My Olympic experience - among the gods
All is set for the 2012 London Olympics. Before 1976, the Olympic Games were to me a very distant event reserved for the gods.
Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Mercury, Poseidon and all the other gods of Greek mythology competed among themselves for the pleasure of the king of gods sitting on his sepulchre throne on Mount Olympus. That was my understanding of the original Olympics, fed into my little mind by the colourful, fictional magazines that I consumed like food in my youthful days. I never connected the Olympic games with ordinary mortals.
In the city of Jos, where I grew up in the 1960s, there was no television, so we never watched the games. We only followed them on the BBC or Voice of America. The radio commentaries were fairy tales to our ears, and when names of successful athletes were mentioned we never envisioned them as flesh and blood. It was, therefore, shocking to realise that the Nigerian football players who went to the Mexico Olympics in 1968 were really human beings.
This monumental and unexpected achievement by an African team was well celebrated in the Nigerian media. Incidentally, the names of many of the actors were very familiar to me. Samuel Garba Okoye, Peter Anieke, Layiwola Olagbemiro and Ismaila Mabo, were all young men from my small locality in the city of Jos. This provoked deeper inquiry and thinking, setting in motion the slow process of my acknowledgment of the mortality of Olympian athletes.
By 1972, I had moved to Ibadan and to a higher realm of civilisation. Here I had the privilege to watch the Munich Olympics on a black and white television set. I was glued to the events and followed the games with very keen interest.
The Munich Olympics were an unforgettable experience for their excellent sports as well as for other events totally unrelated to the games proper. Members of the 'Black September' movement kidnapped some Israeli athletes. Two of the athletes were killed and nine others also died during a daring rescue operation by Israeli commandos.
The entire drama was captured and shown on global television. The Olympic games were never the same ever again. The Olympics of 1976 were also dramatic but for different reasons. I became a 'god' also.
Some six months before the Montreal Olympics the thought that I could ever be an Olympian did not even exist in my mind. Yet, through the intervention of fate, I caught the eye and attention of those in charge of Nigerian sports teams preparing for the games.
Six months later, on July 12, 1976, I was a member of Nigeria's contingent that arrived in the Games Village in Montreal, Canada, for the 21st Olympiad. It was more than a dream come true.
The contingent arrived in the Olympic Village in high spirits. For one week we lived among thousands of other athletes from all over the world and savoured the beauty of the magnificent Olympic village. Everybody was delighted to be meeting everybody else in this sea of humanity of all races, colour, religion, creed and language.
Life in the Olympic Village was a truly unique experience. Unless you personally experienced it you could not adequately capture it in words. Human barriers disappeared and the world of the true athlete, whose main motivation is to make friends and to compete, blooms.
Then the bombshell came!
On July 17, 1976, a day before the start of the games, the Nigerian contingent was hurriedly assembled by its leaders of delegation - Mr Isaac Akioye and Chief Abraham Ordia. They had a 'grave' message from the then head of state of Nigeria - General Olusegun Obasanjo.
The contingent was to leave the games village and head back home immediately. It was devastating news. We could not believe it. For several of the athletes that meant giving up their life-long dream of an Olympic medal. That also meant putting aside four years of torturous hard work.
For several it also meant never having another opportunity at the Olympics again. The only sense of consolation was the reason given for taking such a bruising decision - our brothers and sisters in South Africa needed us to lend them our voices and support their cause. That was my first real contact with the word 'apartheid'.
The Organisation of African Unity, OAU, then decided to use the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of the blacks in South Africa. We were told that boycotting the games would hurt the West even though it would be an essential sacrifice every black man on earth had to make to draw attention to the ugly practice of apartheid in South Africa.
Black Africa, led by Nigeria, was making the ultimate sacrifice by withdrawing its youths from the games in protest against the participation of New Zealand, a country that was supporting apartheid through its disregard of the call for countries not to engage with South Africa in sports.
Within a few hours we had packed our things, vacated the games village and headed to the Montreal International Airport. Although we were not received as heroes back home, we appreciated the enormity of our collective sacrifice.
That was my first experience of the Olympics. It impacted on the next two Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 in ways that threatened the survival of the global Olympic movement. Both suffered boycotts by countries that had unresolved political differences to settle.
I am extremely lucky that four years after Montreal I captained Nigeria's contingent to the Moscow Olympics. Many of the athletes still hurt till now from missing Montreal. Their pain is compounded by the frail relationship that now exists between South Africa and Nigeria.
The sacrifice made by Nigeria is hardly ever acknowledged or reciprocated in the social interactions between the peoples of both countries. It goes without saying that Nigeria played a major role, through the sacrifice made by all its athletes, in the struggle for the eradication of Apartheid in South Africa.