Olympian, Mary Onyali, told ADEKUNLE SALAMI and CHARLES OGUNDIYA how she returned to Nigeria and decided to champion the Elite Athlete Development Fund under the Nigeria Sports Development Fund so as to help upcoming athletes attain their goals of winning medals at the 2020 Olympic Games medal in Tokyo. Excerpts…
How and when did you conceive this idea of NSDFI?
It’s actually not a new idea; it started in 1994 with the Super Eagles on their way to winning the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia and appearing at the World Cup same year. After the World Cup, the remaining money was supposed to be returned to the government. The second-in-command at the time, General Oladipo Diya, asked for the continuation of the process, with Atlanta 1996 Olympics in view. That was what was responsible for the success of Atlanta ‘96 which remains our best outing at the Olympics till date. Fortunately, I was a beneficiary of that Atlanta ‘96 funds from NSDFI.
Could you recall how you became a beneficiary?
I was an athlete at the time. I didn’t know where the money came from; all I knew was I got money and it helped me to prepare for the Atlanta Olympics. I spent two seasons in Holland, using the funds, $12,000, to get ready and that led to the bronze medal I won.
So how did you now return to be part of the process?
When I retired in 2004, I was looking for the people that came to give me the funds years back because I didn’t know them from anywhere. I found out that Jide Fashikun was part of the process, so I met with him and automatically I became a member because I was a living witness to the fact that the process works. In the past 15 years, our sports has gone down; so some of us came together and wanted to know the things we did in the past but were no longer doing now. We sat down, ex-internationals, 11 of us from different sports, and agreed to bring all our years of knowledge and expertise together and see how we could help the young ones, because we realised that there was no way government could singlehandedly sponsor sports; it must be through the private sector.
That was how we formed the BOOST which is the developmental part of the programme, and we also have the other arm of our funding which is the elites aspect of it where we have decided to pick 90 Olympic Games bound athletes, those that we know that are on the verge of making the grade for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and can get to the podium. Nine of them from five different sports, the sports are those we have been doing well at the games over the years, where we have our area of strengths.
What are you doing to achieve this?
We are currently on a campaign across the whole nation because we cannot do it alone with our personal funds. All we are asking for is for 4.5m Nigerians to give us a minimum of N200 each which will be N900m. We plan to give N10m to each athlete for two seasons, which are 2018/2019 and 2019/2020, the Olympic year. Every year, if you qualify for our programme as an athlete, you get N10m per season. After the first season and you perform well, we give you another N10m for the next season for the final stretch of 2020. There is no way the money will not adequately prepare you and your coach for Tokyo 2020. It is broken down to the extent that there is no part of athlete’s welfare that is not touched, because people like me have been there and know how to fund it. We have a 90 days for the campaign with one month gone already, so we have another two months, less than 60 days, to end the campaign because everything ends on November 30. We have been touring the entire South West and everything will end in Lagos from where we move to South East region.
Some of the athletes you are targeting, are they up for this?
They have been yearning for this opportunity. They have embraced it with their whole heart. It’s disheartening for us as an ex-internationals to see athletes finding it difficult to go for competitions where they can score points for the Olympics, no training grant, but what we are doing now is bigger than training grants.
Could you breakdown the funding arrangement?
N5m of the funds is for the athlete to go anywhere in the world to compete favourably and to sharpen their skills alongside their coaches. N350, 000 is for kits, N250, 000 for supplements, they should be able to eat well and come back to train the following day. N1m to the coach who has been toiling day and night to fund these athletes. I know how much my coach then Tobias Igwe popularly called Coach Toblow invested in me because he had trust in my future. We would invest another N1.5m so that the athlete and their life after sports will not be like some of our peers who are struggling so hard after their careers, we are trying to protect the athletes. The profits from the investment will go into a kind of insurance policy for all the athletes on our programme, something that will take care of them until the end of their lives. The juicy part of it is that apart from all these aspects, the athletes will be getting N50, 000 monthly to take care of their needs. At the end of the season, they have to meet a performance chart and if they can meet it, then they have another N10m for gold, silver N7.5m and N5m for bronze medal at the Olympics; so why won’t they put in more than their best to meet the standard.
So how do people come in to support the project?
The details can be found on our website, nsdfi.com for those who want to support and contribute their token of a minimum of N200.
So do you have other professionals involved in this project?
Each of our athletes will have a minimum of three professionals working with them. Financial adviser to help them manage the funds because we want the money to grow and multiply for future sake. They will have their technical adviser, someone that will see to their competitions, all the meets for the year which will be between the athlete, the coach and the technical adviser, and then a sports lawyer. We want someone that will look into their contract issues assuming they hit it big in the future so as not to be cheated because some of our athletes in the past signed their life out; so we are protecting our athletes.
Have you started identifying the athletes?
During the launch in Abuja on September 3, the minister of sports, Solomon Dalung, was given the privilege to pick two numbers from the two federations that already submitted lists of their athletes, Taekwondo and Wrestling Federations. He actually picked seven and 10 and both were adopted into the programme. We decided to do it this way because we don’t want to pick our recipients by ourselves. We want to make it as transparent as much as possible, so we don’t give anyone reasons to doubt what we are doing. The two athletes picked by the minister are Ishmael Muhammed from Taekwondo and Emmanuel Ogbonaya from Wrestling. Both of them are our top candidates at the moment. The race to get the N10m for them is the reason we are taking our campaign to the world.
What is the disposition of the minister to the project since he is the number one man in sports in Nigeria?
The minister is 150 percent in support of what we are doing. He actually launched it with his one month salary in the presence of several federation presidents and other ministers. It is not one of those promises of come and collect the cheque tomorrow and whatever. Immediately after the launch, he called me personally, took me to his office and give me the money in cash. So I don’t see any reason why there should be a doubt about his support for the project.
So between now and Tokyo, how many athletes are likely to benefit for the Olympic Games?
We have 90 elite athletes that we are working with for Tokyo but you know many are called but few are chosen. We are praying and expecting that one-third of these 90 athletes will make it to Tokyo, and one-third of those that eventually make it to Tokyo can get to the podium and give us any colour of medal whether gold, silver or bronze. It can even be all bronze for all we care. It’s a plus and it’s going end up being the highest medal haul in the history of our Olympics attendance. We are looking at having like 10 medals in Tokyo. Although it takes four to six years to prepare an athlete for an Olympics and we just have two years to go, I know these athletes that we picked before now have already been preparing in their different sports, and we did some good graph and statistics to pick these athletes, because N10m is not a small money and we do not and will not mismanage public trust. We want to make sure it is properly and judiciously used by the athletes that we are going to select. Of course they have to sign a code of conduct that will guide every one of us including the coaches. I can’t just go through all these and give you money and trust you like that. We have some rules and regulations that you must follow because athletes can be very unruly and undisciplined and that is not something we will tolerate.
Coaching in Nigeria has been a big issue; what are you doing to have the best set of coaches for these athletes?
This falls directly under my table as the Executive Director on Technical; I will have to meet the coach, the coach must also follow some rules and regulations; if we find out that the coach and the athlete are having issues, we already put in place a board of technical people who will look at the problem. If it is something that cannot be settled, the athlete as our own property, will be relocated. It is the athlete that will stand on the podium and not the coach, so we continue with the athlete.
It has been a downward trend in athletics in Nigeria, as an ex-international how worried are you about this?
It’s painful and sad and that’s actually why I decided to drop everything I was doing in the US and return to Nigeria. These athletes are yearning and desiring to showcase their God-given talents same way most of us were when we were young and active. The most important thing is to do everything to make things right again.
What are some of the things that were done right in the past but not any longer?
The point is, we are not exporting our best athletes abroad like we used to do in the past, those that are sound academically and in terms of talent to the US. During my era we used to have things like the foreign-based and home-based athletes. Although we were all Nigerian athletes, those at home saw us as well trained, better exposed and were sometimes scared of us. The point is we were at an advantage over the home-based due to exposure. They didn’t have all it takes at home to get to that position that some of us abroad attained. The facilities, coaching, nutrition, adequate competitions were not available. Although we had competitions then, they were not up to those of us as student-athletes in the US took part in. As a student-athlete in US, we competed every week, that was part of our contract and we must maintain our academics as well. Anything below 2.5CGPA, you were out of the scholarship. So no one wanted to get such opportunity and miss it. 97 percent of our athletes in the mid-80s’ and 90s’ were US-based. When we came home, we were more prepared than those at home. Now we have to domesticate it in Nigeria so as to suit our athletes at home. I am not saying we cannot export our athletes, those that are exceptional should be allowed to go because there is nothing wrong in doing it like the past. It was a healthy competition between us in the past which made it possible for us to excel at major competitions. Sometimes, some of us who made the relay quartets were often from the same school and this helped us to bond well as a group.
What is your advice to athletes at home?
Wherever they are, despite the situation, they should not lose hope and must keep training. The ex-internationals are working hard to rescue them and help them out by getting all Nigerians to come to their rescue.
Flashback to Barcelona 1992 and recall the ‘Golden Bronze’ won by the country in the 4x100m relay for women beating the French to the medal.
It was a success story of what I said earlier about exporting our athletes to the US. All five of us, including the reserve, were all based in the US. We had a rough relay exchange because we were not all from the same school. Just two of us were from the same school, Beatrice Utondu and myself. Christy Opara-Thompson and Faith Idehen were from Alabama. We were having issues with our baton exchange and the head coach at the time, Emilia Edet, was not too patient with us especially with Christy. She got upset and left the practice pitch. But as student athletes, we had done the baton exchange at the highest level for our schools and we all knew what to do, but she was looking at it from a different angle and she left us on the pitch. We decided to take charge and told ourselves that we could do it. We perfected everything to the best of our ability, but we had no clue of what would happen on the track. As luck would have it and maybe because God knew how much we needed the medal, Juliet Cuthbert on the second leg for Jamaica pulled an hamstring and fell on her way to give the baton to the third leg runner, Christy on the third leg was so anxious to gain the baton that she turned completely like a quarter miler instead of receiving a blind exchange like a 4×100 runner, and upon turning back to run, she sprained her ankle. On getting to me as the anchor leg, I saw that she was in pain. The exchange point that I already marked for her was to me out of the window because if I had used it, she wouldn’t be able to get the baton to me because she was not looking good. I completely slowed down and when I watched the replay later, I realised that Nigeria got the baton in fifth place, I didn’t know how I picked the fourth person and also the person in third position who happened to be Marie-José Pérec of France, and went all the way to the finishing line. I didn’t even know we got the medal because it was too close that they had to watch the photo-finish over and over again to confirm the bronze winner. The French people were already celebrating but when my girls came to me to celebrate, it dawned on me that we had done it. Till today, the picture and video are still been reckoned with by the International Olympic Committee and still at the museum. It shows the true picture of Olympics. We didn’t win the gold or the silver but bronze, however it was a golden bronze. To IOC it depicts what the Olympic is all about.
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