Mary Onyali Omagbemi canvasses more exposure and opportunities for Nigerian athletes in this interview with NEXT's Yemi Olus at the National Sports Festival in Kaduna.
She dominated the female sprints for almost twenty years and made it to five Olympics, a feat which not many Nigerian athletes have achieved. She is no other person than Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, popularly referred to in Nigeria as 'queen of the tracks'.
Onyali-Omagbemi was one of the ex-athletes called upon to monitor the state of events at the just concluded national sports festival.
On KADA 2009
Commenting on the host state, Kaduna, she said: "They tried. Job well done for a state that hasn't hosted anything of this magnitude or close to this magnitude since 1977. I think they did a great job in the short time span to get the facility going. If they have been hosting events, they probably would have got it up and doing faster than they did now. If they had been hosting big events, there would have been something on ground for them to refurbish but most of the facilities had to start from the scratch."
An amateur game
She was also delighted about the age range of the participants and the fact that the games were restricted to amateurs.
She said: "I like the fact that most of the rules as far as the age limit was concerned were strictly drummed into everybody's ears. You cannot get a hundred per cent of not breaking rules but they did the best they can to see that everybody understands it and keeps to it. The professionals were not included like in Abeokuta, I liked that.
They know that they are strictly competing among their peers and not professionals so that they don't get scared. This is what this competition is all about, to find youth from the grass roots who will take over from where the older ones stopped. To me they should just keep it this way."
Down memory lane
Onyali doesn't have a good memory of competing in the festival during her time because she left the country immediately after her secondary school.
However, comparing her days as an athlete with the present crop of athletes, she said: "During my era, we competed for the love of the sport but now, from what I see, I don't see that zeal. They put the dollar sign in front of them, then the love of the sport second. But in those days, it was the other way round. We do anything to kill each other for who's going to cross that line first. Now, whoever is going to give you the most money or however you are going to get the most money is first.
"The love of the sport needs to be drummed back to their heads and that's where we as ex-athletes turned monitors in this game must play a crucial role. Talk to them. Let them understand that their future lies here. "When they put the dollar first, they will probably just give us three to five years and then they are done.
We need to have them change their concept on what the game is all about. If it wasn't for the love of the game, I wouldn't have lasted five Olympics. I would have stopped when the money stopped coming."
Problem with Nigeria sports
She says the major problem plaguing sports in Nigeria is that of implementation.
"Let's say after this festival, things will be dissected, wrongs written right, right made better. Both the old and new athletes know the problems with our sports. We the monitors for example, will make our recommendations. Will somebody please see to it that it is implemented? If it is not implemented, then we will keep speaking the same language and that is not helping us" she said.
Our athletes need exposure
The Olympics bronze medallist believes that Nigerian athletes no longer make much impact in international competitions such as the Olympics due to lack of exposure.
"It goes back to what I was saying about the young athletes competing with the older athletes. Once athletes stay within the continent of Africa and have not stepped outside, they are bound to freak out when they see just the facilities of an Olympic venue. That's all. Their fellow competitors from different countries may be wearing some fancy looking tracksuit. I mean little things can make or break an athlete.
After your coach has trained you for 365 days, you are ready but if you are not mentally prepared, it is a waste of time. So if they train and compete with the same people overseas, it will be deja vu when they get to the Olympics. You will know them and know their strengths and weaknesses. They need to be exposed more, both the athletes and the coaches," she said.
Happy in retirement
Onyali, who still holds the national record in 200 metres doesn't miss her competing days at all. If anything, she's glad she retired.
She said: "I retired when I wanted to retire. That's why I don't miss it. If I retired when the press and the public were bullying me, ‘hey, you need to leave it for the young ones', I would have been hungry to come back because it wasn't my choice but there is no way in the world I do anything because of anybody. I have never succumbed under anybody's pressure.
"I create my own path. Yeah, you will be moved to help that boy or girl make that extra move because it is in me but as for putting on my spikes to compete, no way.
"What moves me now is the administrative problems. Before, it was not my business. All I was focused on was compete, compete but now, I'm getting a very good picture of what these athletes are going through. That's why these monitors are here because of the love and passion we have for the sport. We want to give back. We are tired of sitting behind the fence and watching things go bad. Now we want to make an impact, show our faces."
Greatest moment in sports
On her greatest moment ever, she said: "I had two of such moments. The first was Atlanta '96 when I won my individual bronze medal and the 2003 All African Games. Atlanta was memorable for me because we had a bronze in the 4x 100 metres in 1992. That was a medal but it was ‘our' medal. I wanted something for myself that only I sweated for and thank God I was able to achieve it before I retired.
"The All African Games was my farewell race on my soil, among my people. To me that superceded the Olympics medal because I ended it where I started on a good note."
Despite having retired from sports, Onyali keeps busy with her sportswear manufacturing outfit, Yali-Yali and is planning to open a factory in Calabar. She sees this as her own way of giving back to the society.
"I'm a fashionista, I like to look good. I like to dress good and when I was competing, I made sure I looked good. I did not care what kind of tracksuit it was and that being my passion, still in the area of sports, I thought, why not wake up to do something I love. Let me start producing sportswear so that I can help the kids and produce something affordable for them.
"If you see what they train with, some of them use slippers. I almost shed tears when I went to some training venues in Lagos. The Adidas and Nikes are there but they are too expensive. A kid whose parents cannot afford three square meals a day cannot buy Adidas.
"It has been an uphill task trying to set it up but like they say, to start to cry is very difficult but once you start, it flows. It's difficult starting now but when it starts, everyone will get a piece of it. That's my goal,"she said.
Culled from NEXT/Yemi Olus