Retired sprinter, Deji Aliu, the Athens 2004 Olympics bronze winner and the 2003 African Games 100m gold medallist, talks about his athletics, travails and triumphs, in this interview with ANTHONY NLEBEM
How did you start your athletics?
As a young kid, it’s something I enjoyed most. When I was still in primary school, I loved running and at that stage, I was better than my peers. That started building my interest in the sport till I got to secondary school. I also continued with my sprints and was doing very well, winning school competitions. From there I was selected to represent the school in relays. It was at one of those secondary school competitions that I met my coach, who he invited me to join his club; that was where I started my athletics career.
What got you interested in athletics and not football or any other sport?
During my secondary school days, during break time, we used to have a football match, but they hardly chose me. The only time I played football in school was when the team was not complete, so they just included me to make up the team. Most times, they tell me, ‘we are not running here.’ My schoolmates knew running is my area of strength.
Did your parents support you at that time?
The support at that time was kind of one-sided, my mum was solidly behind me in whatever I wanted to do, but my dad wanted me to focus on my education because he felt that athletics might be a distraction. But I was still persevering and loving what I was doing and pursuing my athletics goal.
During your time what was the state of facilities?
The state of facilities at the time I competed was not as bad as it is now, although it was not top-notch, it was still okay. The facilities at the National Stadium, Lagos were still there and we had access to train inside the stadium, compared to what we have now.
Would you say winning bronze at the Olympics with the men’s 4x100m relay team at Athens 2004 was the peak of your career?
In every sportsman’s life, the Olympics is the pinnacle and competing at the Olympics alone is an achievement, not to talk of winning a medal at the event. The best thing that has happened to my career as an athlete was that Olympic medal. But breaking the 10 seconds barrier is something a lot of athletes crave for. It puts you in a league of elite athletes. Some athletes cherish running sub-10 seconds more than winning an Olympic medal. For me, winning a medal at the Olympics is the biggest. But being in that league of athletes that have achieved sub-10 seconds is something to celebrate too.
What was going through your mind when you were about to run the relay final?
Nobody goes into a relay with so much confidence, the athletes are full of tension, anxiety and pressure because on the track anything can happen.
After winning the bronze, did you feel fulfilled as an athlete?
I felt I could have done more in the area of winning an individual medal, but winning a bronze medal in the relay was more of a combined effort. I was still feeling that I was the one running the 100m final and was able to win an individual medal and that would have been everything I ever wished for, but I’m still happy with the bronze medal.
You won the 100m men’s gold at the 2003 African Games, what does it mean to you?
The African Games was special, that was my second appearance after coming fourth in my first outing. It meant a lot to me, what makes it special was that it happened here in Nigeria and winning it in front of my family and loved ones makes it remarkable.
There were reports of issues in Team Nigeria’s camp during the African Games in Abuja. How did you overcome these challenges to win gold?
Honestly, it was really not easy, and this is one issue I have not talked about in a very long time. I was not supposed to come to the African Games because they were doing so many things to keep me out of the competition. Eventually, and thanks to God, I was able to come for the competition, even though many of the Nigerian officials did not want me at the event. But I still had some that supported and encouraged me. It got to a stage where somebody came to me and told me that they had promised somebody money, that he must beat me in that 100m final. These issues placed so much pressure on me, but I was determined to win the race and I give glory to God that I was able to win the gold medal.
Who are the officials that didn’t want you in the African Games team?
The then AFN president Dan Ngerem never wanted me in the team for the African Games and he plotted to ensure I did not make it to the Games. He created a serious division between me and fellow sprinter Uchenna Emedolu and he promised him a huge amount of money to win the final. He didn’t want to see me and he didn’t hide it. He tried to mess up a lot of things for me, he even contacted my manager and said he wanted to know how much I was making, but my manager declined his request.
At that time I was training in America. It was a difficult moment for me at that time; it got so bad that I was not on talking terms with Uchenna and that affected the relay team because we did not train for the final and he was not there during the presentation of medals.
The following year, which happened to be an Olympic year, I was not supposed to go, because I got injured and managed to come second in the trials. So, I needed to go back and treat my injury immediately. The following day they said there was going to be a meeting with the then National Sports Commission boss Patrick Ekeji by 10 am, while my flight to Lagos was 11:30 am. So, I waited for the meeting, but the NSC boss did not come. I had to leave the hotel at 11 am to catch up with my flight, after waiting for over two hours. I was at the airport and about to board my flight when the secretary called me that the minister was around and that I had to come back to the hotel. I told him I was boarding my flight. He told me that the instruction from the AFN president was that if I left, I was out of the team and I told him, ‘so be it.’ I left Abuja for Lagos to fly back to America. The following day rumour started flying around that I was out of the team due to indiscipline. I got a call from Dr Ekeji and he said I should see him at the NOC secretariat. I got there and explained everything that happened and he told me that it was his fault for not coming early for the meeting. He said I should not worry that they were not going to keep me out of the team.
Who was your toughest opponent during your time on the tracks?
My toughest and number one opponent was Uchenna Emedolu, he was the one that was really on my tail then. I and Uchenna were contenders in the team at that time.
Your daughter is a sprinter in the United States and doing very well. Will you encourage her to run for Nigeria or the US?
She was born in England and is schooling in the United States, but at this stage of my life, I have told her that I will support whatever decisions she takes. I am not going to impose the decision on which country to represent on her because nobody imposed any on me. If she tells me that she wants to run for Nigeria, so be it, if she says she wants to represent England or the United States, I will not resist or influence her decision.
What are you doing to discover and groom talents for the future?
In that area, I have done a lot. I learnt so many things at the tail end of my career and that was what propelled me into coaching. I started slowly but got better and influenced a lot of athletes by improving their performances. When I joined the Making Of Champions Track Club, it was an innovation at that time, people were sceptical about how we were going to achieve results, but we did, we went around the country recruiting talents. I discovered Favour Ashe, Nigeria’s fastest athlete in track and field in Ughelli about four years ago when we were doing our talent hunt competition. Apart from Ashe, I have discovered and groomed several talents like Emmanuel Ojeli and others and that is my contribution. Hopefully, I’m still going to discover more.
With the state of athletics in Nigeria at the moment, what is the hope of the local athletes?
The hope of athletes in Nigeria is bleak, nobody cares about them. The Federation is not doing anything to take care of them. They are all concerned about Nigerian athletes in America, but they have forgotten that those that are abroad started here before travelling outside the country. Now, they have abandoned the local athletes and if that continues, how are you going to have athletes travel to America?
Almost all the athletes that have been produced in the last three years have all gone to America and the opportunity to produce new ones is not there.