3 November 2012

Nigeria: Long Walk to Claiming Sydney 400 Metres Relay Gold

When the International Olympic Committee finally decided to award the 4—400m relay event of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games gold 12 years after, memories of the quartet's remarkable feat came alive reborn - not the unseen but no less remarkable contribution of their coach, Solomon Abari. Kunle Adewale spoke with him recently

Twelve years after the 4—400m relay event of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games where Nigeria won silver medal, the IOC officially awarded the country the gold medal, after its executive board concluded the doping case involving Antonio Pettigrew, a member of the American team that won gold in the race.

The IOC had delayed reallocating the medals, waiting to see if fresh information from the investigations into the doping scandal would throw up new dimensions to the matter. Reacting to the decision of the IOC, the acting deputy director and head of coaching and training at the National Institute for Sports, Solomon Abari, who coached the relay quartet comprising Sunday Bada, Jude Monye, Clement Chukwu and Enefiok Udo-Obong said the committee's decision was long overdue.

"The IOC had done a great justification to itself by withdrawing the gold medal from America and giving it to Nigeria. Like they say it is better late than never, even though it could have been given to Nigeria long ago. It will teach other athletes that take enhancing drugs that it's not the best, and that time will always catch up with them no matter how long it takes. It is a way of warning other athletes not to take enhancing drugs to improve their performance," Abari said.

Asked if he ever gave the Nigerian quartet a chance of winning a medal before the Sydney Games, he said: "As a coach you would always know what your athletes could do before a competition especially in tracks and field. The performance of an athlete is measurable, you look at the time your athletes are returning and you can compare it with their colleagues in other countries. And by that you can know if they stand a chance of winning or not. I was very optimistic of their doing well before the Olympics considering the time they were returning before the Games," he said.

On whether he ever suspected that any member of the American athletes was on drugs, he said: "Not really, because we were working hard and we have seen the time our athletes were returning at that time and we were expecting something good at the end. However, America had a better time even before we went to the Olympics so we thought they were better; not knowing they were using enhancing drugs," the president of Track and Field Coaching Association of Nigeria said.

He however said they did not concede the first position to the American quartet before the games: "We were battling to do our best but we knew we had to work harder because before the Olympics the Americans were running a better time than Nigeria, but we were hoping to catch up with them or even do better. We were equally working towards winning the gold at that time," he said.

A member of the quartet, Monye, said the mood during the warm-up was strangely calm. "I've never seen a group of guys so determined to achieve something. When I saw the four of us just playing around, so relaxed, in my mind I knew something special was going to happen," Monye said.

When Chukwu handed the baton to Monye for the second leg, Nigeria stood in fifth place. The U.S. already had made up ground on the outer lanes and had taken over first. By the time Bada passed the baton on to Udo-Obong for the final 400 meters, a medal seemed out of reach. Michael Johnson was on his way to adding another first to his illustrious carrer. Jamaica's Danny McFarlane had moved to second position and Bahamas' Chris Brown held third place.

Monye's mother, Priscilla Egbe, watched breathlessly back home in Nigeria as the stretch run unfolded. "I saw that Nigeria was in fourth place. I knelt down by my screen. I said, 'God, I want them to get a medal. Let them take third at least. I don't want them to be the last loser and finish the race in fourth," Egbe said.

Abari however said he was not surprised when one of the American quartets confessed to the use of drugs.

"I was not shocked. They have better laboratories than us here in Nigeria and they can manoeuvre and manipulate a test because of the kind of facilities that they have. We are at their mercy up till now because we don't have a standard or sophisticated laboratory here and without any laboratory to test our athletes before a competition we will always be at mercy of the advanced world. It is therefore important to warn our athletes to be very careful with what they eat before big competitions. As functional athletes, they are not really free to eat and drink anything, they must watch it to keep safe distance from doping," the NIS acting director noted.

First, it was revealed in 2003 that Jerome Young who ran in the semi-final heat of the relay for the U.S., tested positive for steroids the year before the Sydney Olympics but was allowed to compete anyway.

In 2004, The International Association of Athletics Federations ruled Young was not eligible to compete in Sydney and wanted the U.S. team stripped of its gold medal. A year later, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that decision, and the United States kept its gold.

At that time, the medal dispute became a dead issue. It seemed the case, which had a statute of limitations of eight years, would pass through the October 1, 2008, deadline without another peep.

But that was only the beginning of the Americans' problems. Young got caught doping again and was barred from competing for life.

Another member of the American quartet Calvin Harrison received a two-year suspension from track and field in 2004 for testing positive for a stimulant a year earlier. Twin brother Alvin received a four-year suspension in 2004, after he admitted to using several undetectable performance-enhancers.

While both Harrisons admitted to usage only after the Sydney Olympics, questions about that 4x400 race were being raised again. Then, in May 2008, Antonio Pettigrew revealed the final straw.

Pettigrew, who raced in the same leg as Monye in Sydney, admitted in court he used performance-enhancing drugs before, during and after the 2000 Olympics.

Michael Johnson, the only American runner from that race not involved in a doping scandal, gave back his gold medal in July, saying his team hadn't won the race honestly.

Finally, just days before the Beijing Olympics - the International Olympic Committee officially stripped the United States of its gold medal.

Monye and teammate, Bada, had shared a euphoric moment on the phone after they heard the news. Each had begun to wonder if they ever would see that gold medal in their lifetime.

For Monye's former coach, Reynaud Alexander, the message was clear. "Once you start using drugs for the price of success, it's like you're selling your soul to the devil," Alexander said. "Because sooner or later, he's going to collect. But now, if you want to pay that price, that's totally up to you."

Then Monye says he isn't bitter about the way things have played out. His only wish when he relives that night eight years ago would be to have heard his country's anthem playing with his team mates on the gold medal podium. Still, he should be receiving a nice consolation prize soon enough.

"To win the gold is good. I would have lived with silver. But gold is perfect. I couldn't have wished for anything better," Monye said.

For Sunday Bada it would be an honour too late as the former technical director of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) died in December 2011 at the age of 42.

"He was one of the most disciplined athletes I have ever come across. He was a disciplinarian and his death is a great loss to Nigerian sports," Abari said.

On the declining fortunes in athletics, Abari said: "In the past we have always been very good in athletics generally, especially the sprint. In those days our underage system of competition was there; we had the secondary schools; we had the inter colleges sports and various other competitions and even the sports councils had local government competitions and states competitions. But now all those games are dead and it will be very difficult for us to reach the peak because our best have to be very broad. Without grassroots competitions we cannot get anywhere."

He added that he is reassured by the quality of some athletes he is grooming ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

On why little is known about him in spite of his various achievements, he said he does not like blowing his trumpet but prefers his work to speak for him.

"My business is to train and develop athletes to the best of my knowledge. I even keep them in my house and feed them, but that does not mean I should be boasting about it. I rather see it as my contribution to sport development in the country. So it does not matter to me whether people know me or not," he said.

Abari came into sports when he was in primary school during the Children's Day celebration "when we participated in sack races and other track and field events, up to my secondary school. I continued till my Teachers' Training College days," he said.

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