When, last week, the Athletic Federation of Nigeria made public its list of athletes that would be representing Nigeria at the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, one name that caught the attention of many track and field followers was that of Mike Edwards.
A few days earlier, on Sunday 18 February, Edwards had defeated all-comers to win the high jump event at the British Championships. It was a remarkable feat for the jumper who had previously finished second and third at past championships.
Controversy, however, ensued after Edwards, who when he is not jumping runs Aireyys, a company that makes grooming products for men as well as quality cigars, took a puff of one of his company’s cigars.
The 27-year-old, who has a Jamaican father but was raised by his Nigerian mother, spoke with The Guardian’s Ifeanyi Andrew Ibeh on the issue, as well as why he now wants to be associated with the ‘Green and White’ of Nigeria instead of the UK’s ‘Union Jack’.
Having represented the UK in the past, how did the decision to switch allegiance to Nigeria arise, especially considering the fact that you recently won the high jump event at the recent British Championships in Birmingham?
The decision to represent Nigeria started long before the season began. I had the pleasure to meet with Team Nigeria during the World Championships in London last summer. I soon discovered that Nigeria has not had a male high jumper at the Commonwealth Games in over 50 years! That bothered me. I wanted to make the change and inspire the new generation of Nigerian athletes, or just athletes in general, to take part in an event that has given so much to me.
What was the reaction from family and friends, especially your Mom, when they learnt you’d been selected to represent Nigeria?
Everyone has been extremely supportive and excited for me to represent Team Nigeria. I even received a nice message from fellow Nigerian athlete, Seun Adigun, who recently made history becoming a member of the first African bobsledding team in history. I’m definitely feeling the love and looking forward to representing Nigeria.
Will your mother be going to Australia to watch you compete?
There are no plans for my mother to attend the Games right now but hopefully, she’ll be able to follow closely online.
We can’t speak of the British Championships in Birmingham without mentioning what happened afterwards after some criticised you for celebrating with a cigar. What was the idea behind it?
The story behind my cigar on the podium was genuine. I worked tirelessly for that one moment to be crowned champion. As a business owner of Britain’s first Black-owned cigar line, I wanted to share this special moment with one of my cigars.
Considering the fact that sportsmen, from basketball players to footballers, baseball players, and so many others, have long been celebrating major sporting achievements with cigars, were you surprised by some of the backlashes you got?
I was definitely surprised on the backlash. For me, that’s how winning is supposed to be done, especially after you’ve been handed a bottle of champagne – why not?
Did you think this backlash was because it was an unprecedented move in the world of athletics?
There’s probably a million different reasons why I received the backlash like I did from my cigar on the podium but if I’m honest, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m proud of what I did it because every Aireyys Cigar sold provides a person in need clean drinking water for an entire year. So, if my criticism on the podium can enable a person in need to have clean drinking water, my job is done.
Regardless of the criticisms, you have received tremendous support from thousands of fans online. How does this make you feel?
The support has been overwhelming. I have an amazing community and for them to have my back during this time is an incredible feeling.
Did the post-Birmingham incident have any influence on your decision to switch from Britain to Nigeria?
No, the incident did not influence my decision for the switch from Britain to Nigeria. However, ironically, I was officially selected for the Commonwealth Games by Team Nigeria shortly after the British Championships so the celebrations continued.
You have a Jamaican dad and a Nigerian mother. You were born in Manchester and raised in Florida. Besides Nigeria, you could easily have decided to represent Jamaica. Why Nigeria?
I’ve always had a stronger relationship with my mother. She raised me. As a child, I was sent to school in Lagos with my older brother and sister to learn the correct tools and values. Unfortunately, my older brother suffered from illness and died whilst in care. I’ve not been back since but I’m looking forward to returning soon.
Sorry to hear that, but how connected are you to your Nigerian roots?
My entire rest of my family is very much Nigerian. I’d like to say I’m definitely connected. Even though I’m well-travelled I know where home is. Besides my Yoruba name is Olayemi.
That’s good to know, but looking at your brand, why the name Aireyy?
The name Aireyys was a name I made up. However, the brand represents the Dark Horse – a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds.
Besides cigars, Aireyys are into grooming products. What inspired you to go into this line of products?
I sport a full beard and I like to keep it looking healthy so I decided to create my own line of beard oil, handcrafted by my own blends, the rest was history.
How are you able to combine all that you do as the CEO of Aireyys with life as a professional athlete?
I was raised to be a student first – athlete second. So for me, it just came naturally combining both. My Business comes first before athletics.
Do you have any plans of relocating to Nigeria or some other African country in the future?
No plans of any relocating right now. I’m newly engaged to my beautiful fiancée (British 400m runner) Perri Shakes-Drayton and living in the UK.
Q: How did you and your fiancée meet, and for how long have you two been together?
I meet Perri at my University in 2013. I was studying and she was down for a training camp at Embry Riddle Aeronautical in Florida. I made fun of her strong East London accent whilst passing by from training. A year later, I moved back to England and invited her on our first date to the Royal Opera House. Three years later, I proposed at the same venue. She said yes!
How did Perri react to your decision to represent Nigeria?
My fiancée was pleased about my decision. She knows how hard I’ve worked towards this moment, and she loves the Nigerian culture so we’re both very proud.
Will she be going to the Commonwealth Games? If yes, how excited are you at having her around?
Yes. We will both be heading to Australia to compete. Perri will represent Team England in both the Women’s 4x400m relay and Women’s 400m individual. I am over the moon to share the experience together. Moreover, it will be our first time in Australia, so bonus.
Heading into the Commonwealth Games, what are you aiming for at the Games? Is a podium finish possible?
My first aim entering the Commonwealth Games is to make the finals. After that anything is possible.
Some say smoking cigars are unhealthy and affect athletic performance. What do you have to say to them?
I would say stress is unhealthy. As an athlete, it’s important to decompress before entering battle. For me, an occasional cigar helps me with that. I try to keep everything in moderation though.
I understand you get some of the material for your cigars from Cameroon. Surely you’d be setting up shop somewhere in Africa, even if you won’t settle here in Nigeria?
Yes. I’d love to do more business in Africa hopefully soon.
For the uninitiated, what makes a cigar special?
What makes cigars special for me is the connection associated with success. I love a celebratory cigar. The best cigar in the world is the one you prefer to smoke on special occasions.