Tajikistan a landlocked sovereign country in Central Asia with a population of barely 8 million won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics. However Nigeria, with a 170 million plus people did not win a single Olympic medal! With facts like that, it’s easy to forget that Nigeria once won Olympic medals and they did so despite many obstacles.
Cue Glory Alozie (Silver medallist 2000 Sydney Olympics), Deji Aliu (Bronze medallist 2004 Athens Olympics), Francis Obikwelu (Under Portugal Silver medalist Athens 2004) and Uchenna Emedolu (Bronze: Athens 2004), all Nigerian born athletes who will tell us how they overcame their obstacles to become champions.
However, it’s not easy to catch up with 4 of the fastest Nigerians in the world. But thanks to Making Of Champions I was able to get all four of them in the same room to talk and here’s what they had to say…
Francis Obikwelu: The Fighting Warrior
In 2004, Nigerian born Francis Obikwelu won a silver medal at the Athens 2004 Olympics game running for Portugal. While his switch from Nigeria to Portugal was mired with nationalistic controversy, Francis Obikwelu had to overcome a lot to be able to stand on the podium…
In his teenage years, he moved to Portugal with hopes of joining an athletic club but after getting rejected by two top clubs he had to pick up work as a construction worker before eventually joining the Belenenses sport club.
And then in 2000 after competing at the Sydney Olympics for Nigeria, he injured his knee and required surgery. With no support from the Nigerian sports ministry, Francis underwent a self funded reconstructive knee surgery in Canada.
However, the doctor/surgeon informed him that he would not be able to run again. But Francis Obikwelu, true to his fighting spirit, did the impossible.
“I don’t give up on anything. Right from when I was a kid, I always live to fight another day… I can do anything no matter what happens.”
And he did just that … throwing away the crutches as well as the doctor’s advice. He looked at himself as an athlete and not a disabled person. This mind shift and belief pushed him to want to succeed and even with his bad leg he began training aggressively …
Abandoned by many, discouraged by his doctor but yet motivated by a want to succeed, Francis was able to not only win the Diamond league that season, but he was able to win a 100 m silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Approximately 4 years after his doctor said he would not be able to run again!
“You have to know how to win and how to lose. Be strong and disciplined because having an injury can weigh one down, but having these things (belief) would pull you through.”
FACTS: Francis Obikwelu still holds the Nigerian 200 meters record with a time of 19.84 seconds. He is still the only Nigerian to ever run the 200 meters in less than 20 seconds.
Glory Alozie: Wonder Woman
In 2000 Glory Alozie was one of the favorites to win the 100 meter hurdles at the Sydney Olympics.But just a few days before the games began, Glory Alozie lost her fiancé Hyginus Anugo, a fellow member of the Nigerian track-and-field squad in a ghastly car accident.
Stunned by his death, Glory could not eat and barely trained for day… she had become so frail from loss of appetite she had to be spoon-fed by her Spanish coach, Rafael Blanque. She lost 13 pounds.
While many would have given up, Glory powered on to win the Silver medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympics …her secret to Olympic medal success was trusting in God to give her the victory. He did – embellishing her with a shimmering silver medal.
“Sometimes when people go through tough times, they quit but it shouldn’t be so. Situations around might be frustrating but that’s why you need a goal, because you must remained focused. If you do that, you will surely make it.”
Her final word of advice to upcoming athletes “Be focused and disciplined, because you can’t go far without discipline. That’s the only way they can get to the top.”
Discipline and a focus on God, recipes to overcome hurdles no matter how tragic!
FACTS: Glory Alozie still holds the African 100 m hurdles record with 12.44 seconds. A time she has run 3 times.
Uchenna Emedolu: The Focused Motivator
As one of only 8 Nigerian men to run below 10 seconds in the 100 m, Uchenna Emedolu is a running force to be reckoned with, but it was not always that rosy for him.
It was the 2008 Beijing 4X100m Olympic relay race …the baton exchange between Uchenna Emedolu and Chinedu Oriala and that’s when it happened. Uchenna dropped the baton, dashing Nigeria’s hope at a medal. This was not the first time Uchenna had encountered failure.
In 1998 he travelled to Malta to try out as a footballer but failed … eventually returning back to Abia state to try out athletics. His mother also pushed back on his dream to be an athlete, but he persevered and credits his early success to being focused on God
“When I started track I was born again, so I didn’t really have girlfriends to discourage me, because that kind of lifestyle does not help you focus.”
The focus worked because at the IAAF World Cup in Madrid, 2002 he ran against Francis (Obikwelu), Jon Drummond (USA), Dwain Chambers (Britain) to win gold. And won an Olympic Bronze medal in the Athens 2004 Olympic games.Today he coaches other upcoming Nigerian athletes. Uchenna is a constant believer in his ability and ultimately the ability of Nigerians.
“We have so much talent in Nigeria. Our athletes should not be afraid of competing with other athletes from other countries. All we need is the right kind of support and our athletes would be the best in the world.”
Every Nigerian has the potential to be great!
FACTS: Uchenna Emedolu is one of only 8 Nigerians to run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds.
Deji Aliu: Passion Wins
At the 1996 National trials, a relatively unknown runner Deji Aliu, lined up against Nigerian greats Chidi Imoh, Davidson Ezinwa. It was his first major race locally and he came second losing only to Davidson Ezinwa.
Since then he has gone on to represent Nigeria at the highest stage, winning a 2004 Bronze Medal at the Athens Olympics. But with such success, it is easy to forget that Deji once faced many obstacles.
First from his parents who were initially disappointed by his choice of athletics; but when he started winning and succeeding, his parents eventually gave in and decided to support his move. His story is one of pushing back against the Engineering/Doctor status quo for Nigerian parents.
A lot of Nigerian children don’t push back enough about their passion. Even friends tried to convince him to reconsider, but luckily he did not, leading Nigeria to that rare Olympic medal and running below 10 seconds in 100 meters 3 times, one of the few Nigerians to ever do that.
At the end of the day, passion was key to Deji’s success in overcoming obstacles.
“The passion I had for the sport was just too much for me to turn back; I just kept going.”
FACTS: Deji Aliu holds the Nigerian 60 meters indoor record with a time of 6.48 seconds.
Conclusion: Keep Moving Forward
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Words from civil rights activities Martin Luther King. Words that aptly describe the 4 amazing Nigerian athletes above. Their lessons show us that success is not easy and comes with the inevitable obstacles … from losing a loved one, to being discouraged by family and friends but still never quitting on your dream and eventually rising to the top! Words from champions to live with. No matter the size of the obstacle, keep moving and keep pushing!
Interview of the athletes was made possible by Making of Champions who are working to revive athletics in Nigeria, visit www.makingofchamps.com for more details on their athletic projects or to see how you can participate.
Research done by Bambo Akani and Soluzo Ekenta of makingofchampions.com
Photo Credit: Getty Images