West Africans make the best sprinters
Recently I spent two days with Lee Evans, one of the legends of the Olympics.
In the rarified atmosphere of Mexico in 1968 he won the Olympic gold medal in the 400 metre sprint event and set a new world record that remained unbroken until Michael Johnson came along in Sydney, 20 years later. Evans participated again in Munich, Germany, in 1972 as part of the US quarter-mile quartet.
He was lured to Nigeria by America-trained, ex-international athlete and member of the famous Nigerian'1949 UK Tourists' football team, Isaac Akioye, to join him in an African sports revolution in Nigeria. Mr Akioye had been hired by the University of Ife to start the department of physical and health education in the university. In shopping for the best hands in America, Akioye had offered this young famous, African American, retiring athlete the opportunity to be a part of his team in the university.
On the eve of London 2012 Lee and I had a wonderful conversation. None of it was meant to be published. However, in looking ahead to the games, I must recall some of our very interesting and intriguing discussions.
Lee understood very well what Akioye wanted to do with Nigerian sports - to copy the American model and make collegiate sports the foundation of Nigeria's sports development. Lee understood because he was a product himself.
He recalled that in the 1968 USA Olympic contingent, all the athletes were either students or graduates of American universities. So, when he came to the country for the first time and saw the abundance of raw, natural talent all over the country, he did not go back to America for the next seven years. In those years Lee had a full hand in making the University of Ife the home of athletics development in the country. He also discovered and nurtured some of the great sprinters in our country's history. He was instrumental to the placement of many of them in American universities.
Through his work with Akioye was revealed Nigeria's natural depth in the sprints and jumps department. Nigeria's dominance in Africa and even in the Commonwealth have been indisputable since then. The list is very long - Charlton Ehizuelen, Dele Udoh, Felix Imadiyi, Godwin Obasogie, Modupe Osikoya, Gloria Ayanlaja, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Chidi Imo, Henry Amike, Yusuf Ali, Adenekan Olopade, the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond) and Innocent Egbunike. They were all, at different times, the best sprinters and jumpers in Africa and the Commonwealth. Many of them were finalists in the World Athletics Championships and even the Olympic Games.
In explaining his belief and love (and frustration) for Nigerian athletics, Lee told me about the strength of American athletics.
In America, you cannot do sport to a high level if you do not go to school. Sport and school are inseparable. He said that the institutions are the best training grounds because of their discipline, facilities and intellectual approach.
Secondly, he says I should take a close look at the history of the Olympics and the sprints events. Why has sprinting been dominated through the decades by black men and women? What part of the world do these black athletes come from?
In America, from the 100 to the 400 metre sprint events, the explosive power-sports, African Americans have ruled. Beyond America he says that it is likely that the 16 finalists in both the male and female sprints events in London will be made up mostly of black athletes from certain parts of the world that require close scrutiny. Where do the athletes from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, who dominate world sprinting, come from originally?
His conclusion was shocking. If we trace their history properly we would find, he says, that they all are not just of African descent, but are specifically from West Africa.
He says that all the black sprint athletes racing around the world are descendants of Africans that were victims of slavery. Their ancestors were taken from a part of Africa and shipped to the Americas and the West Indies, and through further migration to some parts of Europe, particularly the UK.
So, what makes these blacks so strong, powerful and fast? Does it have anything to do with the hardship they faced? Not really. The example of Nigerians at home without the experience some of their ancestors suffered, and doing well also in the sprints and jumps, provides good evidence. A black man does not have to be a 'slave' to excel in the sprints. Running fast is in his genes.
Lee believes that if Nigeria, and some West African countries, should have the facilities and the discipline that propels American athletics development, Nigeria will dominate the world of sprints and jumps. Even now, without doing much, the country remains at the periphery of greatness.
Recently, it was reported that former world heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, visited Nigeria. He sought, through some new scientific means (now available I hear), to identify his roots through the laboratory examination of his genes. The result confirmed that his genes were traceable to a particular tribe in West Africa, in Nigeria, and, particularly in Badagry, near Lagos. Badagry is a well-known slave outpost. As a result, Holyfield, I am also told, started investing in some sports development initiative in Badagry.
That’s why Lee could be right. All the evidence indicates that his thinking is logical. Sprinting is for the West African black person, just as the middle and long distance is for the East African.
As one of the greatest African American sprinters in history himself, Lee believes his ancestors also came from this part of the world. His coming to settle in Nigeria is a conspiracy of the elements to bring him home.
So, I am looking towards London 2012 with a slightly different eye. My full attention, like the rest of the world's, woill now be a microscopic scrutiny of all those who will line up during the sprints events and wondering how many might be my distant relatives, my unknown brothers and sisters from Abeokuta.