The Punch

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'll never regret dumping football for athletics - Chioma Ajunwa


Winning the first Olympic gold for Nigeria was not easy for Chioma Ajunwa. She tells KAZEEM BUSARI her ordeal before making history.

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Many will remember Chioma Ajunwa as the first Nigerian to win an Olympic gold - a feat she accomplished in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics in the USA. But fewer people, especially the new generation of sports fans, will easily recall that she came back from a four-year layoff to win the medal; and that she was the fastest footballer in the Super Falcons at the 1991 Women's World Cup in China before dumping the round leather game in 1992.

Ajunwa was a versatile athlete as she represented Nigeria in football, long jump, 100m and 4x100m events, winning laurels at international competitions but at a period she was expected to reach her full potential, she was banned alongside Clement Chukwu, Innocent Asonze and Charity Opara for four years for testing positive to banned drugs by the Athletic Federation of Nigeria.

The Imo State-born ex-international, now a police officer, insists she was victimised by the officials.

"There was no error in drug intake. I was victimised by some Nigerian officials. Everybody that was at the AFN knew it; even the messengers knew this. They told us what happened," she said.

"I was victimised because I had no godfather to fight for me. The urine samples that were taken were kept in the cupboard at the AFN office for days before sending it by courier (to the World Anti-Doping Agency) for testing. Are they telling me that nothing would have happened to the samples before sending them abroad?

"We were made to serve the ban for four agonising years but God paid me back for my suffering because I came back to win gold at the 1996 Olympics. I never even trained for long jump during the four-year layoff.

"I used to be a workaholic as an athlete. I would always go a step further during training and that was why some people thought I was on drugs. My coach at Rice University in the USA, George Diaz, would always use me as an example to my colleagues because I usually got his training techniques right."

But the drug problem was not her first disappointment in sports. Back in 1992, she dumped the Falcons because the coach had decided to keep her on the bench. She had just won two gold at the All Africa Games in Cairo in long jump and 4x100m and hoped to continue her winning feat in the national team.

She said, "I started football early just as athletics but at a point, I was advised to switch to athletics because of my speed. I tried it, I was even combining the two sports, and I found athletics to be rewarding.

"I've not regretted the decision because I've made my mark in athletics. I could have continued with football but there was a particular coach that thought my winning two gold medals at Egypt'91 should be enough for me.

"He was angry when MKO Abiola rewarded the athletes for winning laurels so he said as long as he was the coach I would not get a 'dog chance' to feature in the football team. He actually used the phrase 'a dog chance' and that marked the beginning of the end of my football career. He knew then that I was the best player in the team but he decided to keep me on the bench throughout our matches so I left the team's camp.

"When I left athletics in 2003, I was still fit to play football. Even the football officials called on me to return but I thought my coming back could cause bad blood in some quarters. I believe the team had very good players then and there was no need for me to go back."

In spite of the problems she had in Nigerian sports and unlike some athletes who preferred to dump Nigeria for another country, Ajunwa refused to defect, even when she had the chance.

"It was not necessary. For those who did, they had their reasons but I had a unique upbringing that put value in staying with my people," she said.

"You can call it patriotism or whatever. I knew if I defect I would have been a second-class citizen in my adopted country. I could have made money if I had defected but I don't consider money to be everything. My coming back to the Nigeria Police is to prove my honesty and show that I appreciate the support they gave me when I was in difficulty. I love to pay back good deeds."

Ajunwa said she was happy with her work but she is far from being comfortable with the state of athletics in the country. Her African record of 7.12m in long jump at the 1996 Olympics has yet to be broken and this has made her question the quality of Nigerian athletes.

She said, "Nigeria has great talents and I've always believed the United States should be the only country to rival us in sports because of their quality athletes. The problem with Nigeria is that we don't have anyone to champion the cause.

"I was amazed when I discovered Nigeria did not win anything at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea. That shouldn't be happening if we had a good structure for our sports. The long jump at the championships was won with a 6.82m jump, which was what we used as training mark in my days.

"Things have really gone worse but I think if someone like Blessing Okagbare is prepared very well and motivated before a major championship, she can jump over the seven metre mark. I believe she's the one that can break my record.

"I'm disappointed that the record is still unbroken. We have talented athletes in Nigeria but if the record remains too long it means we don't have quality athletes to achieve that feat. Records are meant to be broken and I expect that record to be broken just as I broke the former record.

"The way things are done these days is different from how we operated when I was active. What baffles me most is that those that are at the helm of affairs in Nigeriran sports don't know that it's not just about picking an athlete from the schools; there are so many things to do to make such athlete winners.

"There are athletes that are naturally gifted while there are others that need to be trained before getting the best out of them. And before athletes can become champions you need to invest a lot in them. We'll need to spend money to keep them in shape before we can expect them to win medals for Nigeria.

"Besides that, there must be qualified coaches to manage these athletes; the coaches must be current with the development in the sport. Athletics is more of science these days, unlike what it used to be, but how many of our coaches are science inclined. These things must be on ground before we can expect our athletes to win world titles.

"The athletes should not also be rushed into international competitions after being discovered. There should be regular competitions for them to measure their readiness before going to the world stage. It does not help anyone if athletes train for a long period and do not have the opportunity to put their knowledge to test before going for major events. These things contribute to our failures at world athletics meets."

Ajunwa is a member of the committee set up by President Goodluck Jonathan to revive academic sports and she is convinced the project is the only way to get the best athletes at tender ages.

"Grooming athletes at very young ages reduces the fear factor in the athletes as they grow," she said.

"I consider it ridiculous when a 35-year old competes in gymnastics. This is a sport the athlete should have started at the age of two and hopes to be a champion at 13 or 15 years.

"I started athletics at a very young age while I was still in primary school in Imo State. I started as a child without knowing fear in the sport and I was still moving around half-naked, bathing in the front yard and competing with boys. Before entering secondary school, I had competed at a number of inter-states championships, which gave me a picture of what lies ahead in the sport.

"What Jamaica and the US are doing right is utilising their ex-internationals to raise the standard of the game. All their champions interested in continuing in the sport are given targets to produce two or three potential champions within a frame of time. They believe that the former champions can transfer their knowledge easily to the new athletes.

"We should also adopt the system by calling on the ex-internationals to contribute to athletics."

In recent time, Nigeria's female athletes have achieved more than the men in terms of winning laurels unlike the situation in the 1990s but Ajunwa has an explanation for the trend.

She said, "These days, the men have a lot on their mind than the women. They think about getting married, getting jobs and taking care of their girlfriends; these thoughts could weigh them down.

"Unlike in our days when we were employed and paid by various state sports councils, some of the current athletes are job seekers. The men still need money to keep body and soul together while the women, on the other hand, could get money from other men. The women have less to think about. The men sometimes skip training because they don't have money for transport.

"The government should help in funding sportsmen during training. If this can't be done, the government can encourage corporate organisations, through tax rebate, to come into sports and help the athletes. This is what is being done in America and the UK."

Ajunwa may not be retired from athletics but she still goes around, through the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation, to enlighten athletes on the dangers of drugs in the sport.