Vanguard (Lagos)

8 November 2003

Nigeria: I Suffered Too Much for Nigeria - Chioma Ajunwa

interview

Nigeria's only individual Olympic gold medallist was a proud, even if indignant figure when I met her on Saturday last week.

"I toiled so much for this country, but then I was dumped. So many people wanted me out of the way. Sports directors, chairmen and their deputies and secretaries all wanted me out. It was a galling experience. That I could be the only individual gold medal winner for Nigeria in over half- a-century of participation in the Olympics and I could still be treated like a scourge. I couldn't believe it.

"They said I used banned drug and didn't allow me to defend myself. The International federation of athletics told my home federation to afford me a public hearing and that considering my status, I should be treated kindly. But my own people behaved like they were waiting for that opportunity and they turned against me, reminding the IAAF that I had the same problem in 1992 and should be banned for life! Can you see people? Can you see life?

"So many people at the top of sports administration in this country pledged to do so much but in the end nobody did anything. They all were mocking me. It gave me a new insight into life. You can treat people with so much respect and believe they love you very much, but they're all vipers. They only want to suck your blood. But the good thing is that the good people will continue to triumph.

"I miss nothing by not doing sport. It is my country that I pity. When I watch the superstar athletes of this world at international meets, I don't see Nigeria's flag. It is painful. But what can you do? Those people who should encourage you to want to die for your country are only interested in their own pockets.

"They care less for Nigeria, because they're always protecting whatever they perceive to be their own interests. They're evil people, all of them. But I bear no grudge against anyone. I leave everything in God's court. If I knowingly used banned substances to enhance performance, it is between me and my God.

In life, you learn so many lessons. perhaps, God did not want me to do sport. But I pushed hard and tough and suffered myself to no end so as to put the name of my country up there in international sport. I'm happy I did my bit. And I'm happier to tell you that the marks I left will be there, untouched, for many, many years to come. They can't come near it".

Before you start wondering what the tirade is about, let me do a recap of the Chioma Ajunwa tragicomedy. Sometime two years ago, the petite 1996 Olympic gold medallist was alleged to have tested positive to banned substances, and having being caught for the same offence in 1992, was therefore liable to life ban.

The authorities in Nigeria made the right noises about wanting justice done, and before you could say AFN, Chioma had been slammed a life ban even before the IAAF, the world body for athletics, had taken a decision. Athletics followers were aghast. She had not even been given the opportunity to defend herself!

From a very young age, Chioma Ajunwa, from Mbaise in the Imo State configuration, took to sport like it was her entire life. She played football on the streets with boys, and then discovered she could run very fast and jump very far. She took all disciplines so serious, and it is on record today as the only woman to have played at the highest level of football - the FlEA Women's World Cup (in 1991) and then won Olympic gold in a different sport (athletics).

In 1991, Chioma Ajunwa was a full back with the Super Falcons team that debuted at the female World Cup in China. This was the same year she won long jump gold for Nigeria at the the All-Africa Games in Cairo, Egypt. This was three years after she won the long jump gold in the African Athletics Championship held in Lagos, Nigeria. She defended the title the following year.

Then the year after the feat in China, Chioma ran a stupendous sub-11 seconds to beat the great Mary Onyali and others to the gold at the Nigerian Olympic trials in Lagos, and was piping hot as the Barcelona Olympics approached. But she was ruled to have failed a drug test, and from beautiful Olympic dreams she was surrounded by nightmare.

She fought back gamely, and on a lukewarm day in Atlanta, USA, Chioma leaped an impressive 7.12 seconds to win the long jump gold at the Centennial Olympics. She became Nigeria's first Olympic gold medallist since the most populous black nation on earth began competing at that level in 1952. A few days later, the football team won the gold by beating Argentina, and Chioma's achievement was drowned in the euphoria of the 'mother of all gold medals' celebration.

But nothing can take away the fact: Chioma Ajunwa is the ONLY INDIVIDUAL OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALLIST that Nigeria have.

She failed to repeat the feat at the world championships the following year, crashing to an injury as she landed badly on the pit in Athens. The same thing happened in Seville, Spain two years later, and she had to undergo a six-month surgery in the United Kingdom. There were no talks of a come-back to defend her Olympic title in Sydney, and then the second mishap with banned substances.

And as Nigeria's only individual Olympic gold medallist, you would have taught that the federation would have thought her worthy of a role at the recent 8th All-Africa Games in Abuja. They did not! She feels so strongly about the conduct of administrators who could have helped her case but chose to 'kill' her. But she's proud of what she's done for Nigeria and the marks she left, and the Deputy Superintendent of Police said so in an interview at the Traffic Training School, Ikeja...

Hello, Chioma. For someone like you who used to be so active and restless, what other things do you do to keep busy these days, beside the Police job?

I'm enjoying my job in the Nigeria Police. I'm not doing any other thing yet. I'm thinking of something but it has not started.

How painful was it being slammed a life ban just like that?

It's very, very painful. Every other athlete must know what it means to be so treated. You're doing something you're very good at and which you have known all your life and all of a sudden, they say you can no longer be around there, that they don't want to see your face again. It is like someone being cut down in mid-flight. It is not something you would wish for someone you know.

Now, tell me this. Did you ever, knowingly, take banned substances?

That will take us into a long story. But let me say that it's only God who can say what actually happened. And of course, the sports doctors. You, as someone not into active sport, can eat anything you want at anytime, without implications. But the athlete cannot do that. It is not important for me to go on saying I never took this and I never took that, because very few people would believe me. Many would simply sneer. But the people who know me closely, who know what I can do, will testify that I could not have knowingly took drug.

It's not impossible that someone was found in some kind of food or drink that I took, but the doctors should have been able to tell the truth. I never, ever, knowingly took banned substances. I never took anything to enhance performance. That is the truth.

You were caught for the same thing in 1992. What happened at that time?

1992, ah, I would tell you, was a set-up. I can say it anywhere, any day, that I was victim of a set-up. God knows that in 1992, I didn't even have enough money to eat, talk less of buying vitamins! And they said I took vitamins and that they found B-Codine and some other funny name item in my system. That was why when they called me, I told them I didn't know what they were talking about. I had never even seen the drug they were talking about, all my life. How could I have taken it?

And I was vindicated in 1996. God lifted me and I won Olympic gold in a sport I did not even train for! God is wonderful, you know. My performance spoke for me. There were so many attempts bythe detractors to try and castigate me, to reduce the weight of my achievement. But they did not succeed.

Still on 1992, how painful was it watching your colleagues sprint to the bronze in the 4xl00m relay, when you should have been the person at anchor?

What could I have done? I guess that was the way God wanted it. And God said that in every situation you should give Him the glory. That's what I did. I thanked Him for being alive, most importantly, I thanked Him for being a part of the preparations, and most importantly, I thanked Him for my comeback.

At that time, did you think you would be able to stage a come-back?

Honestly, the answer is no. But I thank God and Chief Segun Odegbami, who pleaded with me on several occasions and eventually convinced me to go back. My mind was to give it all up and leave the people in athletics to run their mock show. I believed they didn't even deserve to have me back. But Chief Odegbami did a great job convincing me and I'm happy I listened to him. If I didn't, Nigeria would still be looking for her first individual Olympic gold medallist!

I didn't want anything to do with sport again. But he told me that I was still young and talented, and that I should give it a chance. Whatever happens, I will always remember that. He stood by me and made me realize what I could still do, what I could achieve.

Somebody (Hyginus Anugo) died in Sydney, just before the 2000 Olympics. Why won't I give God the glory, for being alive. The person who died, what did they do for his family?

That day in Atlanta, standing on the long jump pit, alongside Fiona May and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, did you believe you were going to make it gold?

If I say yes, then I'm a liar! I didn't even think I was going to win a medal. This is the section that I never trained for before going into that competition. It was Alhaji Abdulkarim Amu who told me I had been entered for the long jump. I was shocked. I told him I had not trained for it. But he said they believed I would represent the nation well, that was why they put my name.

I prayed and God answered my prayer. In the l00m, where I had great hope, I was out in the semi final. I ran the same time with the girl from Russia but she was the one they picked and I was out through such ill-luck. I cried so much.

So many people came to console me. They said people who had been to three Olympics did not even make the semi finals, and then I ran a good time (11.12s) and that I should not worry. I could have been in the final but I could not have won. God said he had a different plan for me, and it was the long jump that I was not thinking about, that gave me Olympic gold medal, the first for my country at the Olympics. What else could one have hoped for?

What did you do that night, after achieving the feat?

Honestly, I didn't do anything, and that was because I didn't realize the full impact of the achievement. I thought it was just like any of those medals I had won, not knowing it was an extra-ordinary thing. It was when I came into the country, with the entire contingent, and I saw the kind of attention people paid to Chioma Ajunwa, and what they said about her, and how many people wanted to be close to her, that I realized the full impact of what I had done. I felt very happy and proud.

Did you make so much money from winning the Olympic gold?

I never made much money. Perhaps, if it were these days that so many companies have come into sponsorship of sports, I might have made money. But I didn't then. I only got One Million Naira from the Federal government and another One Million Naira from the Nigeria Police. That was all. But people thought I had made so much money and nobody was willing to help me again.

I was seeking sponsorship for my training programme but they said I had so much money that I could help myself. Very funny!

You were expected to win the gold at the world championships in Athens the following year, but then had injury on the long jump pit. How bad did it feel?

I felt very, very bad. You can't imagine how bad I felt. It was like having fish in your hand and all of a sudden, it slips off. I thought I had my gold because in the qualifying, I had the best mark. That day of the final, I was really ready to go. I had done 7.2 meters in training and I would have been the world-record holder in the event if I had achieved that in the final. I entered the stadium with so much zeal that day but unfortunately, I saw myself being carried out on a stretcher. But God said that in every situation, you should give Him the glory. I felt a deep sadness in me, but I remembered the words of God.

It would have been great for me to have added the World Championship gold the year after winning the Olympic gold. But I got injured as I landed and that was that. But the pain was greater because people who should have consoled me chose to play chameleon. Even the President of the Athletics Federation at that time (Engineer Adeyemi-Wilson) joined people to mock me. He was asking what I had done for Nigeria since 1996! I didn't expect that.

Then the same thing happened in Seville in 1999...

Yes, the same thing happened. I had broken cartilage. And I had to do three major operations.

Did the Athletics Federation sponsor the surgeries?

Sponsor what? Of course, they didn't. That was when they told me I had no injuries but was pretending so I would not be tested for drug! But I had the surgery and came back and I was on television and people saw it was true.

I have suffered a lot in the hands of our sports directors and chairmen of association. They treated me like scum. But I bear no grudge against anybody.

The things that happened to you in athletics, did they make you feel you should have remained in football?

Ah, that would not make me regret going into athletics. I was a good footballer and I was a powerful athlete. If no one can salute me, I will salute myself. I was good in both sports. I played football at World Cup level, and I won Olympic gold in athletics, plus many other gold medals. The marks I left in athletics would remain for a long time.

I am proud of myself; I am proud of the Nigeria Police and I am proud of the village I come from. I hold the records for the 60 meters, the 100 meters and the long jump. Take it from me, those marks will be there for a very long time. They may do their best, but no one can rubbish the name Chioma Ajunwa.

How did you develop interest in sports?

I developed interest from a very young age. I was born into a family of nine, and I was the last. I had six brothers, and followed them to play Street football. That was the determining period, I think.

How many medals did you win in athletics?

I won so many medals that I can't really remember. But the things that happened made me to regret coming back the third time. I felt real bad. You're into sports, how many times have you seen an international championships and a Nigerian is prominent in the long jump? That was why I kept coming back. But it was not appreciated.

Now that they have made a rule that you can only be in the grand prix if you're among the best eight in the world, do you expect to see a Nigerian woman jumper in the grand prix in the next five years? Let us not deceive ourselves. It is not easy.

When you had the problem of banned substances the second time, how much support did the Nigerian federation give you?

The federation gave me no support whatsoever. Rather, while the IAAF was trying so desperately to mitigate justice with mercy, the Nigerian federation was so intent on getting rid of me. They wrote to IAAF to remember that I had a drug problem in 1992. Can you imagine that?

Can you see what is happening these days? So many athletes are having drug problems and you can see the way their federations are backing them. But not the Nigeria federation They rather prefer to do the 'killing'.

When the letter of life ban came, my federation president called me and said he had good news for me! Can you believe that?

The day I went for my drug hearing, they did not allow my lawyer, Festus Keyamo to talk. They were intent on rubbishing me. They said I should not talk to the press and I kept quiet, thinking they would do something. But they did nothing.

They told me there would be a hearing but they did not giver me the date. I kept asking them, because I was in Europe. But eventually, they put the hearing on the day following the one I was burying my mother! They did not even want to have the hearing, until this young man, Ali Baba Balogun pushed for it. Then they started victimizing him.

I buried my mother on a Sunday and I started coming back to Lagos the following day all to attend the hearing on Tuesday. And at the end, they played a fast one on me. They deceived me.

Till today, the AFN has not given me the letter that the IAAF sent to confirm my life ban! They simply told me the letter had come. They would not give it to me. They refused to give me the letter despite my protestations. They see me as someone who has nobody to speak for her. They see me as someone who cannot take them to court because I'm in the Nigeria Police.

I went to the Police to give me leave to take them to court, they said no.

I called the federation President several times but he would not pick my call. I tried to speak to the Minister of Sports and the Director of sports in the ministry, but they all turned deaf ears. Who do I run to? Tell me, who would be in my situation and would be happy?

Did anybody approached you to play a role during the recent 8th All-Africa Games in Abuja?

Nobody approached me. Nobody came to me.

How old are you now?

I'm 32.

What are the plans for marriage?

That's personal. Very soon, you'll hear about it. I'll invite you when we're ready.

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