Return to Athens – Remembering the Day Nigeria Won Football Gold at the 1996 Olympic Games
I recently had a chance to return to Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, which is where Nigeria beat Argentina, 3-2, to win the gold medal in men’s football at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. I was in the stadium that day to watch the game, purely by accident and a twist of fate, as I unexpectedly, found myself in the company of Nigeria’s Minister of Sports at the time, Mr. Jim Nwobodo, as his personal driver for the day. Here’s my story of an unbelievably wild and remarkable ride that I still can't believe actually happened.
The match as played on Saturday August 3rd, and it was the last full day of the 1996 Olympic Games. My plan was to go to the Olympic stadium to watch Carl Lewis possibly run his last race in the men’s 4 x 100-meter relay. I had hosted the Lewis family – Carl, his sister Carol and their mother Evelyn – while working as a member of the Olympic Torch Relay team when the torched passed thru their hometown of Houston, Texas.
On this particular morning, I had to make a brief stop at the Atlanta Marriott hotel in the City Center, before proceeding to Olympic Stadium. As I pulled up to the hotel, I saw three men approaching my black Mercedes Benz, which had the Nigerian flag attached to the side window as was the custom for people at the Olympics to show support for their respective countries. I guess they thought the car looked like an "Official Vehicle" so to speak. One of the men was dressed in a green, white and green Nigerian themed track suit, with "Nigeria" emblazoned across the back. The second person wore the traditional Nigerian “Agbada” attire and the third guy was casually dressed. The casually dressed man, whom I recognized but couldn’t quite place, said, “We must leave right away. The Minister is already on his way to the Stadium. We are already late.”
The man in the Nigerian track suit, who turned out to be the Personal Assistant to Nigeria’s Minister of Sport, Mainasra Ilo, opened the passenger side door of the Mercedes and helped himself in. The other two climbed into the back seat and settled in comfortably. The casually dressed man, whom to this day I still don’t know who he was, told me we are going to watch Nigeria win the gold medal in football in Athens, which is about a one hour and 20 minute’s drive from Atlanta. Not sensing danger of any kind, I made the split second decision in that moment to alter my plans and go with the flow. It turned out to be a great call!
By the time we arrived the stadium, Claudio Lopez had already given Argentina a 1-0 lead in the 3rd minute. Mainsara quickly left the group to go find the Minister in the VIP box. The match itself was a back and forth affair, tied at 2 goals apiece in the 90th minute when Emmanuel Amunike finished on a set piece free kick to give Nigeria the victory and the gold medal. The Nigerian fans in the stands went crazy, and we watched the Minister accompany the players on the field as they received their gold medals.
By this time, Mainsara had returned to where we were sitting, and told me to bring the car to the VIP area for the Minister, as I would be driving the Minister back to Atlanta.
On a personal note, I was too busy enjoying the moment to stop and ask myself the question, “Why am I even driving these people? Where were their official drivers? Who told these people I was a designated Olympic driver, which I was not?” But in these moments, who really cares? I was just happy to be so close to the team and something special.
On the drive back to Atlanta, the Minister, sitting in the backseat with his personal assistant, talked about arrangements the Nigerian Government was making for a private jet to carry the team back to Lagos. Additionally, the team was expecting a call from then Nigerian President, General Sani Abacha, who had phoned the team to congratulate them following the semifinal victory against Brazil. The Minister then went on to give himself credit for the win, boasting about how the coach didn’t listen to him in that semifinal match against Brazil, which Nigeria nearly lost and quite frankly, should have lost. He carried on about how the coach finally took his advice to sit Amunike for the first half of the final, so he can watch and observe the game before coming on as a substitute to save the day. I thought to myself, did this man just say that if wasn’t for him, Nigeria would not have beaten Argentina to win that gold medal?
All the same, we arrived back to Marriott in Atlanta in the early evening, and I was invited to accompany the Minister and his team to his Presidential Suite, which was like being in a large three-bedroom apartment, with every modern convenience known to man inside. The mood in the room was electric as could be expected, as the Nigerian delegation hosted visitors from around the world, who came through the suite to offer congratulations on the historic win.
Later that evening, minus the Minister, the delegation descended into the bars and clubs in Atlanta for an all night party to celebrate Africa’s first gold medal in a men’s team sport. People from all over the world were coming up to us, offering congratulations, buying drinks, asking to dance, and just all out partying, deep into the night. When the music died down and we were all exhausted, I once again drove everyone back home, as the morning sun peaked over the horizon. I woke up later that next day and asked myself, “Did this really just happen?” It was just crazy. I never again saw any of those people, nor really ever knew their names except one.
nSo there I was last week at that same stadium in Athens, reminiscing about the gold medal moment. It brought back the memories of those unforgettable 24 hours at the 1996 Olympic Games, the moment the Super Eagles became the "Dream Team", the moment a nation became a football champion.