Heroes are rarely recognised in Nigeria leaving enough space for villains to thrive while those who laboured for selves and country occupy the back seats in relegation only to be eulogised when they transit to the great beyond.
The Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) deserves accolades for departing from this nauseating tradition. Within its premises is a huge reminder of compatriots who sacrificed so much to liberate South Africa from apartheid. Standing four metres tall is the NIIA Sports Diplomacy Hall of Fame. The names of the country’s athletes, who heeded calls and boycotted the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, are boldly engraved in gold.
To some, it was the end of a dream. The boycott ordered by the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa (SCSA) was to protest New Zealand’s participation. Their All Black Rugby team had toured South Africa prior to the Olympics. That was unacceptable to the SCSA. It was also a year of mourning for blacks who were murdered in hundreds by the blood thirsty apartheid regime. Over 300 souls perished in Soweto, drawing global condemnation. Montreal was an epoch opportunity to use sports against white supremacists. We commend NIIA for organising the event to honour our heroes’ past. Credit also goes to the Chairman of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, who sponsored it. Many thanks to Dr. Segun Odegbami, one of those who were denied participation in 1976 by the boycott. It takes excellence to make the difference. DirectorGeneral of the NIIA, Prof. Eghosa Osaghae is an international. Trained at the University of Ibadan as a Political Scientist, he has gone round the world, teaching, studying and observing. It took his tenure to bring sports and diplomacy together. This is an area that must be given considerable attention.
The people of Montreal will continue to count the costs of the African withdrawal. The Green Eagles were seen as good enough for a soccer medal. After a tour of Eastern Europe, the players were charged mightily to prove a point. In their absence, tickets for matches were refunded. The Federal Government never cared about the welfare of the heroes. Many are dead, some in abject poverty. Kunle Awesu died a lonely man in the United States. Thompson Usiyan also passed on in America. Kelechi Emeteole was lost in India. Joe Erico, Aloy Atuegbu, Haruna Ilerika, Jide Dina and Sam Ojebode succumbed at home. Dele Udoh continued to serve the country after that. Unfortunately, he was gunned down in 1981 by a policeman at Ojuelegba while in camp at the National Stadium, Surulere. The same Nigeria that drew world attention to killing of blacks in Soweto did nothing when Udoh was murdered.
Taiwo Ogunjobi also died serving. He joined the Army and rose to the rank of Major. The officer headed the Nigerian branch of the International Sports Military Commission (CISM). Death came in 1992 through the C-130 Hercules military plane crash in Lagos. Dreams were killed by that boycott. Charlton Ehizuelen was touted as the best Long Jumper in the world just before Montreal. He could have won a medal. Modupe Oshikoya, the first African woman to win Commonwealth Games gold was in good form. So was Obisia Nwakpa, Light Welterweight boxing Golden Boy of the Lagos 1973 All Africa Games. The pain of missing the Olympics may never heal. Patrick Ekeji tasted apples for the first time inside the Olympic Village. Ilerika, who won gold at the All Africa Games three years earlier, screamed when he saw what the cafeteria offered.
The menu was good enough to help performance. Sadly, that was their lost opportunity to play at the Olympics. Odegbami and Atuegbu were lucky to attend the next Games held in Moscow. The other Green Eagles did not. Davidson Andeh went ahead to prove himself by becoming the first African world amateur boxing champion in Belgrade, 1978. The last time anyone heard of him, he was a destitute in Benin. The Federal Government failed the 1976 Olympians. In 1967, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola was one of the three members of the International Olympic Commission (IOC) committee on South Africa. The others were Lord Killanin and Reginald Alexander.
How strange that the Nigeria Olympic Committee never cared about the neglect of its athletes. Germany showed the way. Adolf Hitler fled the Munich Stadium after African American, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals in 1936. He would not shake a ‘Black Auxiliary’. At Munich 1972, Chancellor Willy Brandt invited Owens to Germany and gave him the deserved recognition. Thanks to Osaghae, Onyema and Odegbami, the three Os, our 1976 heroes have got the deserved recognition. We hope that more attention will come especially from South Africa, a country that was saved by Nigeria but continues to humiliate Nigerians.