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I had options to switch nationality – Chioma Ajunwa Oparah

Nigeria’s first Olympic Gold Medalist, Chioma Ajunwa Oparah, has a large heart. Despite not being adequately honoured and rewarded after achieving a feat that placed her country’s name on the world map, she has not relented on her quest to discover, nurture and keep hope alive for the younger generation of sportsmen and creative minds.

Although she is a household name globally, the Mbaise, Imo State-born star athlete believes that Nigeria boasts of many hidden talents who cannot be undermined. According to her, these talents need to be discovered, and nurtured to greatness in different fields. And in demonstration of her passion and commitment to bringing the project to fruition, the female cop has committed enormous resources and energy. After a long wait, the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation has finally come alive and set to kick-off with the first batch of youths billed to be empowered with skills, trainings and opportunities that would guarantee them access to jobs, competition and scholarships.

The Foundation located on the serene outskirt of Lagos, Meiran to be precise, will serve as a discovery hub for aspiring sports others with a view to reducing poverty and unemployment to the barest minimum. Ajunwa, currently a Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) spoke on the new challenge and other issues.

Excerpts.

Is it true that your pet project, the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation is set for take-off?

Yes, we are putting finishing touches to the land. The buildings are ready but we are trying to fix the necessary things. It is a capital intensive project which is being financed by myself. You know what that entails.

A project of this magnitude ought to have the support of government, especially in the areas of funding and logistics.

I’m passionate about it. That’s why I have refused to back out after fruitless efforts to get government’s support. It is very unfortunate that both the previous and present administrations have failed to encourage programmes aimed at helping aspiring sports and creative individuals with sustainable means of livelihood. I don’t know why government cannot take care of our young talents. And if the money is not there, why not propel the corporate organizations and rich individuals to step in? That has been the bane of our development in certain areas.

Are you saying that in your days as a sportswoman, government did not give you any form of encouragement or support?

There was nothing like that. God will always guide, protect and provide for Chief Segun Odegbami who single-handedly did it for me. But even at that, he never gave me money but he ensured that my training allowances were sustained. In fact, if  government can borrow a leaf from him, there will be a great difference and development. However, the reverse has been the case. I would have won more than one gold medal if I had received additional support from government. I was more on my own. Even when I begged them to cater for my coach, nothing happened.

How far have you gone with the Foundation and when do you intend to start?

 I have been able to erect an edifice where the athletes will stay. I managed to do it through foreign donor companies. I have contacts that support laudable projects and I only need government to support and say yes it’s a good one.

I have also built a mini Games Village around the arena. All I need now is to call on government to come and brand the place. Everything is intact there.

We shall be having age-grade competitions with people from junior secondary schools, state by state. And we will groom, train and place them before American sponsors. This is because our athletes do better when they are outside, and for obvious reasons. They do well because of the first class incentives that abound there; beautiful environment, food and others. Nigerian athletes are hot cakes everywhere. And there are many Okagbares all over the country waiting to be discovered and nurtured.

What are the entry requirements like?

We are looking at 100, 200, 400 metres; 4×4 relay players, long and triple jump among others. Forms will be accessed through our website and the competition will be open. But it will be done batch-by-batch and season-by-season. The successful ones will grab the opportunity to travel out and study in American universities as they carry out their sporting activities.

In essence, you are creating entrepreneurship opportunities for all and sundry?

The project is not only meant for sports personnel. singers, actors, models, etc, are also welcome. There will be managers in each category to handle them. Sports and entertainment have become big business. If the sports ministry want (at both the state and federal levels) we will partner with them, otherwise I will do it alone.

Let’s digress a little; you said you were not encouraged when you won the Olympic Gold for Nigeria at individual level, does it mean that nothing was given to you after your triumph?

The gain or reward I received from the Federal Government was one million naira and an award of the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) under the late General Sani Abacha. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan followed suit with awards but with no monetary attachment. I appreciate them but I think I deserve more than that. At least, I deserve houses at the federal and (my) state levels. That is why our sportsmen and women are reluctant to make sacrifices for the country or even change their nationalities. So, when they say you don’t inspire the younger ones, I wonder if I was inspired in the first place. Even a Tokunbo car was not given to me. But I’m doing what I’m doing today out of passion. You can see that the footballers demanded for their full allowances before they came because if they get injured, nobody cares about them.

You must have loved your country a great deal not to have fallen into the temptation of changing your nationality for greener pastures?

This quest to help discover and nurture a new generation into greatness wouldn’t have been possible if I had done that. I believe that Nigeria will thrive in many areas in future. And what I’m doing today is not for me but for the younger ones. It’s a legacy I want to leave behind. Of course, I had the option of becoming an American or Briton. Again, I remembered what the Nigeria Police Force also did for me, the support and encouragement. I am still wanted outside the country up till today, to serve in different departments but I keep saying no.

What is your relationship with Chief Segun Odegbami currently for giving you the push from the outset?

Let me confess that Chief Segun Odegbami remains my second God. There is no gainsaying the fact that if not for him, nobody would have believed that something good could come out of Chioma Ajunwa.  If Nigeria (and Nigerians) can forget petty politics and give him the chance to manage the arena, Nigeria will become a greater ocountry place in sports.    

Is marriage an impediment to sports women?

I don’t see it as such once you have the zeal. Many players outside the country got married and combined both well. Our own Falilat Ogunkoya and Mary Onyali also got married while doing sports and it didn’t stop them. Mine, however, came after my retirement from active sports in August 2004 and it has been a wonderful experience. When you marry your own bone and flesh, you will taste the goodness of marriage but if it’s the opposite, you will think marriage is a curse.

What is your fashion style like?

I have no fashion flair.  Maybe because of my long stay overseas. I prefer simple wears and feel uncomfortable each time I adorn the so called real fashion. Again, as a sports person, I like the track suit and T-Shirt.

How many children do you have?

I have three lovely children and i’m happy for what God did for me and give Him glory.

What is your favourite food?

My best dish is pounded yam with okro soup and stockfish. I don’t eat fish.

What about your educational background?

I studied Human Kinetics and Health Education for my first degree. Then I did Sports Administration and Management for Masters, both in the University of Lagos.

What is your advice to parents on how to train their children?

My advice to them is to do it with the fear of God. That way, they will grow to shun societal ills.

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