I WAS BORN PREMATURELY, DETERMINATION MADE ME STRONG â€“FALILAT OGUNKOYA
Atlanta'96 Olympics silver medallist, Falilat Ogunkoya, had several reasons not to be an athlete. There were doubts over her survival when she was born and even after she weathered the early life challenges. In this interview with our correspondent Femi Atoyebi, the former African champion spoke about her life on and off the tracks.
When did you make a break in track and field?
There was no particular time that can be referred to as the period I made a break in my career. I was born into a polygamous family and started running from the primary school with my siblings. I represented Remo Secondary School, Ogun state in track and field events and won many medals in competitions. I represented Ogun State and won medals.
When I was at the Teacher's Training College there were so many inter-collegiate competitions and because I won most of the races I participated in I represented Ogun State at the National Sports Festival in Ilorin, 1985, where I won four gold medals. From there, I did not look back aiming for the top.
What were the hurdles you crossed before coming this far?
I had a major challenge growing up as an athlete. I was born prematurely and my mother was worried that I could suffer from one ailment or the other if I went into sport. She did not want me to be involved in any form of physical activity because I was frail. But my father had a strong influence on matters that concerned his children.
There are four of us in the family-two children from my mother and two others from his first wife. He urged me on and prevailed on my mother to let me go ahead and become what I wanted to be. He called me one day and said if sports was the path God had chosen for me to become a great person in life I should not let it slip.
Based on the experience of your mother when she gave birth to you did she accept your father's decision?
As an obedient wife in a Yoruba traditional setting my mother supported my father's wish and stood by me until her death. She prayed for my success in whatever path I chose.
She also met my gamesmaster in primary school, Dele Oladejo, who later became my gamesmaster after John Afuwape left Remo Secondary School. She told him that he should take good care of me and ensure that I did well in my career. He did well for me and I became a national athlete running for Nigeria at international meets.
When you left Nigeria at 18 were you influenced by friends who were athletes in the United States?
I was not influenced by anyone. It was a decision I took and if you remember very well, I was the last to leave Nigeria among my colleagues.
Some of my colleagues started leaving Nigeria for the US on scholarships and other programmes and as a national athlete, people started asking me when I would leave Nigeria. It was embarrassing. They made me feel like I did not merit a place among the best. To the people, those who travelled were good enough to run among the American athletes who were so good at the time.
I wanted to stay in Nigeria because I was the last child of my mother and I wanted to stay close to her. It was a big challenge because those who left were doing well there. Sometimes I felt like doing what the American athletes were doing but I had a little chance because they worked with better training facilities.
After my Teacher's Training Education, I woke up one day and decided to try my luck in the US. I got a visa in 1986 after three universities offered me scholarships to study Fitness Management. Mississippi, Ohio and Alabama state universities wanted me to study a degree course. I chose Mississippi because the programme suited me.
Were you missing anything after you left reluctantly?
I was missing my family, especially my mother. When I chose Mississippi State University, what I did not know was that my choice would take me to the southern part of the country where racism was more pronounced. But it turned out to be a good decision because I was well received and loved by everyone.
Were there Nigerians in the school who were also athletes?
There were Nigerian students there but they were no athletes. They provided the motivation I needed to excel on the tracks. I remember Thea Pobeni, Sule Alli, Iyabo Ajayi, Moses Adegbeyingbe, Dennis Otono, Festus Igbinoghene and Jude Moyen, who gained admission after our set . They were my fans and supporters whenever I took to the tracks. These were wonderful people I will always remember their good wishes for me.
Did sport have negative impact on your studies?
Apart from the determination to do well, the study and training programmes made it easy for me to have focus on academic and sport. I went to class in the morning and rested in the afternoon. In the evening I trained till I got tired. I was able to cope because it was an organised system and because I was young and had enough strength to achieve my set aims.
It was simple. I was from a background that offered little in terms of facilities to train with; no tartan tracks, training schedule and regular instructors. But in the US I did not have to worry about how I would get to the stadium or how I would return. There were more than one lecturer for a course and they all chose a time. If you missed a class you could always make it up by going for another class.
The indoor meet was from January to March while the outdoor period was from April to June. In June and July I flew back to Nigeria and returned to school in August.
What were you thinking of when you won bronze in 400 metres race in Atlanta?
Firstly, I felt good to be representing my country and I aimed to be ranked among the best. As a member of the relay team I was a team player but it never crossed my mind that I could be the first athlete to win an individual medal for Nigeria in track and field at the Olympics. If someone had told me before the Atlanta '96 Olympics that I would win bronze in the 400 metres, I would not have believed it, and to return home from the competition with two medals was a great accomplishment. I was also the first person in the history of the Mississippi State University to win an individual Olympic medal. So my joy knew no bounds but there was something missing in my heart.
What was it?
The only sad tone to the victory was that I lost my mother two months before the competition in Atlanta. She died on May 24 while the Olympic Games were held in July. That was why I dedicated the medals to her.
I was in Oregon competing for Nike. I felt something in me but I could not explain the feeling. I came second in my race and people were asking me questions. They said my performance was low. On May 25, I was told that my mother had passed on. I remembered that she told me that I should not allow my pains to be seen by others. I went into the bathroom and cried.
How did you get over the loss in time for the Olympics?
It was a trying period but it also gave me an opportunity to make her proud. Instead of losing strength, I got more each time I remembered the role she played in my career as an athlete.
The second day, my American coach came and said 'you have to train today.' I thought that it was unfair on me to break the mourning period so soon. I reluctantly followed him and I trained with the athletes from Qatar who were preparing for the Olympics also. I ran a 500 meters race and I was told that I recorded a personal best time. It was a signal that I could do well at the Olympics. I started running the 400 meters in the sub-50 region and one American athlete, Jeny Mile, congratulated me in Paris and said, 'welcome to the su-50 club'.
At the Sydney 2000 Olympics trials in Lagos, you competed wearing an unfamiliar sportwear. It generated so much controversy but nothing was heard after the trials.
I appeared in a suit designed by Nike. I was one of the company's popular athletes so I got lots of kits from it. People later said it was a religious garment. It was not, Nike made it to add something new to athletics.
The Atlanta Olympics medals made you popular. How did you respond to your new world?
I became a star early in life even before the Olympics. But I did not allow it to go to my head. I remained humble and regarded everyone as the same. I was only privileged to reach where I was at the time. I was always thinking that many others are on their way and will still be on the podium one day when I must have left.
Did people come to you for financial support?
At home I shared everything I have with the people when they come around. The only thing I was not giving out was what I did not have. Today, I walk freely everywhere without feeling of guilt.
Before you hit the limelight did you depend only on scholarship in the US?
I depended on God and people. Apart from God, who gave me life through my parents, I must say that I have been lucky to have met the people who helped to give my life a meaning. Coaches Dele Oladejo, John Afuwape, Tony Osheku and Lee Evans helped me a lot. When I was going to the US in 1986 I had no money but one of my sisters gave me N800 to buy flight ticket.
Nike supported me so well. I cannot quantify the support the company offered but it was one of the reasons why I succeeded on the tracks.
At 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi, Kenya I met the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola when he came to watch our training. Chidi Imoh and Innocent Egbunike were all there with me. He gave each of us 200 dollars and never stopped supporting me financially. His death is a great loss to sports Africa.
There is much doping in sport. Have you ever come close to taking one?
There is always drug around all sportsmen but doping depends on the individual. In the US I watched the type of people I related with and the kind of conversation I had with people. Those who introduce athletes to doping start by hinting them about it. They will just mention it and watch your reaction. It's like sowing a seed. Once you show interest the agent will reach you sooner than you expect. What I did was to avoid stories about athletes' behaviour on and off the tracks. I concentrated on my training and avoided taking any drug on banned list. I used multi vitamins and other mild drugs but once I felt like taking something strong, I visited my doctor. As an athlete you cannot take anything that has caffeine. Athletes who cheat also know this. Most athletes are educated, so they cannot claim ignorance. The name of Nigeria is so important to me and I must also protect my family name. Where would I go if I had allowed drugs to ruin me? I trained in the sun and in the rain to achieve on the tracks.
Have you ever thought of competing for another country
It never crossed my mind to leave Nigeria and compete for another country. Those who did it should have their reasons but I just didn't have a reason to do so. I started competing for Nigeria in 1984 when I competed in Ghana. Few months later I was in the spotlight as a secondary schoolgirl. I always have the belief that Nigeria will one day be a better country. Why should I defect?
Are you rich?
Athletics gave me reasons to live, reasons to thank God and reasons to appreciate other people. I have travelled to many countries and met people who had positive impact on me.
I don't put money in the front. In everything I do, money comes last. I don't go after property except the one God gives me. Everything I have is for the people because God gave me so that others can benefit from me I can raise my hands today and say that I am a comfortable person in the world, believing also that God will still do more for me.
Do you have any regrets over your love life, especially since your relationship with former coach did not work?
I have no regrets in life. My relationship with Tony Osheku did not work even though we tried to make it work. He was my coach and contributed to my success. He trained with me in the sun and rain. If God had chosen a path for you, you will have no regrets. As an athlete, I took good care of Osheku. I paid him very well and made sure he was always comfortable.
That was the only way he would put in his best and look after me. It is unfortunate that today, Nigerian athletes are greedy; they don't appreciate their coaches so they don't pay them well.
My present husband, Prof. Seun Omotayo was with the national team in Saudi Arabia for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1989. He was also in our camp at a time as a psychologist. But I did not know him. We were together for some time and I did not have a word with him or notice him because I had no cause to visit him in his office. But we met again in 2004 and that was when our relationship started.