[Being the fourth in a series of commentaries, news reports and past essays on past Olympics]
The following essay was first used in my Sunday essays in The Comet on Sunday [became The Nation on Sunday] in August 2004. TOLA.]
Allow me to say right away that not only do I find nothing wrong in Obikwelu donning the uniform of Portugal at Athens, I actually cheered for him in the hundred meter semi-finals and the final just as I cheered Nigeria’s Aliu and others in the earlier rounds of the prestigious hundred meters.
As the eight young men, especially Maurice Green paced and prowled prior to the start of the dash, Obikwelu, like the Bahamas’ Obadele Thompson remained calm, very calm. Although I liked them all and have followed the International Athletics Association Federation professional circuit, I wanted Asafa Powell, the Jamaican to win, picked Shaun Crawford and Obikwelu to win the silver and bronze. I was sure modern sprint is such that Green’s age would not hold with the like of 21-year old Powell. Well, was I wrong! Green made time stand still and pulled out a rabbit from his pouch of experience. The result is already common knowledge but here it is again: Gatlin won gold, Nigerian-Portuguese Obikwelu won silver and the bronze went to Green, the favorite of most of the fans at the Stadium because of his longevity.
I cannot forget to comment on the fact that Green, Gatlin and Crawford are all Americans in a line-up dominated by Americans or American-trained sprinters. In all, it was a delightful evening filled with the usual excitement of sprints be they at the Olympic or at the Ionian Meets of Anglican Secondary Schools of old Nigeria. Who can forget the usual sakara (a lot of attitude!) of boys at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, Liberty Stadium, Ibadan or the invitation relays. I was shocked to hear the commentator speak of Crawford’s display to his friend at the end of one of the two semi-finals in a disparaging manner. We all saw what the commentator saw and any black person, American, Nigerian or Ghanaian sports-person or follower of athletics, in particular, understood the playful exchange between the two kids.
Allow me a recap. It was apparent that Crawford, who won that semi-final and ran in Lane One while Gatlin was in Lane Two was on cruise by ninety meters, it was apparent that Crawford was on cruise, knowing that he had not only qualified, but that he was first and he had therefore decelerated. At about the 98-meter mark, he glanced to his right and smiled slyly at Gatlin in a sort of Olympic and African-American version of what any Government College, Ibadan, Ibadan Grammar School, etcetera would read correctly as eat-the-dust-off/of-my-spikes!
Even though centuries separate Black America from Africa and even thousands of miles still do, the cultural similarities never stop to amaze me. When I used to watch basketball superstars like Charles Barkley (who has now retired) say things like “you cannot guard me” to quicker opponents placed to stop him, I did not hear showboating words as the commentator implied of Crawford’s playful action in spite of “Sir” Charles’ bombastic ways. I knew I was looking at American version of Nigerian boys at invitational relays, etcetera telling their opponents from other schools to eat dust!
It is true that Crawford might have made better time than the Olympic final of 9.98 or so, if he had really pushed but for that innocent display and who knows what record he might have broken. But these are kids, even though men, and running is, and will continue to be their lives for quite a while; so, culturally-challenged commentators, cool it. Allow them to enjoy their lives even if they make costly mistakes in the process.
Before even the Olympic flame was lit inside the main arena, charges of drug use had been flying for months. Golden girl, Marion Jones is still being investigated because of her link to a laboratory that manufactured the so-called “designer drugs” that some athletes have been found guilty of using. After Sydney, Marion has had lucrative commercial deals back in the States. She even posed for American Vogue not just inside where she displayed a beauty and grace unusual in an athlete but she also graced the cover wearing a sultry, and dead-fitting drop-dead gorgeous number. Marion is in the Olympics but did not qualify for any of the sprints; she will be running in the 4 X 100 meter relay and the long jump.
Drug charges have seen Tori Edwards, another American out of the Olympics and other international competitions having been slapped with a two-year ban. The cases of Greek sprinters, Kenteris and Ms. Thanou played out like a classic Greek tragedy that only the likes of Aeschylus could have written. While Aeschylus’ plots drew from Greek mythologies, his latter-day compatriots absented themselves from pre-Olympic drug tests, strangely were both in a motorcycle accident after, they both claimed, to have traveled to Chicago. The cause of Aeschylus’ death is, perhaps, less strange than the odyssey of the Kenteris and Thanou. The old Athenian tragedian supposedly died from the impact of a tortoise dropped on his head by an eagle!
Go figure; at least the man died during the age of mythologies.
They were not the only drug culprits who were detected; there was at least another Greek and others from other countries. Although this is perhaps the first Olympic in which the International Olympic Committee has gone high profile, this is not the first Olympic marred by drugs. Canadian sprinter, Johnson, was the only high profile athlete discovered at Seoul in 1988, but he was, from words never echoed publicly but backed by how-could-that-be, not the only one. It was apparent to anybody with eyes that Johnson was doped to his eyes as he ran better and better times in qualifying rounds. The lovable and flashy Florence Griffith-Joyner (FloJo), now late, quitted competitive sports after Seoul and her incredible 10.49 and 21.34 in the hundred/two hundred remain unbroken and a few athletes are finally speaking no longer in whispers and asking that Flo-Jo’s record be wiped off the books. There have also been whispers about purported cause of her death.
Those of us who are suckers for track events would still watch and still be awed by a man’s ability to run about thirty feet every one second but this does not take away from our disappointment. One is often left wondering: is it real or is it drug-fuelled because one often senses those propelled by more than their God-given talents and efforts on their part not only in athletics but in soccer, tennis, you name it.
To enjoy this Olympics, I took the advice from someone who knows how I feel about athletics: “in most cases, drugs will not help whites out-sprint blacks; neither will it aid an African-American out-run a white in the Marathon to place in the top three. Just assume they all use it and that it will only assist them in their areas of natural talents!” That’s depressing because of the implications for an African-American sprinter who does not use drugs against another who does, or a white high jumper who does not use drugs against a black high jumper who does.
It is possible to reduce to the minimum performance-enhancement drug use in sports. The money at stake is huge these days and once that is the case, you cannot but have “thieves” (cheats) as the winner of the male 1500 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympics compared drug users recently. For example, the Tennis Federation can order that samples be taken at all grand slams even though only a few would be tested. Ditto football, etcetera. As it is, some of these sportsmen and women stay away from certain competitions in tennis once they sense there will be drug tests.
The appearance of forty-four year-old Merlene Ottey, former Jamaican sprinter who ran under the flag of Slovenia not only at the Olympics but in recent IAAF meets is noteworthy in more ways than one. Athens is Ms. Ottey’s seventh Olympics and she typifies recent One World One that sports are heading. Davies, a sprinter for the U.S. did not qualify for the Olympics and what did he do? He flew across the Atlantic to England where his mother holds citizenship and picked up not just an immediate citizenship and passport but also a berth on the English Olympic squad. Apart from Obikwelu, Glory Alozie, another Nigerian, is a Spanish. There are several Kenyans who are now Middle-Easterners 5000-meter runner, Ethiopian Elvan Abeylegesse is now from Turkey while there is a Kenyan who runs for France as a citizen. These athletes are not the Abi Oyepitans of the athletic world who derive citizenships from Britain, etcetera, their places of birth.
Do I blame these young people? Of course, not. It is not only very difficult for an athlete to train and stay in form but the life span in any sports is very short and now that sports pay a whole lot, athletes want to cash in quickly. In the long run, the poor countries from where these sports émigrés hail also benefit in terms of remittances.
Nigeria at Athens? With the exception of the men’s two sprint relay teams that won bronzes, the team was too large, the Abuja trials, not properly carried out. I even watched boxing on television but inadequate preparations seemed to be the problem. The officials? Far too large but think estacode; think jamboree in the tradition of Nigerian government delegations.