Chioma Ajunwa-Opara is a former Nigerian track and field athlete and a police officer. Born on December 25, 1970, she remains Nigeria’s first and only individual Olympic gold medallist. In this interview with DUSTAN AGHEDO, the mother of four (two boys and two girls) speaks on the state of the country’s sports sector, her foundation and the need to make more impact on the younger athletes.
Can you recall your experience before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and winning a gold medal?
At the time I was going to the Olympics, it never crossed my mind that I would be able to win a medal because as a young girl then, I was training to ensure that I would be among those to represent Nigeria, but with God’s backing, my hard work and training paid off. And I give glory to God and Chief Segun Odegbami, who was the tool God used to expose me, going on training tours to different European countries and the United States of America (USA), with different weather conditions and facilities. I recall training really hard then and by God’s grace I made it to the top.
You have remained Nigeria’s first athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. Twenty-five years after, no other Nigerian athlete has attained the feat. How do you feel about it?
I am very sad. Some athletes might be happy they have a record unbeatable but not for me. I believe we call it sporting competition and that is what it is and should be. Yes, I am regarded as the first Nigerian individual to climb the podium, but what happened to the second and next person? Clearly, a record that has stayed that long means that the country is not making progress in sports; it shows we are still crawling and that does
not give me joy.
It shows we’re dependent on some household names, the likes of Blessing Okagbare, Ese Brume, among others are doing fantastically well, but we need new breeds that can challenge them and those breeds need to be groomed and exposed. But is the government thinking in that direction? I really feel bad about it because it shows Nigeria still has a long way to go.
What do you think is wrong with the country’s sports sector that it cannot produce another individual Olympic gold medalist?
There are a number of problems: our athletes are not treated well, we are not grooming the younger ones as we ought to, there is lack of exposure to modern facilities, there is no support system for athletes, especially the upcoming ones, it goes on. What is the Federal Ministry of Sports doing to groom the athletes? They have sports school, how are they following up, nurturing the athletes? You do not abandon and then wait for another competition before beginning to work with them again. When you don’t follow up, you don’t get
How would you want sports administrators and other parastatals to intervene in these areas of concern?
What we have realised is that the government and other private entities and individuals need to do more with their interventions, game changing interventions. Support for one, has always been a major challenge as there is little or no support for athletes that have the passion to drive themselves and the country to be among the best. I believe that if all the people that are in grassroots sports could get support either from the government or private organisations/individuals, we would have a lot of athletes that can compete against the best in the world because there are so many talented athletes in Nigeria, who want to bell the cat. If we have people who could go to the nooks and crannies of this country to pick the talents and start grooming them, we would be like the Americans or even be better than them.
We need to conduct competitions for athletes and follow up on them. They need to spend money, our coaches have to be retrained and travel out there. The reward for such after one to three years is African champion, Commonwealth champion, world champion, and then a podium at the Olympics will become a norm. The house needs to be put in order for such structure.
What are the chances of Team Nigeria winning gold medals at this year’s summer Olympics in Tokyo?
To win an Olympic gold is not an easy task; to even get any medal at all at the Olympics is not easy. You have to commit money, time, energy, exposure to all kinds of training and facilities. You have to commit everything,
not by training them only here in Nigeria. The opponents they will face out there have all been exposed to all manner of facilities; same should be for our athletes.
What exactly are you doing to impact younger Nigerians/athletes?
I have been trying to impact my experience to new breeds and athletes through my foundation, the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation. Although it has not been easy, people do not help a lot when it comes to support- ing upcoming athletes with funding and sponsorship.
We have been struggling to host competitions such as athletic competitions, which require huge funds, but God
has been faithful.