The Best Sprinters In The World Are All West Africans!
Posted: Jul 29, 2012
Welcome to the 2012 Olympic games
I am on my way to London to share of what the world believes would be an Olympic games like no other in history. London is pulling out all the stops to exceed even itself.
Early this week I spent two days with Lee Evans, one of the legends of the Olympics. In the rarified atmosphere of Mexico in 1968, not only did he win the Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres sprint event, he set a new world record in the process that remained unbroken until Michael Johnson came along in Sydney, 20 years later, to shatter what the world had started to think may never be equalled again. He participated again in Munich, Germany, in 1972 as part of the USA quarter-mile quartet.
With a lot of running still left in his legs, he was lured to Nigeria by America-trained, ex-international athlete and member of the famous Nigerian ‘1949 UK Tourists’ football team, Mr. 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.
Africa was mysterious and Lee was adventurous. He swallowed Akioye’s bait hook, line and sinker. He came to Nigeria in 1975, visited the University at Ile Ife in Western Nigeria, fell in love with the environment, and was completely overwhelmed by the abundance of young talented Nigerian athletes he met. He later moved to the national team when Akioye himself was appointed the country’s second Director of Sports in that same year. Since then, Lee has never completely left Nigeria. Even in all his travels abroad, coaching athletes in different parts of the world, he has ferried back and forth Nigeria several times. In the last three years, he has been working silently again in the country breeding a new generation of runners in Cross Rivers State. He warns me to watch out for them in three to four year’s time.
On the eve of London 2012, Lee and I had a wonderful conversation.None of it was meant to be published. But in looking ahead to the games I cannot but 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 talents 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.
Though his work with Akioye was revealed in Nigeria’s natural depth in the sprints and jumps department. Nigeria’s dominance in Africa and even in the Commonwealth has 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), Innocent Egbunike, etc. Check out all these names, 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 is that sprinting has 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 metres sprints events, the explosive power-sports, African Americans have ruled. Beyond America, he says that it is likely that the eight finalists in both the male and female sprints events in London would be made up of black athletes from certain parts of the world that require a close scrutiny. Where do the athletes from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and even some Africans come from?
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 specifically from West Africa!
Without meaning to be derogatory in any way, 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, doing well also in the sprints and jumps provides good evidence. A black man does not have to be a ‘slave’ to excel in athletics. It is in his genes. Lee believes that if Nigeria, and some West African countries, should have the facilities and the discipline that propels American, and now Jamaican, athletics development, in a matter of a few years, Nigeria, with its 160 million strong black population, will dominate the world of sprints and jumps! Even now, without doing much, the country remains at the periphery of greatness, reminding those that have eyes to see of the possibilities that lie ahead.
Recently, it was reported that former World Heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, visited Nigeria. He had 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 very well known slave outpost. As a result, Holyfield, I am also told, is presently investing in some sports development initiative in Badagry, where science now confirms he comes from.
That’s why Lee could be right. All the evidence indicate that his thinking is logical. Sprinting is for the West African person, just as the middle and long distance is for the East African. That’s why some people can say that ‘ the black man cannot float’ in looking at how he has fared in swimming,Lee concludes.
That’s why he cannot leave the Nigerian environment for now. As one of the greatest African American sprinters in history himself, he 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. I was dumbfounded!
So, I am looking towards London 2012 with a slightly different eye. My full attention, like the rest of the world’s, would now be a microscopic scrutiny of all those that will line up during the sprints events. How many might be my unknown brothers and sisters from Abeokuta?
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