Lagos — She still has that athletic body that won her many crowns as the jewel of the tracks in the world of athletics many years back.
Fully kitted in her sports attire, her fragile and slender look depicts a lady just rounding up her secondary school as she moves around inside the main bowl of Teslim Balogun Stadium, Surulere, Lagos where her newly formed non governmental Organisation tagged " Falilat Ogunkoya Sports Foundation holds a clinic programme for game masters and mistresses in Lagos State. Born in December 5, 1968 in Ode-Lemo in Ogun State. Falilat Ogunkoya formerly Osheku now Omotayo first cut her teeth as an athletic sprinter in 1980 when she was barely 12 years. She emerged the best runner in All Secondary School Competition held in Sagamu in that year. In 1985, she repeated the same feat at the National Sports Festival in Ilorin Kwara State, where she won four gold medals. In 1986, she became the World Junior Champion in Athens, Greece. And ever since, she has been winning medals across the globe. Her days of glory came in 1996 when she put up a superlative performance at Atlanta Olympics in the United States. She won Silver, bronze and gold medals that placed her on the top ladder in the black race. Her 49.10 seconds African record remains unbroken till today. Though a successful woman by all ramifications, but tongues began to wag when her marriage to her former coach/husband, Osheku whom many believe was the platform she rode to stardom, packed up. What could have gone wrong? The queen of the track replied, "Whether you are Hausa, Ibo or Yoruba, you must treat everybody equally. And when you are in a place where you are not being appreciated, it is very difficult. He was my husband but he still got paid whenever he stepped on the track with me,"
Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo has finally found succor in the arms of Professor Oluwaseun Omotayo who she now refers to as her husband. "I have found fulfillment and happiness because I am married to a man who is a friend and somebody I can share my feelings with".
She shares her experiences with FUNKE OLAODE
How would you describe your experiences as an athlete? It has been fulfilling because as an athletic I look forward to Olympics. And for me to have won Olympics medals was an ultimate dream I had for myself. Prior to that time, I have always set a goal for myself every year I go to compete. I remember I was given a chieftaincy title in 1996 when I came back from Atlanta Olympic as the first female athlete to win an individual medal for Nigeria. I came home with two medals. No Nigerian has ever done that in an Olympic. Another thing that made that Olympic significant was my performance. I ran 49.10 seconds, which is an African record that nobody has broken ever since. So, my people from Ode-Lemo in Ogun State believed I have made them proud by honouring me with a chieftaincy title. Later, the Akarigbo of Remo gave me another chieftaincy title.
Going down memory lane, how did you get into athletics?
I started when I was in primary school. I have four sisters. Myself and my senior sister and two half older sisters. I remember we ran the four by one for my primary school. As the youngest of the team, I ran the first leg and I would be passing the stick from one to another. They didn't continue but thank God that I didn't quit. I continued with the race until I entered secondary school. There was a time I left my home town to continue my primary education at Sijuade Nursery and Primary School, Ile-Ife in Osun State. But my father wanted me to come back home to be the first set of Ode-Lemo Secondary school, which was just being established. That was how I left Ile-Ife to continue my education in my hometown. My game prefect who had known me in primary school recognized me and put me back on the track. He drew a line and asked us to run. I did and beat everybody. He said I would be running four by one for the school. There was All Secondary School Sports Competition in Shagamu in 1980. Surprisingly, I beat everybody to emerge the best secondary school runner in 100, 200, 4 by 1 and 1500. After that, I represented Remo in Abeokuta where I did very well. I went to the National Sports Festival hosted by the then Old Bendel State with the intention of being picked for the bigger festival. But the people I met on track somehow scared me. I told my coach that I couldn't run with them. So, I didn't do well and my coach was not happy.
Having been scared by the people you met in Bendel Festival, did you feel like quitting athletics?
Not at all. I went back home to train more and that fired the zeal in me. I represented Ogun State as a Junior athlete and Nigeria in Ghana. Later on, there was another National Sports Festival at Ilorin in Kwara State. I represented Ogun State and won four gold medals. Honestly, that brought me to the limelight. Governor of Ogun State then was Colonel Popoola. He was so impressed that he went to my town. He did our roads and put electricity in my town. I was in Athens in Greece in 1986 where I ran the 200-meters and won. That was when I became the World Junior Champion. I later won bronze in the same competition. After that success, people encouraged me to seek a greener pasture abroad. I got scholarships from three Universities in the United States. I settled for Mississippi State University scholarship where I read physical education and later had my Bachelor of Science degree in fitness management. That was how I started. I have been involved in several competitions ever since. Although I slowed down when I was expecting my son. And immediately after I had him in February1993, I resumed training in six months and was back fully on the track. But my day of glory as an athlete happened in 1996 when I won the Olympic medal and was ranked number three in the world.
You slowed down after the birth of your baby. How was it? Did it affect your performance when you finally bounced back?
No. It did not. As a matter of fact, people believe that female athletes can't have a baby because of the nature of their profession. But people don't know that female athletes protect themselves all the time because they can easily get pregnant. You know their muscles are very flexible. The only problem is to come back after giving birth because of the baby fat because it hangs behind the glutose. And once the fat is off you become tougher.
Have you quit the track and field totally?
I was still involved in sporting activities till 2004 when my contract with Nike expired. Though I didn't do anything but the company was kind enough to pay me. After my retirement in 2004, I ruminated over what to do to give back to sports that made me. That was when the idea of setting up Falilat Ogunkoya Sports Foundation came up. This is an opportunity to go back to the grassroots to encourage the younger ones on how to reach the top in the world of athletics. Recently, there was a kind of clinic programme in collaboration with Lagos State where game mistresses and game masters converged. The motive is to show them how to nurture the athletics. And prior to this time, I was invited by Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State to be part of the National Sports Festival. Right now, I am concentrated on my newly founded NGO.
You were once Falilat Ogunkoya Osheku and now Omotayo. What happened to your former coach who later became husband?
For me as an athlete, I am free when I am on the track. I believe that in any relationship no matter what, you should be able to appreciate whatever God has given you or done for you. And the day you start questioning God, well you know the consequences. This doesn't have to do with your tribe or where you come from. Whether you are Hausa, Ibo or even Yoruba. You must treat everybody equally. When you are in a place where you are not being appreciated, it is very difficult. And I look at it that what else can I do because the only free place for me is when I step on a track and field. But one thing about me is that whatever I do in my life I don't say that I regret it because that is how God wants it. But I can still stand tall on my feet and say that I lived with a man who was my coach, the father of my son and still got paid by me. I was paying him because I couldn't allow him to do it for free because I have conscience. When somebody is doing something you must pay for it. That is how it operates in the US.
You mean you paid your husband to train you?
Oh yes. Anytime he stepped on that track to coach, it was not for free. I have to pay him because I am paying for his time. Well, I can call him my ex-husband because it wasn't that we really got married. Though we did an engagement. And when things were getting bad I advised him to dissolve the engagement. I want a man who will appreciate me for who I am. If as an athlete, running and going through physical stress that my profession demands and at the end of the day I can raise that leg as far as I can, what will happen to me? That is why I said the other time that whatever God has done, appreciate it.
Are you now saying your marriage broke down due to language or tribe barrier?
Well, I am a Yoruba girl and I will always be. If I am in a relationship with somebody who is not from my tribe it's my choice. And sometimes when two people are together, let them work out their things. That is why I like my family because when I was in that relationship they let me be. But it wasn't the same way the other way round. You know when family is interfering so much and you cannot make a decision with somebody you are living with it is very difficult.
But you ought you have noticed this during courtship?
I was living in the United States where we met. We started living as husband and wife from 1993 to 2002 before the marriage finally packed up. When your marriage is getting tough, people will always advise you to endure it that things will get better. But it wasn't getting better. And I believe for me to be successful as an athlete, I have to be happy. Like I said, the only place I know that I am free is when I step on the track and they announce, "This is Falilat Ogunkoya from Nigeria". And I will say, "thank God I am free".
Judging by your own experience, are you now condemning tribal-marriage?
Not at all. For the fact that it didn't work out for me doesn't me that it won't work out for some other people. I have a friend in US who is from Delta and is married to an Osun man. She is enjoying her marriage.
You endured for almost 10 years. From the way you are talking it must have been hot?
Yes it was hot but I am an athlete and I can still stand on the track and still run my race.
Was the storm you experienced preventing you from not having more babies?
Not really. You know I was competing and was more dedicated to my profession. At a stage my mother was worried, wanting to see my child. And that is why I stopped to have a baby. My mother was actually right because she passed away two months before I went for Atlanta Olympics in July 1996. Surprisingly, I was called to come and train two days after my mother's death. And that was when I ran my best.
Looking at your ex-husband, people saw him as a platform, which helped you to limelight. What is your view?
Then he was my coach, but then I still had a lot of coaches. I had a coach when I was in primary school. This was a man who prostrated for my parents to release me. I had a coach in secondary school. But at a particular time, he was there timing me. But training somebody is not about timing alone it's about working out. He is doing the timing and I am the one running the race.
Do you now believe in the saying that successful women don't keep their homes?
It is not that they don't keep their homes but some men cannot take it. There are men that when women achieve so much, they have problems with it.
What is the relationship with your ex-husband now?
He is still the father of my son and my son lives with him. If I stumble on him I will still greet him. But there is a limit to it.
How did you meet your present husband?
We met when I came back from the United States to see my son.
The impression is that your relationship blossomed after the Gateway Games hosted by the Ogun State government in 2006?
I came home to see my son for two weeks and I was called that Governor Daniel wanted me to be part of Gateway Games, and I went there. Along the line, I lost my eldest sister and I was devastated. The preparation for the game was still going on and I went to Abeokuta. At a stage, I said that I wanted to go back to the US. But my husband (Professor Omotayo) persuaded me to stay that whatever we are doing it would finish in the next few hours. Then my father sent for me and the same man was singing it into my hear that "your father said he wants to see you". So, I went to see my father and my husband went with me. And behold, my father thought I brought a man. My father just said, "Now that you don't have anybody, you had better go and do something about it". This happened in 2004 and that was when the relationship started. Initially, I thought I wasn't going to have anything to do with men, but Professor Omotayo kept coming.
Has the marriage been formalized?
Oh yes. It was formalized last year. He went to my parents and we did a little ceremony because I told them I didn't want any big party.
Was Professor Omotayo not married before?
What happened to his marriage? And how did his wife take it with him having a second wife?
Well, for him that is something he has to deal with. Do you know how many wives my father married? He had seven wives and raised 36 children. My mother was able to survive polygamy. I will survive it.
You mean you are not new to polygamy?
Yes. Apart from that, as long you can call somebody your friend, the fear of polygamy will not be there. Is like marrying a friend.
There are young people who look up to you as a role model. Don't you think this can change their perception about you?
Re-marrying is not a big deal. When you mess up or you are tired with a relationship in the United States you will let it go. It is only in Nigeria that they attach so much to it.
Have you finally found happiness and fulfillment in Professor Oluwaseun Omotayo?
Oh yes I have. And language barrier is no longer a problem. He is from Ijebu-Ode where my great-grandmother came from. He is somebody I can call my friend. He is somebody that appreciates me for who I am. He is somebody that I can share my feelings with.
Any plan to raise kids with him?
(Laugh). I have been busy with the foundation and we are both working on it. And if the babies come, it is okay because it is only God that gives.
How do you relax?
I talk on phone and I enjoy watching Nigerian movies.
Considering Nigerian mentality how are you going to sustain and maintain your foundation to live up to its expectation at the end of the day?
I survived as an athlete. Nigeria is the toughest country in the whole world to compete for. I survived and was even ranked as one of the best in the world in my own individual game. I survived my 24 years on track. And for this foundation, I will surely keep my fingers crossed to see to its success.