In her determination to halt the spiral fall in the standard of athletics at all levels, Olympic medallist, Falilat Ogunkoya, yesterday began a revolution by sponsoring a three-day championship to discover new talents. Ogunkoya told the local Guardian newspapers why she embarked on the project.
Africa's foremost woman quartermiler, Falilat Ogunkoya, is not new to pioneering or trail-blazing exploits in athletics.
As a junior athlete in 1986, Ogunkoya was one of the first Nigerian athletes ever to win a gold medal in an IAAF-organised championship, when she won the top prize in the women 200 metres.
Ogunkoya's pioneering effort was not only at the junior level.
When Nigeria joined the modern Olympics family at Helsinki, Finland, in 1952, athletics was one the sports the country participated in. But the nation did not win her first individual medal on the track until Ogunkoya did it at Atlanta'96 Olympic Games, with a bronze medal in the women's 400 metres.
The race, won by French golden girl, Marie Jose-Perec, was the greatest 400 metres race ever in the Olympic Games. Six of the eight women in that final race dipped inside 50 seconds; the bench mark for women 400 metres.
Ogunkoya's time of 49.10 seconds remains Africa and Nigeria's record 10 years after the race. She later anchored the 4x 400 metres to win the silver medal behind the American team.
Her pioneering effort in Atlanta seemed to have opened a floodgate of medals as Mary Onyali also picked a bronze medal in the 200 metres and Chioma Ajunwa, a gold medal in the women long jump.
Apart from her exploits at the Olympics, Ogunkoya has won many medals in IAAF-organised events and the All Africa Games, among others.
Through with track and field, Ogunkoya is now blazing the trail in another area. In her worry about Nigeria's dwindling fortune in track and field, she has decided to set up the Falilat Foundation.
The sole aim of the foundation, she says, is to discover new talents that will erase her African record. Ogunkoya's focus is solely on 400 metres. Talents discovered by the foundation will not be abandoned but will be nurtured to become world-beaters.
This is something no athlete before her has thought of doing. A firm believer in the idea of leading by example, Ogunkoya said ex-athletes must start investing in the youth instead of complaining about poor performances by the up-coming ones.
She believes that it is when they invest their time and resources that they can boldly challenge the system. Ogunkoya said she abhors a situation whereby people sit in the comfort zone and complain about poor outings. Here she talks of her dreams for Nigerian athletics.
It's been five months since the conclusion of the National Sports Festival. What have you been doing since the end of the festival?
What I have been putting all my time and effort into is the Falilat Foundation. I want to set it up in a way that will take Nigeria's athletics, particularly the 400 metres, to another level because the way I see the country's athletics presently, there is nothing to write home about it.
It's interesting you mentioned the 400 metres event because recently, Innocent Egbunike's 19-year-old African record was sent into the archives and to some Nigerians, that was the final blow to the country as a force to be reckoned with in the 400 metres event in Africa. What was your reaction when you learnt that Egbunike's record had been broken?
I was watching the event and when I saw the pace of the race winner, I knew the inevitable was going to happen. But I believe we still have a 400 metres runner that can still run sub-45 seconds. It was sad for me though and I don't know how Innocent will receive the news.
Well, someone has to call him (Innocent) but I wonder which news he would like to hear first - the good news or the bad news - because records are meant to be broken but I would have appreciated it if it was a Nigerian that broke the record.
Our own athletes here in Nigeria can still run faster, but we still need a coach. That is the problem in Nigeria because some of our athletes don't want to go with the right coach and that is the problem.
But are you not concerned that we seem to be losing out to countries like DR Congo. Some people feel that if a DR Congo man can break Egbunike's record, then, one day a lady from Benin Republic would break your own African record?
Yes, but I think anybody, including Nigerians, can break any African record. But I believe the way we have done it in the past makes everyone to view us as a powerhouse in the 400 metres and 100 metres.
I also believe that if we put the right coach in place as well as the right training, the sky will be the limit for our athletes. You see, most of our athletes don't believe they have to train very hard to run fast. They believe the foreign athletes who are doing very well are taking substances in order to run fast.
Look at (Sanya) Richards, she left her coach in Texas and went to train with Michael Johnson's coach, now she ran 48.77 to break the American record.
Everything about athletics has now gone scientific but I think we can still do better though it appears the rest of Africa wants to take everything away from Nigeria.
And that is why some of us are calling on the corporate world to help because we can't keep relying on government.
But many people also believe that some of you, ex-internationals, have failed to put back your money and your experience into the sport, and that is why our athletics is suffering?
Some of us want to but it appears some people are not keen on utilising our experience.
You see, it's time we forgot about this stupid tribal issue that we always seem to foolishly worry about in Nigeria. Some Nigerians believe they can only help people who come from the same tribe as they.
Look at the present AFN: there's so much that is going on there. This one wants to please this one that one wants to please that one because that one is his friend.
They have to put sentiments aside and pick the right people for the job and not one who doesn't know what he or she is doing. They don't want progress because if they want progress, they will not do things the way they're doing it.
From what you've just said, it is obvious you're seriously worried about the decline in athletics and especially the 400 metres, the event that has given us so much over the years. Is that why you set up a Foundation, perhaps, specifically for the 400 metres?
Yes, but it is also easy to move from training for the 400 metres to the 200 metres or 100 metres event. With the training one receives as a 400 metres runner, you can easily move to the 800 metres.
So that is the reason I decided to focus on the 400 metres because I know from my experience as an athlete that I was able to run from 100 to 800 metres. The only way I can think of helping in the sport that has given me so much is to focus on the training of 400 metres runners because at the end of the day, they have a choice of becoming, not only 400 metres runners, but 400 metres hurdlers, or 200 metres or 100 metres runners.
But it won't just end with training as a lot of other things would equally be involved, like workshops and coaching clinics in December and January for our ageing athletes, because I have seen so many Nigerian athletes on the streets since there is nothing for them to do.
In the United States, there are plans in place for athletes when they retire but we don't have such in Nigeria. But over here, the administrators have forgotten that these are the people who made Nigeria proud and should be given something in return because they worked so hard to put Nigeria's name on the globe.
Some people benefited from their effort, even people who don't know how to do sport. For example, if we go to the Olympics, without the athletes the coach cannot go, the administrators will not travel, and even some people in the ministry will not travel anywhere in the world without these athletes.
But at the end of the day, you will see that it is the athletes that benefit less while the people in the system benefit more, which is not fair.
You mentioned a coaching clinic and a workshop sometime in January but we also learnt that there is a competition for 400 metres runners, which started yesterday and sponsored by your foundation. Can you brief us about this?
Well, it will run till Saturday in Ibadan and it will involve teams from primary schools, secondary schools and the sports councils, because I believe that we need to go back to the grassroots.
That is what the Americans and the Europeans have done and are still doing. And we hope that we will be able to discover some athletes whom we can monitor and probably prepare for the year 2010 and beyond.
Why the choice of Ibadan as venue for this event?
People have been asking why Ibadan and not, may be, Lagos, Abuja or Ogun. But we have to realise that Ibadan is one of the zonal headquarters created by the Federal Ministry of Sports. That is why we are starting at Ibadan, where we have one of the foremost stadia in West Africa, the Liberty Stadium.
There is so much history behind that stadium and that is the reason we are going there.
You are probably the first Nigerian athlete to think up this wonderful innovation. Tell Nigerians, did this idea come after you stopped running or when you were on top of the world winning events at random, especially in 1998?
It was before I stopped running. You see, I'd been thinking so much about how to give back to the sport long before I retired.
In my active days, a Nike official in Europe, Carl Steed, always asked me 'Fali, when you're finished with athletics, will you go back to Nigeria and take over Nigerian sports to make it better?' He and many others like him believe we have so many stars that can do better.
So, how much support have you received from the corporate world for your programme?
Well, we've got some promises from some organisations, like Indomie, and a couple of others but no matter what happens, the competition will still go on because I believe that whatever you do, you still have to give back and spend your own money on whatever you want to start.
I spoke with Admiral Porbeni and he was also willing to help but whatever happens, the competition will still go on.
Just last weekend, the World Cup in athletics held in Athens. I am sure you watched it on television but while watching it on television, and especially while watching Sanja Richards in the 400 metres, did it bring back memories of your feat in Johannesburg in 1998?
Yeah. You know, when I saw the way she got off the blocks like a rabbit, I was like wow. And thank God that despite the fact that the weather was very cold, she was able to run 48.77.
It was nice to see someone running that well at a championship like that, it's very sad to see that Africa has not done as much as we have done in the past.
Finally, if you sit down and look back at your career from 1986, when you won the World Junior title in the 200 metres to the time you took a break from athletics. And from the time you decided to return to athletics to the various world championship finals, from your world indoor silver medal to your Goodwill Games gold, your grand prix gold, your number one ranking in 1998 and Olympic medals, how do you refer to yourself - lucky, fortunate or just hardworking?
I am a hard worker. When I look back, I always ask myself what I would have if I had doubled in Atlanta (run 400 metres and 200 metres) because I was in good shape. But I am still very, very grateful for all I achieved in athletics through hardwork.
Even when you work very hard and get injured, you can still break records because you know you have worked hard and that is what a lot of Nigerian athletes don't know. They should also learn not to waste time because when I see some of them wasting their time now, I just cry.
Some of them are making money but don't want to get a good coach that can monitor their training. If they don't want to train with a coach in Nigeria, why don't they get a coach in Europe or in the United States?
Thank God that we had the opportunity of travelling to the United states but this present generation really needs to work very hard.