Nigeria Honors its 1976 Olympic Team and Unveils the Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame
Updated: Aug 29
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Lagos, Nigeria – In 1976, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, 27 African nations (plus Iraq and Guyana) boycotted the Games to protest New Zealand’s rugby tour of Apartheid South Africa. The African nations had demanded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) exclude New Zealand from the Games given its continued sporting links with the racist government in South Africa, or else it would boycott the games. The IOC argued that rugby was not an Olympic Sport (at that time), and therefore had no jurisdiction over New Zealand’s Rugby Union.
This left the African nations with no choice but to withdraw their respective teams from the Games. As such, just one day before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, the Nigerian government (along with other African nations) recalled its Athletes home from the Olympic Village in Montreal, Canada, effectively ending their Olympic dreams, in come cases, forever.
In total, 440 athletes were impacted by the African boycott, 173 of them just from athletics. The City of Montreal would lose $2 billion on the games, and the very existence of the Olympic movement was in doubt. By 1978, the Olympics were on the brink of bankruptcy and talks were underway for the UN (specifically, UNESCO) to take over the management of the Olympics. Of course that didn't happen, but the African boycott had an extremely disruptive effect on the Montreal Games and threatened the host city currency for future Olympic hosts.
Forty-seven (47) years later, the Nigerian team was finally accorded a measure of recognition. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (the nation’s foremost think tank on foreign policy), partnered with Air Peace Airlines, to recognize the 1976 Olympic team who sacrificed their Olympic dreams on the altar of the anti-Apartheid crusade. Also recognized, was Nigeria’s 1980 football team that won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time that year. All the athletes from both teams were brought back to Lagos for this series of recognition events. For those athletes that have since transitioned, their families were brought in to represent them.
The Morning Program - Lecture and Unveiling the Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame
The first event, held Friday, July 28th, was the unveiling of the Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame, where each Athlete’s name was written in gold, memorializing their achievements and sacrifice forever. The wall is located in a small park within the complex of the NIIA.
I was humbled and honored to be asked to deliver the event’s keynote lecture (seen here) about the events leading up to the 1976 African Olympic boycott. Within the lecture, I discussed the history of Apartheid, its relationship with the sport of rugby, and the political necessity of the new government in New Zealand to endorse that 1976 rugby tour of South Africa despite the Soweto uprising and pressure from African countries. I’m not agreeing with that decision but rather, presenting “why” they did it. The lecture chronicles Nigeria’s overall contribution to the anti-Apartheid cause, culminating in its eventual collapse in 1994. The presentation ends with a fundamental question: can West Africa host the FIFA 2034 World Cup, just as South Africa successfully did in 2010? (Click here to see a preview of what a FIFA World Cup in West Africa might look like).
The Evening Program - The Gala Night of Champions Dinner for the 1976 Olympians
Later that same evening, following the unveiling of the Sports Wall of Fame event in the morning, a “Gala Night of Champions” dinner was organized for the Olympians by the Chairman/Owner of Air Peace Airlines, Dr. Alex Onyema. Air Peace is a privately held company and is the largest airline in West Africa with 39 aircraft in its fleet.
As a part of the evening ceremonies, each member of the 1976 Olympic Team and the 1980 AFCON Teams, were vested as Air Peace Ambassadors, which means they can fly domestically on Air Peace Airlines free of charge for life, business class. They also are entitled to one free international flight per year, to any destination in the world where Air Peace flies, also, for life. Finally, each member of both the Olympic team and the AFCON teams respectively, was given a cash award of about $3,000 each.
The evening included musical performances from popular Nigerian artists and an array of entertainers.
Also, it is worth noting and recognizing the presence of Mr. Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, who was the world record holder in the 1,500 meters, and Mr. Ron Freeman of the United States, at both events. Mr. Bayi was impacted by Tanzania’s participation in that Olympic boycott, and he certainly would have won a medal, likely gold, had he competed at those Games. Mr. Freeman was a gold and bronze medalist at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City and has been actively involved in sport development in Africa for the past 20 years.
This entire project has been two years in the making, and I want to thank the Director General of the NIIA, Professor Eghosa Osaghae and the Chairman of Air Peace, Dr. Allen Onyema, for their dynamic leadership in actualizing this initiative.
Finally, I would also like to express how incredibly proud I am of my country for this exceptional gesture of recognition for these athletes who represented their nation with honor and distinction, for a cause far bigger than themselvs.
To view the full gallery of photos and brief slideshow please click on the links below:
By Idy Uyoe