He will be 80 years old this year. He has been living quietly in the city of Abeokuta, Ogun State, partially blind, for over 40 years. At a time, he was the toast of the country’s track and field athletics, a supreme athlete, a sprinter, one of the best in the continent of Africa, and undoubtedly the best amongst a generation of Nigerian sprinters that dominated the sprints at one time.
Nigeria is a country long established as a natural habitat for sprinters and jumpers amongst other sports requiring explosive power and speed. That’s why no Commonwealth, African, World and Olympic sprints and jumps event was ever complete without the presence one or two Nigerians lined up amongst the finalists!
There is a very long list of sprinters, hurdlers and jumpers, all world class, through several generations – Sam Igun, Major Nzeogwu, David Ejoke, Davidson Ezinwa, Osmond Ezinwa, Olapade Adeniken, Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Falilat Ogunkoya, Mary Onyali, Gloria Anozie, Kola Abdullahi, Bruce Ijirigho, Charlton Ehizuelen, Godwin Obasogie, Musa Dogonyaro, Yusuf Alli, Olakunle Alani, Samson Oyeledun, Lawrence Adegbeingbe, Timor Oyebami, and many more. Nigeria was to the world then was Jamaica has now become!
Some two weeks ago on a new television programme called The Sports Parliament showing every Thursday night on the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, Africa’s largest television network with over 60 million viewers, a new quiz segment was introduced that challenged Nigerians on their knowledge of their sports history.
During the first two weeks, two questions were asked that confirmed the existing tragedy of a lack of proper documentation of historical achievements in Nigerian sports. That’s why legions of former heroes never get their right and due attention, and are never remembered and honoured for their immense contribution to the image building of Nigeria in sports. Many, therefore, are forgotten from the moment their careers end as active sports persons. They die unsung and unheralded. There is a long list of them.
Without proper documentation people forget the past very easily, and useful experiences that should drive development into the future are wasted in the dustbin of forgotten history!
The first two questions asked on the television show were meant to be experimental, deliberately designed to test the waters, to challenge viewers beyond getting the answers by merely google-searching. Viewers were expected to do some work, to delve into archival materials, ask questions, and actually do some homework in order to be able to correctly answer the questions.
In some cases, this would demand recalling, re-living dramatic events from the past and celebrating history as well as landmark feats.
Memorable athletic feats are the fuel of legends and legendary tales, the oxygen that drives the business of sport and expands its unprecedented global followership. No other activity in human existence commands the emotions, passion and followership that sports command.
I was excited to come up with the first of two questions in the first two weeks. The first was simple enough in my erroneous reckoning. ‘Who won the 100 metres event race at the First National Sports Festival held in Lagos in 1973?’
It was such a dramatic race that even I, a very young football player and a spectator on that day, still vividly recall the race as if it was yesterday.
For two whole weeks after the question was asked on national television, none of the millions of viewers could provide the right answer! Not even former international athletes. Everyone had forgotten the race, and without any known existing documents anywhere of that epic national championship, it has become news worthy to the point of my making it the subject of my column this week.
Even when I consulted with some of the athletes that participated in the preliminary races before the finals during the sports festival I was shocked to find out that none could remember who won the race.
Finally, I called up the winner of the race itself, a man fast approaching his 80th birthday. As excited as he was that anyone even remembered him and wanted him to recall a glorious event that he was involved in, his answer left me bemused and beyond words.
He was not sure himself who won the race. He remembered the race without doubt. It was his last race of his career. He spent a few minutes trying to delve into the inner recesses of his memory, as far back as it could take him, to recall who were in the race with him. I had to help him with a few names. Between us we could only come up with four, excluding himself – Kola Abdullahi, Timor Oyebami, Alani Olakunle and David Ejoke. To date I have not been able to complete the eight-man final list.
His response was ‘I think the race was won by either Kola or myself’.
How could he forget such an epic race, probably the greatest race of his life, the last he ever ran, the one that was so dramatic it remains etched on my mind 44 years after?
Yes, indeed, the great late Kola Abdullahi was the favourite to win the race. He was by far the fastest man in Nigeria. He only lost the race against Ghana’s Ohene Karikari a few months earlier during the All Africa Games in Lagos, to determine who was the fastest man on the continent. But before Kola’s ascendancy, there was the man I was sharing time and his experiences with. He was four years older than Kola who was his main rival for the final event of the festival. At 36 he was in the twilight of his career, the festival his final patriotic call to duty with very little chance of a winning finish.
In the final race that evening in 1973, at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, before a packed audience of some 60,000 spectators gripped by the suspense of a race to determine the fastest man in Nigeria, there was unbelievable tension that heightened with the first of several false starts.
There were four in all. The race had to be restarted four times. Seven of the eight runners received a warning. One was disqualified for two false starts – the favourite to win – Kola Abdullahi! That completely threw open the race. Anything was now possible. All the athletes had warning cards except one. It was emotionally draining to watch them avoid possible disqualification by remaining on their starting blocks until long after the blast of the whistle.
The only man that timed his start to perfection, the only one that had not received a warning card, the ‘oldest’ man in the line-up, four times lucky with cool starts, left the block ahead of all others, and raced to the finish line before the rest could even blink! Well, that’s an exaggeration, but the race was his last and best race.
He won the race and retired from track and field athletics a deserving champion. That was the last race of his life in a glorious career that had taken him all over the world racing for Western State and for Nigeria.
So, ‘Who won the 100 metres sprints event at the First National Sports Festival in Lagos in 1973?’
When Ogun State was created out of the old Western State, he moved to Abeokuta his home town and, fast approaching 80 years of age, still lives there till this day.
For the records, he won the 100 metres sprints event. His name is Benedict Majekodunmi!