By Jacob Ajom
It’s 25 years since Chioma Ajunwa won Nigeria’s first individual Olympic Gold Medal in track and Field. Here, our Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom recalls the exploits of the former athlete, now an Assistant Commissioner of Police. She has also initiated a Foundation which plans a Sports Development Centre for the training of young talents and providing them with up-to-date facilities. Read on:
The story of Nigeria’s first and only winner of an individual Olympic Gold medal, Chioma Ajunwa could be likened to one scripted for Nollywood big screen. Here was an innocent village girl who took to sports as an infantile pastime, playing football with her siblings who were mostly boys, and a few years later, found herself at the centre of the world, attracting global attention.
As a young girl who ran in the streets of Umuihiokwu village in Ahiazu-Mbaise Chioma Chioma Ajunwa said she never reckoned she would one day be celebrated through what she felt she was doing naturally. “I didn’t know what it meant to be an Olympic champion.” Little wonder she could not comprehend the enormity of her achievement at Atlanta until much later after her return to Nigeria.
Born on December 25th, 1970 at Umuihiokwu Ahiazu-Mbaise in Imo state, Chioma was the last and the only girl in a family of 9. In an interview with the Channels television, she told her story.
“I was about 13/14 when I was moving in the street. Then I saw three Policemen, including a female officer coming towards me. I was afraid and thought they wanted to arrest me. Strangely, they asked me to come to them. I asked for what? And I took off, running as fast as I could.
“One of my friends who saw me running asked why. I told her I didn’t know what I had done but the Police were after me and wanted to arrest me. When they got hold of me, they informed me that their boss in the office wanted to see me. I asked them why?. They took me to their boss and on seeing me, the officer, who, perhaps, was expecting to see a grown up adult asked, ‘where is the antelope? Where is the person I asked you to bring to me?’ They told him I was the one. They explained that I was a fast runner, thus the locals likened me to running as fast as an antelope.”
Chioma continued her story. “After asking me my name, where I lived and other relevant questions about my person, he told me that the Police wanted me to become one of theirs. It happened that the state Police Command was organising zonal qualifiers for Police Games and they needed good athletes who would represent them and they felt I could be a perfect fit.
“The Officer offered me N200 and promised to get in touch again. But I refused to accept the N200 gift because I feared my mother would kill me if she discovered I accepted money from a stranger. I explained this to him and he took back the money. Undaunted though, he then brought out N500 and gave it to the female Police officer and asked her to take me to my mother. He instructed the officer to tell my mother why the Police wanted me. After that encounter, I was eventually recruited into the Nigeria Police Force and taken to the Police College before going to Ilorin for the Police Games.”
Her joining the Police changed her fortunes as she was not only good in athletics, Ajunwa also played football. Indeed, football was her first love. “I started playing football very early in my life with my brothers. I was even a better player than them.”
Chioma played football up to international level as she was part of the Super Falcons squad that represented Nigeria at the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China. She cut short her football career because “there was a certain coach who didn’t like to field me.”
She then concentrated on athletics. She was active and successful in the women’s long jump event. She specialised in the 100m and 200m. Also, she performed remarkably at the African Games and African Championships between 1989 and 1991.
In 1995, Chioma said of how former Nigeria international, Chief Segun Odegbami picked her up to further hone her skill in athletics. “Fatima Yusuf, one of Nigeria’s best athletes, was always coming to me. She told me that Segun Odegbami wanted to see me. One day I accompanied her to see Odegbami. He took me up and sent me to the UK, where I concentrated on my training, under a very strict schedule.”
That was the turning point in her life as an athlete. She took part in the trials for the 1996 Olympics and she made the mark that qualified her for the Games in Atlanta.
How she made history
At the Olympics nobody gave her a chance. She recalled. “On the day of the final of the long jump event, everybody, including the officials, were all interested in going to watch the football final the following day. When we got to the venue, and we were called out, I saw my more accomplished competitors warming up. I was scared. I looked at the crowd in the stadium and started shaking. At one point, I went to sit at a corner, still looking at the other athletes I was to compete with, I asked myself, why am I looking scared. Were their legs made of steel. Common, Chioma get up.
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“I obeyed my instincts and stood up to them. I started doing the same thing they were doing. If they moved this way, I would move in the other direction. I warmed up seriously. Then came the moment of truth. I was called to jump. I took to the track. I collected myself, heaved a big breath and took off, accelerating forward. When I got to the board I sprang and leapt in flight, after landing in the sand I looked back and the umpires raised the white flag, signaling the jump was good.
That gave me hope. But when the covered distance of 7.12m was flashed on the board I knew I made a good jump.”
Chioma didn’t know that with that jump, she had set a new African and Commonwealth record. At the end, the jump turned to gold. Her second jump of 6.99m was not as good but still ranked high among the ones returned by the other athletes.
Chioma defeated the likes of Fiona May of Italy and legendary US athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee to the gold medal. It was a historic moment for the little known Nigerian.
When Chioma was announced winner, drama ensued as there was no Nigerian flag to do a lap of honour. “When we were leaving for the event we asked for a flag. Dr Amos Adamu who was the Director General then promised he would come with a flag. I was surprised that after winning the event, there was no flag and Dr Adamu was nowhere to be found. As I was searching for any semblance of a Nigerian flag, someone from the crowd threw a Nigerian flag at me and I was relieved.
I did the victory lap. But it’s like nobody believed I was going to win any medal, talk less of a gold medal. It’s a big lesson to our administrators. Once an athlete is in the final of any event, anything is possible.”
Still on that memorable day Chioma was called to the podium for medal presentation. Before then she had seen athletes who were emotional and shed tears after receiving their medals. She never understood why somebody would cry after winning an event. “It didn’t make sense to me. When I got my medal, I didn’t feel anything special. I took it like any other medal I had won before,” she recalled.
But she was to know the enormity of her achievement when she got home in Nigeria. “It all started dawning on me when we were returning home. We had a stop over in Senegal. There, we were welcomed by traditional troupes who sang and danced. I began to wonder about what was happening. It was more when we arrived at the Muritala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja.
There was an unprecedented crowd waiting to welcome us. Different dance troops. Government declared a three-day public holiday and we were treated specially. It was a wonderful experience that became even more real after getting back home in Nigeria. I never knew what an Olympic medal meant. But in Lagos I knew what it was all about.
Today, Chioma Ajunwa, an Assistant Commissioner of Police is one of the most celebrated athletes in Nigeria. Even though her career was earlier hit by a failed drug test, she would later re-establish herself and achieve a lot at a personal level.
Today, the former Super Falcons forward has initiated a platform, the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation through which she can pay back to the society which made her what she is today.
The Foundation has announced plans to establish a N6 billion Sports Development Centre.
Before that, there have been a lot of other initiatives by the foundation, which has Henry Amike, another Olympian as head. The celebration of the Chioma’s historic jump, 25 years after, has taken the centre stage. Athletics, football and taekwondo are three sporting events chosen to celebrate the golden jump.
Amike, said that the centre was also organising Olympics Talent Hunt for girls. It has already held in Lagos (May 11-13), Abia (May 18-19), and would move to Edo (May 28-30), Anambra (June 7-9), Enugu (June 16-18), Ebonyi (23-27) and Imo, her place of birth, (July 6-8) and Abuja (August 16-18). A dinner will be held at the Transcorp Hotel, Abuja on August 19.
The Chioma Ajunwa Foundation will launch an N6 billion ultra-modern Sports Development Centre in Owerri later in the year.