Baba Otu Mohammed advocates inclusiveness in football administration
From 1976 up to 1979, Charlton Ehizuelen was the world’s best long and triple jumper. He held all the world marks such that his closest rivals, Rod Laver and Willie Banks, were forced to play catch up to the regal Nigerian.

Ehizuelen was so good that there was no doubt that the Montreal 1976 Olympics triple jump gold medal was his for the taking. Given the tough opposition he expected in Canada, Ehizuelen spent the better part of 1974 and 75 preparing for his day of glory at the Olympics.

Unfortunately, however, his dream of climbing to the stars was shattered on the eve of the Games, when the Nigerian government ordered its athletes to leave their camp in Canada and return home.

The decision to boycott the Games was in reaction to the western world’s tacit support of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, demonstrated by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) patronising attitude to New Zealand, which chose to play a friendly rugby game against South Africa.

Although the Olympics’ boycott was applauded by many, as it sent a clear message to all the supporters of Apartheid, it devastated the athletes, who were so close to stardom, yet could not achieve their dreams.

Worse still, when the team returned to Nigeria, rather than compensate the athletes for their sacrifice, the Federal Government abandoned them to their own devices, leaving most of them broken and helpless.

And so, it was a pleasant surprise to some of the class of 1976 when they were summoned to Lagos by the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) for a reception sponsored by the chairman of Air Peace Airlines, Dr. Allen Onyema.

The reception, according to the NIIA, was to reward the athletes for their service to the nation and also induct them into the institute’s Diplomacy Wall of Fame.

Though coming 47 years after the sad episode in Canada, the athletes were overjoyed that such is happening in their lifetime.

Expressing his delight at the turn of events, Ehizuelen told The Guardian, during the reception held on Friday, that it has shown him that something good could still come out of Nigeria.

Describing his experience since the Olympics’ boycott in 1976, Ehizuelen said: “This has been a real journey of internal torture. I thought I was the only one, but when I called on some of my colleagues, they said the same thing. We have all been through the nightmare since 1976. So, coming home to do this would be a healing and closure for us. I know for me personally it was a nightmare because in 1976 I was the best long jumper in the whole world and I could have won the country’s first gold medal. But they took that away from me and didn’t tell me why and we came home.

“Ever since, the agony has never left me. It has never left the other guys too. And for this to happen, Dr. Onyema and the NIIA, who got this together, I say may God bless them and our friend Segun Odegbami for his role in getting it to happen.

“This is a world affair because what happened in 1976 due to the June 6 Soweto massacre was a world affair. And we were in the Olympics Village the following month when they said Africa didn’t have any choice but to use the Olympics to make a statement… we were the pawn.

“The next day over a million newspapers had the story and the insensitivity of New Zealand in playing Rugby against South Africa.”

Ehizuelen said that he initially didn’t want to come to Nigeria for the reception because experience has taught him to suspect anything coming out of the country.

“This event is very important, but when we heard about it, we didn’t want to come until Odegbami spoke to us. I spoke with our colleagues and they agreed we should make it.

“You can imagine the experience in 1976. We were in our young ages, early 20s…some of the guys were 18 years old and they took us out like that without rewarding or compensating us… it was damaging to our psyche. It was a hard decision for the government to take, but it was harder on us who were used as pawns.

“The worst was that the Federal Government never talked to us; they just dumped us in Lagos and left us alone in 1976. They later said they would take us to China, but we rejected that because nothing was happening in China.”

Ehizuelen described as top quality show of leadership Dr. Onyema and NIIA Director General, Dr. Eghosa Osagie’s decision to host the victims of the 1976 Olympics boycott. He said the recognition would help to heal the wounds inflicted on the athletes, adding that it would also send a message to young athletes that Nigeria still has good leaders.

“Nigeria is a good country, but it only lacks leadership. If what Air Peace and NIIA are doing now was done 47 years ago, our lives would have been different.

“When they dumped us in Lagos, I had no other option than to go back to school. That year, two members of our team were already in the U.S and they helped me to get to the states. Some others were not that lucky. We need to change the way we treat people in this country.”

Another member of the Olympics team, Baba Otu Mohammed, described the reception as the best thing to happen to his life lately.

He said: “Today is the happiest day in my life. I went to Accra, where I fell sick, went into coma, but God raised me. As we say in Islam, Alhamdulilahi! Alhamdulilahi!! Alhamdulilahi!!!”

Mohammed described the Nigerian football team that was supposed to play at the Olympic Games in 1976 as the best team in Africa which was tipped to win at least a bronze medal.

“In 1975, our squad was the best in Africa. We went on a European tour and won all our matches. We went to Canada and beat their national team 3-0. We were supposed to play another game against Brazil, but they cancelled it because they didn’t want us to expose them to the rest of the world.

“Unfortunately for us, when we got to the Games Village, they told us that we should pack our bags that we were leaving for Nigeria. We didn’t have anybody to talk to, they just dumped us like a useless broom. It was a harrowing experience.”

The former Green Eagles winger, who won a bronze medal at the 1978 African Cup of Nations, believed the country could do better in the way it treats its past heroes. He cites the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) as example of a body that does everything possible to distance itself from the people that laid its golden eggs.

According to Mohammed, those in charge of the federation see former internationals as threats to their existence and they, therefore, do everything possible to shut them out of the body.

“The present administrators of the game don’t want to see us. I coached a team in Nigeria and also in Ghana, where my boys beat all the top teams, but they have never invited me to see what I can contribute t the growth of the game.

“If not for this reception, nobody would have known that I still exist,” he said.

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