Ajunwa in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES speaks on her broken record and other issues, including why she is not interested in vying for any leadership position within the Athletics Federation of Nigeria. She also credits Segun Odegbami and the Nigeria Police Force for her major achievements in sports.
PT: Can you tell Nigerians more about your foundation and what is on the ground at the moment?
Ajunwa: We’ve been going from state to state to make sure we recruit top talents for this nation and the Police Force, which over the years have been the pool where Nigeria gets his medals from. You will agree with me that in the past the Police Force has been giving the country its medals; myself, one Uga Amacha, Grace Umelu, late Mutiu Adesina. I’m trying to give back to society and the organisation that made me. That is why I’m doing my best to ensure we raise top athletes that can take over from the present athletes. We know the government cannot do everything, that is why ex-international athletes like myself are doing everything humanly possible to fill the void by raising quality athletes.
PT: Talking about quality, it is on record that you won Nigeria’s first gold medal in the Long Jump. How does it feel to see another Nigerian, Ese Brume break the African record jump that landed you a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics?
Ajunwa: I’m so happy and I feel great because it means we can do it once again. It simply means we are taking the right step in the right direction. My heart was burdened with Nigeria’s failure to break the record all the while because it says a lot about our slow progress in track and field sports. It really showed that we were not making progress despite the talents that abound in our country.
We don’t really prepare adequately for global events like the Olympics and World Championship and that explains why Nigeria dropped from its lofty position as one of Africa’s best athletics nations. I’m so happy that finally, my 25-year-old record has been broken. We are supposed to smash every record in every two years and not just watch it hang there for decades just like Henry Amike’s 36 years Hurdles record; it is sad that no hurdler has smashed that record.
It means our athletes are not making any progress when we allow such records to stay on for that long, but I’m happy Brume has shown the world what we can do as a nation. Our athletes are working hard but internal problems within sports administration have been the athletes’ biggest undoing. I just pray that other Nigerian athletes can come up with another record-smashing performance at the next Olympics.
PT: In your own estimation, how far can Brume go in the Tokyo Olympics?
Ajunwa: If she can put her head down and plan her programme very well, then she can replicate her record-breaking feat and that will simply mean a gold medal for Nigeria in Tokyo.
PT: Do you see Blessing Okagbare picking a medal in the Long Jump as well?
Ajunwa: Well, Okagbare has the strength to do that but I want to believe her participation in the sprints tends to slow her down when it’s time to compete for honours in the Long Jump. But another major drawback is the government’s failure to rally behind the athletes by paying their bills and bankrolling their training programmes.
What do you expect from an athlete who pays his or her bills alone? Let authorities come to their aid, then we can expect medals from our athletes. I was there before and I know what it means to survive alone abroad; you will have to keep running in different competitions in order to pay your bills if you live in the U.S. or UK and the end result of it is that you will be burned out when the actual competition like the Olympics starts.
PT: Where else do you think Nigeria’s medals will come from in Tokyo?
Ajunwa: I can’t really say because I’ve not seen them train, but with what we have seen on TV, we can pencil down Okagbare and Ese Brume to win medals in their own event, but I don’t want to predict because a medal is a medal at the Olympics. I think we are close to winning a gold medal.
PT: How does it feel when cynics try to downplay your Olympics gold medal achievements after the drug issue?
Ajunwa: I don’t know who wants to downplay my Olympics achievements. I won my gold medal at the Olympics and I know I had a series of tests right before the games while I was competing in different competitions around Atlanta. I had about five different tests at that time; they tested me after winning the gold, so if anybody wants to play down my achievements, that is their own cup of tea.
There is no man without an enemy, but I know they can never take my gold medal away from me. I’m sure you’re aware IAAF is going about carrying out fresh tests after 10 years and I expect them to have stripped me of that medal if any of my tests came out positively. I don’t care about any personal views regarding the drug issue.
PT: AFN has constantly been plagued with power tussles over the years, but many wonder why former athletes like you choose to stand aloof and watch instead of coming on board to help?
Ajunwa: It is not about someone coming on board to help the AFN, I don’t belong to the school of thought who thinks ex-athletes must lead AFN but my prayers are for us to have someone who will have the interests of athletes at heart.
Another important factor is to have a leader that the right sets of advisers will surround. Some leaders would like to do a good job, but people around them would serve as square legs in round holes. I don’t want to work in AFN because no matter what you do, people will still criticise you.
We need to learn to help leaders, most especially in the sports circle, so that they can leave the right legacy at the end of their tenure. Yes, I know there will always be saboteurs and that has been our problem, but some of the close allies to those in power are the biggest drawback in sports administration and this has continued to affect athletes’ performance at the international stage. May God forgive them. The athletes want to train and become Olympics champions but this in-fighting will continue to distract the athletes.
PT: The role of sponsorship in sports cannot be overemphasized and AFN has been traveling in circles since Mobil withdrew its sponsorship. How can AFN bring back the good old days of Mobil Track/Field Classic?
Ajunwa: Until AFN begins to give an account of what individuals and corporate organisations put in sports sponsorship, that is when they can win their confidence and attract them back into our sports. I strongly feel that a lack of accountability is one of the major reasons Mobil and Unique Classic pulled out of AFN.
May God help and forgive us our sins and help us reshape our interest and zeal towards sports development. No one will be encouraged to invest in a venture where there is no accountability and that has been the problem.
As for my foundation, I don’t need to carry the cash but let sponsors support athletes with food, training kits, and other things they need to excel. Let’s say we have 15 athletes in the camp, a company can take over their food while another handles needs like beverages and other stuff for the next three months, then their allowances can be paid into their accounts directly. I have a N6 billion sports project in Imo state and my state governor has given me the land to start work, but I need people to come to give us cement, iron rods, blocks and every other thing required to put the structure in place.
PT: Your fans call you three in one after you played for the Super Falcons, ran in the 100 metres, and competed in the long jump. What really inspired you to achieve these feats?
Ajunwa: It wasn’t by my strength but to the glory of God who gave me the ability to do that. I played for Super Falcons up to World Cup level, ran in the 100m and did a superb job there too, then I did long jump too and won a gold medal. It simply means hard work pays and I believe any athlete can equal and surpass my feats if they can work very hard.
I really owe my achievements to Chief Segun Odegbami, who supported my career. I also want to thank the Nigerian Police Force, who gave me the time and support to showcase my talent around the world and I thank God my talent was good enough for the world to see.
PT: Thank you for your time, madam.
Ajunwa: It’s my pleasure.