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  • Writer's pictureIdy Uyoe

HOW NIGERIA’S 1976 OLYMPIC TEAM REACTED TO THE AFRICAN BOYCOTT, 47 YEARS LATER

Updated: Sep 6, 2023


Athletes from Nigeria's 1976 Olympic Team sharing how the Olympic boycott continues to impact them, 47 years on.

“At first, we thought it was a joke ... We had not broken any rules or committed any offense, so why were we being asked to leave? What did we do wrong?" - Gloria Anyanjala, 400 meters specialist on the 1976 Olympic Team.
 

It was supposed to be a one-hour meeting to discuss the flow of the next day’s program to honor Nigeria’s athletes from the 1976 Olympic games. But what followed was a cathartic release of a range of emotions, from sadness and anger to enthusiasm and joy, nearly a half-century after their country used them as bargaining chips in the anti-Apartheid struggle.


On Thursday, July 27th around 2:00 pm, athletes from the 1976 Olympic team, along with the championship team from the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations, gathered in a second-floor ballroom at the Movenpick Hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos, to discuss the flow of Friday’s program. Both the Director General of the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs, along with the Chairman of Air Peace Airlines, were there to formally welcome the Athletes to Lagos, and share the agenda for the series of recognition events planned in their honor planned for the following day. There would be a morning program, which included the unveiling of the Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame, and an evening gala night, where they would be recognized with entitlements, honors and cash.



But what happened next, was an organic cleansing a half century in the making, a release of a range of emotions cascading from sadness and anger to enthusiasm, joy and renewal. Their Olympic moment just right there - before sadly, through no fault of their own - it wasn't.


The first thing the facilitator did, was to go around the room, asking people to introduce (or reintroduce) themselves, since obviously, 47 years is a long time. And that’s when the emotion and tears started. Some of these former athletes, now in their 60s, broke down, narrating how they were impacted personally and professionally by the boycott.


“At first, we thought it was a joke”, recalls Gloria Ayanjala, a 400-meter specialist who was one of only two women on Nigeria’s 1976 Olympic Team.


“Someone came to the Olympic athletes’ village [in Montreal] and told us there would be a meeting with Chief Abraham Ordia," recollects football team member, Segun Odegbami, who was a potent striker on a football team which had found its rhythm and was a real threat to make the podium in Montreal.


Ordia, who also happens to be Nigerian, was acting in his capacity as the Chairman of the Supreme Council on Sport in Africa. He told the athletes their Olympic journey was over … pack your bags immediately and get ready to return to Lagos.


According to Ayanjala, “We had not broken any rules or committed any offense, so why were we being asked to leave? What did we do wrong? We were already settled in the Athlete’s village, our flag had been raised with the other nations in the village and the following day was the opening ceremony. Now this man is here saying what? We couldn’t believe it.”


They would soon realize this was not a bluff, as an Olympic official also came in and told them that athletes from nations that were boycotting the games, had just one hour to leave the athlete's village. The Nigerian athletes were stunned.

Nigerian Athletes Preparing to Leave the Athletes' Village at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal

They recalled how the government sent a brand new Nigerian Airways plane to pick them up, with the athletes leaving Montreal some time between 12 midnight and 1am. Chief Ordia was on that flight.


They first flew to London, where they refueled, before heading home to Lagos. The athletes cried the whole way home, broken and in disbelief. From the airport, the athletes were taken by bus to the National Stadium in Surulere (a suburb of Lagos) where they were then told to go home. There was no real explanation, no counseling or palatable relief in view of the circumstances. In hindsight, perhaps things could have been handled differently but Nigeria was under military rule at the time, and asking too many questions was not necessarily the smartest thing to do.


The planned one-hour meeting turned into 4.5 hours of emotional freedom, released from a half-century of grief, frustration, anger and ultimately, reflection. These men and (and one surviving woman) had a story to tell, and they told it.

The Chairman of Air Peace Airlines, Dr. Allen Onyema, welcoming the Athletes to the Sports Diplomacy Recognition Series. His company partnered with the Nigerian government on the recognition events for the former athletes.

Also, telling his story, was our brother from Tanzania, Mr. Filbert Bayi. He talked about his own personal connection to Nigeria, where he won his first major championship at the 1973 All Africa Games held in Lagos that year, where he defeated the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters, the legendary and supremely regarded, Kipchoge Keino of Kenya.


The story of the 1976 Olympic boycott cannot be told, without mentioning the matchup that never was – Filbert Bayi, world record holder and 1974 Commonwealth Champion in the 1,500 meters vs. Johnny Walker of New Zealand, former World Record holder. This showdown would have been an absolute classic, and would have likely included another world record.


Incidentally, a few days after this event in Lagos, I attended a journalist conference in Alabama, and had the opportunity to spend time with double Olympic gold and bronze medalist in the 400 meter hurdles, Dr. Edwin Moses. What struck me when I shared the Lagos event with Edwin, was that he instantly mentioned the name of John Akii-Bua of Uganda, who was the defending Olympic gold medalist in that event from 1972.


That we were never able to witness that epic showdown between the up and coming youngster, Moses, and the defending Champion, Uganda's Akii-Bua, was unfortunately, another casualty of those 1976 Games. Edwin repeated to me what he has publicly said before, that without John Akii-Bua, there would be no Edwin Moses. I thought this was extremely complimentary and quite inspiring given his own legendary achievements.

Birmingham, Alabama - With double Olympic Gold Medalist, Dr. Edwin Moses (right) along with Hall of Fame Sports Presenter, Mr. Rob Parker. Moses was very insightful and complimentary of his would-be rival, John Akii-Bua of Uganda

In the end, the athletes left the room that day feeling a page had been turned. As they prepared for a group dinner in the hotel that evening, old connections had been re-established and already, the seeds of commercial collaboration among them were being sewn.


Though the events of Friday were spectacular with the unveiling of the wall and the champion's dinner, the athletes would point to this Thursday session as the signature event of the weekend. This was the moment they all needed. This was the closure they deserved.

 

By Idy Uyoe

1 comment

1 Kommentar


idara udofia
idara udofia
31. Aug. 2023

So Impactful!


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