Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medallist and retired multi-talented athlete Chioma Ajunwa, in this interview with ANTHONY NLEBEM, talks about her time life in retirement, her Olympic gold medal and why she dumped Super Falcons to concentrate on athletics
How has life been since you retired as an athlete? Do you sometimes feel like going back to the field?
Honestly, I do feel like going back to athletics, especially when I watch some of our athletes not performing well or when I watch a Grand Prix and I can’t find a Nigerian athlete competing. Also, the time and distance the current athletes use in winning events are not up to what we were doing in those days. When I see all these things, what comes to my mind is how I wish I could reverse the hand of the clock. I would have loved to go back to athletics and do even better. I also feel like that when I am training the younger ones and they are not showing the enthusiasm of wanting to become world champions. A champion must work hard and be attentive, many of our athletes do not want to work hard but want to be champions.
What efforts have you made, since you retired, to ensure that Nigeria produce more Olympic gold medalists like you?
The efforts I’m making is through my talent hunt initiative, going from one place to another trying to spot and develop talented athletes. But sometimes, the regret is that when you catch up with these athletes, you can’t continue with them because there is no financial support from government and private organisations. I have a foundation since 2013 and wish to keep my athletes there, but I can’t due to lack of finance. But I am not going to give up, I will continue to push. There is no sponsorship yet, but my foundation has written to several organisations, but most of the time, they don’t respond because of the economic situation in the country. Most of these companies are struggling to carry out their Corporate Social Responsibility programme. Again, one thing that pricks my heart is that Nigerians don’t do things on merit, if you are not connected to any company, just forget it. Even if you bring the best programme, that letter will not be approved. I have tried it several times, but it did not work, but I’m hopeful this trend will change soon.
Do you think there is a structure to help retired athletes in Nigeria?
Honestly, there’s none. In our association, the Nigerian Olympians Association, we have tried several times to reach out to the government, but we have not gotten any positive response. I believe the government does not need to be told to take care of Nigerians that have invested so much in the country. Some didn’t have jobs because they were representing Nigeria and by the time they retirte, they were left on their own. Even when they are sick, you need to appeal to the government before they respond.
While competing, what was your most challenging moment?
That was the time I had a back injury and I was abandoned by the government. The injury was later diagnosed as a disc shift and the news then was that I had switched nationality. Many of my fans were not happy with me and those close to me reached out, asking why I took such decision. I told them that I was injured and in pains and unable to walk nor put my leg on the floor.
I was told to go and take care of myself and was surprised by the news that I had defected to another country. I was with that injury for many months, and could not walk. I called the Athletics Federation of Nigeria to get my insurance number, but nobody answered me. That is why when our athletes are defecting to other countries, you don’t blame them.
What was going through your mind when you were about to make the historic jump that won Nigeria her first gold medal?
Honestly, I did not know what exactly I did and what it meant for one to win an Olympic gold. I thought it was one of those competitions I had won in the past. I only realised what I did when we got to Senegal, on our way back to Nigeria. The crowd that welcomed us at the airport was massive. I asked why they were all there and they said that I won the first Olympic gold medal in Africa. On arriving in Nigeria at the airport, hundreds of people came to welcome us, that was when I realised what it meant to win an Olympic gold, but while I was in Atlanta, I did not know about that.
After your gold medal win in Atlanta, were you celebrated the same way as the men’s football team that also won gold?
The footballers were treated better than I was. The house the government promised them was given to them immediately after we came back from the Olympics, but I got mine after 25 years. Let’s assume I was not alive, that would have eluded me. I thank God for everything. Nigerians should stop pretending, you can’t treat your heroes and heroines badly, maybe it’s because none of their children is competing for the nation, otherwise, they would have rewarded them well.
At some point in your career, you played for the Super Falcons, was African 100m record holder, player before winning Olympic gold in the long jump. How were you able to achieve this versatility as an athlete?
It’s a gift God gave my family through me in order to bring us out of poverty. I came from a very poor background and God is a master planner. If God did not organise my way in this form, I believe my family would not have been the same till today.
You were part of the Super Falcons squad to the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. How did you feel representing Nigeria at that level?
I felt good and happy. In those days there was no money in sports, all we were doing then was to make sure we wore the green and white kits of the country, unlike today that sports is about money. At that stage, I was very happy to represent the country.
Why then did you dump football for athletics?
When you are doing something and you find out that you are in the midst of envious people, it is better you run away, otherwise, they might take your life. While I was playing football, many of my teammates were envious because I was doing very well in athletics and at the same time playing football. So, they were not happy and planned all manner of things against me. While playing on the field, they were after my leg, and at the end of the day, they ganged up against me and told the coach not to play me. Then we came back from the African Games, I won two gold medals and the late Chief MKO Abiola gave me money and a gold Rolex wristwatch. These ladies were not happy with me, they went to my coach and said that I’m blocking their way. The coach called me one afternoon and told me that as long as he remained the coach of the national team I would never get a chance to play and I asked him what I did wrong. He said he had finished with me and walked away. I started crying because I did not do anything wrong. I always got to the stadium early to train for my athletics events, before joining the football team in the evening. One fateful evening at the National Stadium in Lagos, I finished my athletics training and they (footballers) came in for the evening training. The coach did not use me; that was the first day he ever benched me, and then during the next morning training, he benched me again. We travelled to Ghana and he did not play me, and I was like, ‘does it mean this man meant what he said?’ He only played me in the second half, when there was a problem in the team because I was a utility player and could function in different positions. After that match, I came back and quietly packed my bags and left the national team because I did not want to have problems with anybody or even the coach himself. Paul Hamilton and Bonfrere Jo pleaded with my sister that I reconsider my decision, but I had alreadyade up my mind that I won’t go back to the national team. I went back fully to my athletics career and God started His work. I left the women’s national team in 1995 and won Olympic gold in 1996. Probably, if I was still combining the two, I would not have been able to go for my training tour in the UK ahead of the Olympics. I thank God and I forgave my coach, even before he died. Maybe if he did not chase me out of the national team, I would not have concentrated on winning Olympic gold.
Football has now become lucrative. Do you regret switching from football to athletics?
I don’t regret quitting football for athletics, even if there is more money in football now. Nigeria doesn’t treat our women’s national team well, like they treat the men’s team. It’s still the same thing. The girls are treated like third-class citizens compared to the men.