 1987 said: “If Ifeajuna’s omission was an oversight, it was a very expensive one indeed. If on the other hand, it was a deliberate omission as we have been made to understand, it is a great disservice to justice and honour which these awards are supposed to be all about. It is also a very unacceptable rewriting of our sports history.”
Born in Onitsha, Anambra State in 1935 to a civil servant father and a mother who was a full time housewife, Ifeajuna was admitted into the famous Dennis Memorial Grammer School, Onitsha in 1946. He spearheaded a school riot that marked him out as a lad to watch out for. He got a job as clerical officer II after completing his secondary school studies. A keen sportsman, he excelled in his chosen sport, high jump and was selected to represent the country. The rest is history
He studied Chemistry at the University College Ibadan and graduated in 1958 but not after he had participated in about three riots. He was given a job as a teacher but he found it boring. Together with other firebrand graduates such as Uche Chukwumerije, he sought admission into the military.
He was accepted and he changed the course of Nigerian history on 15 January 1966 when he staged the first military coup. According to Ifeajuna in his unpublished autobiography “At dusk on 14 January, we saw the sun disappear behind the horizon. We knew that some people will not see it again. And it might be us.”
Ifeajuna survived the bloody night on which so many were killed. He disguised as a woman and fled to Ghana. The poets Christopher Okigbo and J.P Clark had to go to Ghana to bring their friend back to Nigeria. He was detained in Uyo prisons and was later released by Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu when Biafra seceded. He had no choice but to enlist in the Biafran Army though he still nursed the ambition of hatching a full Nigerian revolution. He was executed on the orders of Ojukwu on 20 September 1967. He is survived by his wife Rose and two sons.
Whatever anybody may say about Ifeajuna’s politics, the man remains an inimitable hero in the annals of Nigerian sports. Sporting records cannot be destroyed by military fiat or political gobbledygook. The world knows who won Nigeria’s first Commonwealth Games gold medal. It was Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna.
*Originally entitled “A Natural Spring,” Uzor Maxim Uzoatu contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication in year 2000.