This is probably the most incredulous story you have ever read.
On Thursday, June 24, 2021, I received a giant certificate issued by the World Olympians Association, recognising me officially, as an Olympian.
If you know where I was coming from, you would start to understand why hhe certificate is a big deal. It contains a useful message for all boys and girls, who with the right attitude and guidance, can become whatever they can dream to be.
Let me start from the middle of my story. I have caĺled up and asked a few of my colleagues in the Shooting Stars FC team of 1976 if they can recall the circumstances that made our club to transit for 2 days in Athens, Greece, on our way to Egypt for the first leg of the semi finals of the maiden edition of the Africa Cup winners Cup. We were pitched against Zamakek FC.
None of my team mates had an answer. The times have either blurred our recollection, or the elements wanted it that way. But that was what happened. We went to Greece.
David Jemibewon was governor of Western State at the time. Chief Lekan Salami was Chairman of Shooting Stars. Between them they could move mountains. The Green Eagles had returned from Montreal, Canada, from the Olympic Gamea, and we had been released to go back to our various clubs, after the disappointment of the Olympic Games.
Part of our preparation for our next club continental match must have taken us to pass through Greece. Allan Hawkes, our British coach, quickly organised a friendly football match, as well as a day’s visitation the following day, by bus, to Mount Olympus.
My excitement was palpable.
I was going to see and climb to the fabled mountain of Greek mythology, the one described by Legend as the home of the ancient Greek gods including Zeus, Posiedon, Athena, Hermes, Apollo, and so on. I had read about them in secondary school. How the 12 gods established the ancient Games for their own pleasure in the city of Olympia, from which name ‘Olympics’ was derived. How the 12 gods were the first Olympians, and lived on Mount Olympus.
This was the same mountain now took me too in 1976 shortly after I had returned from my first totally unplanned expedition to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, an opportunity to become an Olympian that was truncated like an aborted baby by political circumstances barely six hours to the opening ceremony of the Games. The Nigerian contingent, along with the contingents of 26 other African countries, were ordered to leave the Olympic Village immediately, and to return to our countries. That was the prize the athletes were made to pay for Africa’s protest against Apartheid in South Africa on the eve of achieving our greatest dream.
It was a devastating blow to all the athletes particularly those of us that ‘fate and metaphysical aid’ had offered the rare opportunity to become Olympians.
In the early days of the Olympics, football was not considered one of the major sports, so it was not common for footballers to become Olympians, in my limited thoughts.
Indeed, growing up in the 1960s in Jos, a small city right in the geographical heart of Nigeria, far from the main centres of modernity and the luxury of mainstream media, in my naivety and innocence, I always thought and believed that athletes at the Olympics were of a superhuman breed, not ordinary folk with flesh and warm blood running through their veins, like me. I was too young to know better.
But all of that was before 1968. That year was the turning point in my mind. That year, Nigeria had representation in the game of football at the Olympics held in Mexico City. 4 members of that team, including the captain, Samuel Garba Okoye, were all from Jos. I knew them personally. They were students of Academy Commercial Institute. They played for the Jos Town team, became very famous, were invited to the national academicals team, and eventually, to the Green Eagles of Nigeria. This was all during the Civil War years. Their participation and performances, particularly playing a drawn match against the strongest football country in the world at the time, Brazil, shattered the myth of the exclusivity of the Olympics for only athletes and not footballers.
Garba Okoye, Peter Anieke, Tony Igwe and Ismaila Mabo, all Jos ‘boys’, shed off that false cloak in Mexico and adorned universal garments that Olympians can come from all sports. The only qualification is to participate.
That brought me down to terra firma, the humbling realisation that an ordinary human could go to the Olympics and become an Olympian.
Unfortunately, that I could one day become one, did not exist, not even in my wildest imagination.
Fast forward to 1976, 8 years later.
I was in my final year as a mechanical engineering undergraduate at The Polytechnic, Ibadan.
One eventful evening on the campus, I was watching the network news on television when it was announced that the Green Eagles of Nigeria, by defeating Morocco in the last qualifying match, had qualified to represent Nigeria at the 1976 Olympic Games. I celebrated the Eagles’ victory with my friends in the cafeteria because I personally knew the players.
For 4 years, I had been playing big time football matches. I was becoming a big player. I had played during the first and second National Sports Festivals in 1973 and 1975. I had become a regular player in one of the biggest clubs in the country. I had been invited to the national team and had been there with the best players in the country for a whole year. I had been named ‘Player of the year’ in the Ibadan Football Association league, the biggest in Western Nigeria at the time. I had also been a solid member of the Shooting Stars FC team of 1976 that was deeply involved in that year’s campaign for the Africa Cup winners Cup, along side superstar players like Muda Lawal and Adekunle Awesu, who were both listed in that Olympics-bound national team.
As I listened to the news, it dawned on me that but for my returning to school, I would very easily have been a part of the squad going to the theatre of dreams in Canada.That realisation became my wakeup call. There were some months left to the Olympics. At the same time, I was preparing for my final exams, about to submit my project (designing and fabricating a 2-HP pneumatic machine) and was getting psychologically prepared to head out for my national youth service.
In those few months, a lot could happen in sports, as in life, I told myself.
I also told myself that I could work my way back into the national team, and that I could possibly even still join the ‘train’ heading to Montreal. I was not concerned about how that would happen. I did not even think of the process and the modalities for registering athletes for the Olympics, nor that there was a deadline for the final list of participating athletes to be drawn, registered and sent to the International Olympic Committee, IOC.
The only thing on my mind was to train hard and leave the rest to the elements.
Needless to go into the details of all that followed. Time progressed. I trained like a mad man, running around the campus at noon as if my life depended on it.
I played a few matches in the Africa Cup winners Cup championship and the FA Cup for Shooting Stars FC during those few months and shone like a million stars. My performances were so good that the Nigeria Football Association and the National Sports Commission decided that I must join the national team already in Europe making their final preparations to hop across the Atlantic to Canada, and take part in the Games.
Miraculously, an already-registered player’s name was removed, substituted with mine and sent to the IOC. I was specially flown to Europe to join the touring national team in Germany a few days after I defended my project at the Polytechnic.
Within weeks after touring Europe and playing 10 friendly matches, I found myself in the midst of the Nigerian contingent of renowned athletes, boxers, weightlifters, and others, a congregation of her best athletes, assembled in Paris, and heading out to Montreal, Canada. It was a most improbable dream about to become reality.
But the miracle did not complete its cycle to manifestation. It did not happen because the elements that had made all this possible, still had another of their tricks up their sleeves.
The Montreal dream was truncated. We returned back home dissappointed.
Then from ‘nowhere’, I found myself, a few months down the line, about to climb to the ‘roof top’ of Mount Olympus, in Greece. Recall that this was the place where the gods of ancient Greece lived. They were the original 12 Olympians! I was actually in their home.
My mind is blurred of the circumstances that took us to Greece that year. But I recall going up Mount Olympus in a Cable car, arriving at the top of the mountain and seeing the awesome sight of the world out below for miles around in every direction from that height, with the small temple on the mountain, with its enchanting ancient architecture, and a train of visitors going in and out of the temple with lit candles. It was too tempting to ignore.
My team mates and I joined some tourists into the glow of the inner temple, incense penetrating our nostrils with the hollow sounds of prayerful chants lascerating the smokey air.
I carried my own lit candle into the hallowed temple, and went to one corner to pray to the Creator of the universe.
When we came out of that temple, I knew that something had happened in there that was beyond description or comprehension.
I had some faint belief that my simple prayer was heard. 4 years later, belief transformed into reality. This homosapien had his transformation to the status of a god on the green field of the St. Petersburg Stadium in Russia.
Join me next week for the conclusion of my story.
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