By Shola Oshunkeye, Joe Apu, Tope David-Adegboye and Adaeze Atueyi-Ojukwu Go back in time.
Turn your calendar back to Friday, August 2, 1996. Does the date ring a bell? It should. For that was Nigeria’s finest day in sporting history. It was also the moment of glory for golden girl, Chioma Ajunwa, who zoomed out of obscurity to shame bookmakers and shatter the record books by leaping 7.12 metres in the very first round of the women’s long jump event of the Atlanta Olympics, a.k.a. Atlanta ’96.
By that singular strike, the diminutive police officer-turned-sports superstar became Nigeria’s first and only individual Olympic gold medalist till date, as well as the first African woman to achieve that spectacular feat in a field event. Born on December 25, 1970, in Ogbe, Ahiara, in Ahiazu-Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State, months after the end of the fratricidal Nigerian civil war, Ajunwa, before leaping to global glory in Atlanta, had played football for the Nigeria’s female soccer team before blazing into athletics. Even though a new terrain, Ajunwa, whose father died when she was still a kid, leaving her mum with nine children to cater for, made a huge impression as a track-and-field athlete at the African Games and African Championships between 1989 and 1991 respectively.
Although her career suffered a slur in 1992 when she failed a drug test and was subsequently banned for four years, the athlete who consistently maintained her innocence during that dark period of her career, bounced back and had her sweet revenge in the Atlanta Games, winning the ultimate prize in long jump, emblazoning her name in gold in Nigeria’s history book. Yet, life seemed so unfair to her as a child. Her world, as well as those of her eight siblings, almost tumbled when their father suddenly died, leaving them to the whims and caprices of uncles, one of whom, the superstar claims, wanted to inherit her mum and all of her children. But when that plot failed, they were dispossessed of their father’s sprawling land and were stripped of virtually all means of survival.
At the height of the family’s excruciating experience, Chioma, who describes herself as ‘a child of destiny’, wanted to become an apprentice mechanic, but her loving mum blocked her, vowing that her last child would never do such a thing. Even when the then Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Muhammadu Gambo, spotted her unusual talent in sports, as a teenager, and wanted her recruited into the Nigeria Police, her mum wept as if her lachrymal gland was about to burst, and said her child would only join the force over her dead body. But after a lot of going back and forth, the unbending IG had his way and got Chioma (meaning: Good God) into the police force.
Today, the golden girl of Nigerian sports is not only a Chief Superintendent of Police, but also the Divisional Police Officer at the Meiran Police Station in Lagos. Despite her glittering records and highly inspiring achievements, Chioma’s road, even in marriage, was not all that smooth as she gad to endure eight- -and-a-half years of childlessness before her womb eventually opened and she became a proud mum. On Monday, September 3, 2012, Chioma Ajunwa scored the greatest goal any woman could ever aspire to score. She had a set of triplets, two boys and one girl. The triplets are big and healthy. Mum Chioma, too, is in perfect health. Her joy knew no bounds on Tuesday, as she sat down with a five-man team of ASPIRE, in a no-holds-barred interview that lasted three solid hours. Please, sit back, relax and enjoy all of it. Excerpts:
When we entered this place, the picture I was looking for was that of your golden leap in Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Why is conspicuously missing in your living room?
It’s somewhere there but like you said, it’s not that big.
But if I were in your shoes, that picture would be the dominant picture in my house because that was your greatest moment of glory. Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medal…
(Cuts in…) I agree perfectly with you. But this is what happened. When we returned from Atlanta, during the reception to honour us and we were being taken from place to another, something happened. All the recordings that I made in Atlanta, I’m sorry to say this, were stolen by journalist. The journalist stole my camera, with all my recordings in there.
You must be kidding! A journalist?
I’m dead serious. I’m sorry, a Nigerian journalist, a female journalist, one of your colleagues, stole my camera. The problem is that I don’t know her name and since then, I’ve never set my eyes on her. I have not seen her again.
How did it happen?
What happened was that she kept following me all over the place, calling me her sister. And I had no reason to be suspicious because she was always coming to the stadium to interview us, asking us questions. I felt since she was normally coming to the stadium to ask questions, I dropped my camera on the table when I was asked to come to the podium and give a speech. She was seated close to me. But by the time I returned to the table, after making my speech, she had gone with my camera. That was how I lost everything that I recorded.
How did that hit you?
Painful. Pained me to my marrow because that camera contained all the (visual) records of my performance at the Atlanta Olympics. I cried.
Sorry about that. But when you were going to Atlanta, did you, in your wildest imagination, ever dreamt of giving Nigeria her first Olympic gold medal?
If I say that I was expecting it, it means there is no truth in me. I never even thought of winning any medal not to talk of gold. But to God be the glory, He made everything beautiful for me at the goodness of His time. How He did it, I wouldn’t know. But I found myself winning the first individual medal for the country. And it was gold! It is the Lord’s doing because if it were by my power or my might or something that can be bought, I wouldn’t have made it. Where would I have got the money? But God just made it to happen at the goodness of his time. And that is exactly what is happening to me the whole of my life till now.
For instance, many people have been asking how it was possible for me to have triplets. They even gave all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t be a mother…!
People are really questioning that, questioning your having a set of triplets at this point?
Yes, people are asking. People are saying that they didn’t see me pregnant, and that I didn’t come to show them. And I ask them: when has it become a culture that anybody that is pregnant must go to a media house and announce? I don’t feel happy talking about this, neither is my husband nor the Nigerian Police Force where I serve. The important thing is that people saw me (when I was pregnant) and whoever did not is not important. It’s not my business. The most important thing is that they (the children) have come, and by the grace of God Almighty, they have come to stay. If anybody wants to be happy with me, let him or her be happy. Let them join me to glorify God because it is a miracle. I never knew I was pregnant until it got to the seventh month. Prior to that time, I knew what had been happening to me but I thank God that, at last, they (the children) came. So, Atlanta wasn’t by my own power.
That moment after the jump and you saw the scoreboard with your name on it, how did you feel?
After I took the leap, it took some time before the officials could raise the white flag. They were hesitating, and I wondered why. As I was walking back, I was looking back to see if the board was rotating because once it starts rotating, it means the jump has been given to you. Then, I noticed one Mr. John, from Kenya but originally a Briton, going from one official to another, talking. But I couldn’t hear what they were saying. After what seemed to me like an eternity, they eventually raised the flag, and the board started rotating. Sadly, at that glorious moment, I didn’t see anybody to hug me because I was the only Nigerian there.
In victory, you were the loneliest woman in the world…
Well, something like that. As a matter of fact, I was the only African there. So, what I did was to go on my knees and bowed for God. I worshipped God. It was much later, while on a training tour in Kenya that I met that same Mr. John who, then, revealed to me that the officials wanted to rob me. When they discovered that the jump could be a winning jump, they wanted to rub me of it. But he told them that if they did, he would expose them. They got afraid, I guess. So, they didn’t have any choice but raise the flag.
So, it’s possible to rub athletes at such levels too?
Yes, they do it. They do it mostly in technical events. Even in 100 metres, sometimes, we end up going to watch the photo finish.
At what point did it strike you that what God had just helped you to accomplish would change your life?
I never knew the meaning (implication) of winning the Olympic gold. Even, moments after that jump, I still didn’t know the magnitude of what had I had just done and what it would do to me. At that point, I never thought it was anything big. Even when the president (the late General Sani Abacha) called the Nigerian camp, and said he even if everybody wanted to stay back, if everybody should stay back, I must return to Nigeria, I still didn’t understand. It was only when I got to Nigeria that I realized the full meaning of what God had done for me. During our stopover in Senegal (on the journey back home), I started noticing that the medal meant a lot because of the crowd that came to welcome us. It was huge, and everybody wanted to touch me. Until that moment, I felt it (the gold medal) was just like any other medal; just like any of those medals that I’ve been winning.
In specific terms, what has winning the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta ’96 done to your life?
(Smiling…) Really, the only thing I can say is that it has given me fame. It has also opened doors for me but it has not made me rich.
What about the money that came in after that?
What money? N1M?
What about monies from sponsors, and donations from governments and organizations, and others?
You mean donations from companies in Nigeria?
(Squeezing her face in anger…) Not in this world. Never! What Tower (Aluminum) gave to me was just a plaque. All other companies were giving me congratulatory letters. Nobody gave me money.
But in terms of doors, it did open doors. Or didn’t it?
Yeah, it did open doors for me and it made everybody to know me.
How did it affect your job as a police officer?
It helped me. It helped me rise through the ranks. Honestly, whenever I
have to talk about this, I feel so bad.
Why do you feel bad?
We are not good in this country. Had it been it was another country that I won the first individual Olympic gold medal for, I would have got car gifts, houses and plenty of money. But what did Nigeria give for me? I was given one million naira. Even that money was given to me in bits. I never knew what I used it for. That is why, when people want to interview me, I don’t like to talk about these things because there are some things one would say that would not go down well with some people. I don’t think we like good things in this nation.
But you were also given national award…
Yes, I was given M.O.N (Member Of The Order of the Niger). What is the meaning of being given M.O.N? M.O.N was given to everybody that went for the (Atlanta ’96) Games. So, what makes mine different? Members of the national football team (the then Green Eagles, now Super Eagles) that won the African Nations Cup in 1980 were all given houses in FESTAC Town. My manager, Chief Segun Odegbami, was one of them. I’ve been there and I can tell you it’s such an awesome house. But what do I have to show for my own achievement? Nothing. Is there any street named after Chioma Ajunwa in Abuja? Nowhere. All you see is Cameroun Street, Alhaji Street, Sadiat Street and all such nonsense. But people that bring honour to this country with their own money and energy get nothing. That’s why people say I am looking old because I ran all my life for this country; I jumped all through for this country. All I get is M.O.N. What is M.O.N? All these small boys that they are giving M.O.N now, what have they done for this country?
I thought the M.O.N., indeed, all national awards, come with money, apart from the certificate.
Which money? It comes with nothing. Just presidential handshake.
Ok, Chioma, let’s go back to Atlanta ‘96. You said you were the only one on that pitch, that glorious day. That means the AFN (Athletics Federation of Nigeria) did not think much of you as an athlete worthy of any medal. Consequently, you were left to yourself. So, how did you feel after you won the gold?
You know when my colleagues Mary Onyali and Falilat Ogunkoya won their medals, our Sports Minister then, Chief Jim Nwobodo, came to our camp with his entourage, including the then Director-General, Dr. Amos Adamu. They gave money to the winners and gave pep talks to other athletes that were yet to have their events. They called them names and told them they would give them things only if they won they events. As they got up to go, Onyuike, a hurdler, who was then a law student, got angry and asked the entourage: why he did not mention my name while talking to those that were yet to do their own event. He asked them if my own event was not important. The then minister told him: ‘Go and win first. When you win, then, you come.’
So, I asked them if my event was not important. I started crying and my other colleagues were encouraging me not to cry. Then, I went to my room. On the competition day, Beatrice Utondu, Mary Tombiri and myself went to the Nigerian House to collect our national flag. Beatrice asked for the flag saying that she was sure I was going to win, and that after winning, I would need the flag for my victory lap. The man didn’t make any sense from what Beatrice said. He just burst out laughing, but later said that they would come. He said we should go, that they when they come over, they would come with the flag. Meanwhile, we knew they were all going for the football event, that was why we wanted them to give us the flag. But they refused. So, we left. We never saw any of them. They all went to watch football. They never came. But when God did the miracle, it shocked every one of them.
After I won, there was no flag. What he gave to us was that small table flag. I couldn’t use that for the victory lap. Fortunately, someone in the crowd threw one to me. That was what I used for my victory lap. I was so lonely in Nigeria’s moment of glory. They (Nigerian officials) did that to me to show that they never believed anything good could come out of long jump and me. They believed that in long jump, nothing good could come from Chioma. But I thank God for whom I am. People that know me very well, people that know me to my house back home, know that all through my life, what has been happening to me couldn’t have been from any man. It could not have been by any man. It can only be God. I am a child of destiny.
I can see, in you, a determined woman. Could you share with us some of those experiences of life, for ill or for good, that made you what and whom you are?
I was born into a family of nine-six boys and three girls; and I happen to be the baby of the family.
That means your parents must have pampered you silly…
I did not allow that to happen. I am from a very poor home.
What was Papa, your father, doing?
My father died when I was very young. I was still very small; in fact, they were still carrying me when my dad died. And my mother had to train nine of us, and she didn’t find it easy. Things were so bad that when I passed my entrance exam into the university my mother was crying.
What year was this?
That was far back in 1988.
Why was she crying?
Because there was no money to enable me to further my education. Instead of her to be happy that her daughter had done well, she was crying.
She was crying because she was afraid that you would lose the admission?
Yes. Of course, I lost it. Where would my mother get the money for me to go to school? So, I decided to go and learn how to be a mechanic. I would have been the first woman to become a mechanic if not in Nigeria but at least in my village. I went to buy an overall, and I was ready to go to Aba to enroll at a mechanic workshop as an apprentice.
Where were you living at the time?
I was staying at Mbaise. My mother stopped me from going because she felt that kind of job was not meant for a woman. She thought it was a man’s job. So, she put her feet down. But I was not discouraged. Because of the spirit in me, I knew I was going to be an extraordinary person in my family. So, I told my mother to leave me, that all I wanted to be was a mechanic. But she stood her ground. She said no. At the end of the day, my ambition to become a mechanic became suppressed.
After she refused to let you go, what next?
I decided that since I had been running since my primary school days, I would go to Owerri and ask the Sport Council to place me on an allowance as they were doing to other athletes. When I got there, I told the secretary but she started shouting on me, saying: ‘Look at these small children; they don’t even fear. Imagine her audacity.’ I was disappointed and wondered how much was even the allowance to warrant all this noise? Fifty naira! And she was shouting on me. God, I cried that day. I decided to leave.
But as I was leaving the stadium, I saw three police people coming-two men and a lady. They told me that their Oga wanted to see me. These were people I never met before, and you can imagine how much I feared the police those days. Because of my fear for the police, I started crying. At a point, they came to me and said their boss wanted to see me. I refused to listen to them. They started dragging me because I said I was not going with them.
At that point, one of the athletes came out to see what was happening; once she saw me she asked what the problem was. I told her I did not know why they wanted to take me to the police station. She escorted me to the police headquarters. The man (the boss) was so shocked to see how small I was. Obviously, he was expecting to see someone taller than I was. So, he said: ‘Is this the antelope you were referring to? This juvenile? After they had convinced him, he gave me N200. But I refused to collect. I told him my mother would kill me. He, then, ordered the policemen to follow me to my place. They did, and they gave my mother N500, telling my mother that she should allow me to come for training. But my mother bluntly refused. She swore never to involve herself with the police. She said nothing would make her or her children get involved with anything police, not to talk of her last born. They told her not to worry, that I would be taken care of. After sometime, she buckled. That was how I entered the police.
How long did it take your mother to agree?
I can’t remember exactly how long, but my mother did not accept immediately. And because I thought they might come back for me, I ran to Port Harcourt where my senior brother was staying. It was there in Port Harcourt that they arrested me the second time.
Yes now. When you are stopped from where you are going to and taken to a police station, is that not arrest? You are under arrest. So, they told me that the Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Muhammadu Gambo, had given a signal that anywhere I was in Nigeria, they must find me. Unknown to me, they had been looking for me for a while until somebody told them that I was in Civic Centre. At a point, the pressure was unbearable, and my brother advised me to accept their offer, that when I grow up, I would understand better. Well, to God be the glory, at the end of it all, I followed them to Kwara State for the Nigeria Police Games and I won four gold medals for them.
What year was this?
That was 1988.
How old were you at the time?
I should be around 14 or 15
But you were very small?
Yes. I was very small. However, when I got to Police College, they rejected me because I was not up to the required age. God, I was very happy and decided to leave. Again, they stopped me. They caught me later, saying that if I were allowed to go, the Inspector-General of Police would give them query. They knew I was not of age, but I came here under special recruitment. I was given a special room with two other people. We were called IG’s special children. There was no stressful activity for us. All we had to do was just to go for our training. It was when I got to Police Academy that I had time to train (in athletics). When I was at home, my parents did not allow me to train. They did not even want me to do the sports. Many times, they would lock me out but I would jump through the window.
After the Police Games (in Kwara State), I was invited to the national camp. Nigeria was to host the All Africa Championship here in Lagos. At that time, Mary Onyali, Beatrice Utondu, and some others were among the best. We were told that some US-based players were coming and all we had to do was just to sit and watch them. But I did not like it because if I was to sit down, I won’t be able to develop myself. That night, I did not allow them to sleep, and I was given a chance.
Though I was the smallest amongst them, when we got out there, I jumped 6.53 and I won the championship. Neither Beatrice nor Okpara Thompson, nor any other athlete was able to get there. I won the first gold for Nigeria in that championship. They now decided that I would stay back and continue training because of the World Athletics Championship coming up in Spain. When I got there, I was new on the world stage. The competition was done in the night; it rained heavily; and the snow was heavy. I had not travelled out before and I did not know there were places that could be as cold as that. Because of the bad weather, I was not able to jump well. I jumped 6.48 and I came fifth. That was how I came into the (national and global) limelight.
Does this trait run in your family?
Well, I did not inherit it from any member of my family. But I did it to the best of my ability. When I say that I am a child of destiny, you will now understand where I am coming from.
What were the other events that happened in your life that made you believe you were, indeed, a destiny child?
I can say that, apart from what I mentioned before, some of my age mates have not gotten to the level I am today. In 1991, when I came back from the All African Championship, I built a house for my mum. The money I made there, I never used it to buy cloths or gold. I kept it because I knew where I was coming from. When I came back from the (athletics) World Cup, I used the money I made to wire my house and bring electricity in there. I even supplied light to my neighbours. Everybody was praying for me. People believed I had done many big things and just left me for God.
How much did you make in you last championship that helped you build a house?
I had up to N300, 000 because (the late Chief M.K.O) Abiola gave us money
How much did he give you?
He gave me N170, 000 because I won two gold medals. When we went for the World Cup, we went with his wife-Alhaja Simbiat of blessed memory, and she gave us money.
She gave us $50, 000. I kept the money, together with my allowances, until I came back home. When I returned, I bought a big generator at Alaba International Market…
As young as you where then, how did you get the idea of building a house for your mum?
I really wanted to make my mother happy, because she suffered a lot for us. My mother would not buy cloths to wear; any little money she gets, she uses it to train us in school, and to, generally, make us happy like all other children. I don’t want to blow my trumpet.
Like I said, you are not blowing your trumpet, but we need to know some of these things so that people reading it can learn from you.
When I came back from Atlanta, I built a magnificent house for myself in my village. Ask anybody that is from my village.
Why not in Lagos?
I built it for my brothers. There was no land for them to build when they wanted; and they kept on having problems. Little did they know that the last born of the family would deliver something better to the family. My father was the only child of his parents. But his brothers took all our plots of land and gave them to government to build a secondary school. After they finished building, there was still land left. They said that in exchange for the land, they were going to train my father’s children. But instead, they gave their own children. None of my brothers or sisters was sent to the school. Eventually, my dad was killed. Till today, when you get to my place, the land that remains is still massive.
When they finished building Saint Patrick School, the land still remains. They built Post Office, the land still remains. It was still left. That was where my dad was buried. And they were trying to desecrate my father’s tomb. They used the place to do ridges, and the people working in the Post Office and in the school would give their concubines plots to cultivate whatever they want. One day, my mother went to the place but they used cane to pursue her. But God proved Himself faithful. He proved that He is really the husband of widows and Father to the fatherless.
One day, when I was in Atlanta, it was like I was in a trance. And I saw someone wearing a dazzling white apparallel walk into my room. The person tapped me and said ‘Go and posses that land. Build whatever you want to build.’ The voice was audible. It was clear. When the person left, I jumped up and saw that my light was off. I ran to the door and saw it was locked from inside. That moment, my mind stuck to the land. The next time I traveled home, I went straight to the local government chairman’s house. I told him that I did not come to him to fight for me, but that I just came to tell him what I wanted to do. So that by the time they come, he won’t be dilly-dallying. I also went to my traditional ruler and told him what I wanted to do: build a house on the land.
He was surprised. I told him that the land belonged to my father and that they buried him there; and I could not leave my father’s carcass there unprotected. I must protect it. Before then, I had already built a grave on top it to stop people farming there. In fact, that was what made my mother cry every time. The traditional ruler gave me the go-ahead. I didn’t stop there. I went to the chief judge of our place and told him what I was about to do.
My elder brother was afraid. He did not want me to build there. He said people would kill me. I told him my life is in God’s hands, and I will build there; that my father was buried there and I wanted to protect him. My brother said the land has been sold fifty-two years before we were born and, therefore, belong to the government.
I told him we also are part of the government; that what I was doing was not illegal; government has built whatever they wanted to build. Only two of my brothers who were stubborn supported me. The next day, we started work there. Four of my brothers who did not have land to build, I built house for them there. People thought we were not going far, but before they knew it, we had built a gate, locked it and started the main building.
Those who were called to come and destroy the building could not. Once they discovered it was Chioma Ajunwa’s place, the person who won gold medal for them, they would just go back. That was how God just gave me that victory. I never spoke to any of the boys. I did not even see them. My house was built on the land, my father’s tomb was protected, and when my mum died, that was where I buried her. I also built a big house for them.
When did mama die?
My mother died in 1992.
Was she ill?
Yes, she was.
How old was she?
Eighty-two. When my mum was alive, people in my village knew I took care of her very well. I bought a car for her so that she will be using it to go and throw away the dirt that she sweeps from the compound. I made my mother happy because the woman suffered so much. If not for God, I would not have been able to achieve it on my own.
What were the threats you faced when all these happened to you? Were you attacked spiritually or otherwise?
If I say that, I would be a liar. Nobody attacked me, but you know you must have challenges here and there.
What were the challenges?
I think it was in my career. People did not like me. They did not want to see me. Everything I did was not good enough but, in a way, they could not help it.
Why would anybody be sad and angry at your success?
I think it is a natural phenomenon. When you are doing something good, some people would just be wondering: ‘is it only her?’ They would be saying all sorts of things out of envy. It was like Chioma Ajunwa just came and everything was working for her, and they did not know the secret. They did not know where I was coming from.
By the way, what is the meaning of ‘Chioma’?
So, has God been really good to you?
He has. That is why we say, people should mind the name they give to their children because names have a lot to do with the destiny of the child. Today, things seem to be okay for me but they did not know that where I was coming from. I suffered a lot. My family, and I we suffered humiliations. My father’s brothers forced my mother to marry their own son. They wanted us to change our father’s name to another man’s name. Imagine someone who went to Cameroon to waste his life, now turning round to claim another man’s children because my father was late. Of course, my mother refused and ran away.
(To be continued next week)