My award, a befitting end to a very long wait, says Udo-Obong

After 13 years of wait, the 4×400 men’s relay quartet whose silver medal won at the Sydney Olympics was upgraded to gold were decorated in Abuja last Wednesday. President Goodluck Jonathan  hosted the team and announced that a national award await the athletes. In this interview with our Snr. Correspondent, Uzor Odigbo, a member of the team, Eniefiok Udo-Obong bared his mind on the award, state of athletics in the country, coaches, Okagbare and life after retirement. Excepts-:

What was your reaction when it was revealed you that are going to be rewarded after 13 years?

There is a way you feel when a chapter that has been foreclosed is re-opened. Initially we didn’t win the gold, it was a long process. It took a lot of politics and intrigues. It took eight years for the IAAF to award us the gold. It took another four years for the IOC to approve the gold and another one year for the gold medal to reach the shores of Nigeria. You could see, it took 13 years for the President to recognize and honour us. It was befitting end to a very long wait.

What was the value of this award, was it monetised?

Well like the president would say, it was some monetary token given to us in appreciation. But the point is, it wasn’t the money issue, it was really the feeling that at long last the President has officially recognized us people who had done Nigeria proud and actually like heroes of the country. He also promised that we deserve national honours which would be given to us in due course. Its something we feel elated about, it would encouraged the younger ones. Now we have good thing to say, if you had asked me how do you want the young ones to be encouraged, I would have said you are at a risk. Now you can see there’s some kind of recognition and reward attached to it, no matter how long it takes. Weight of the gold medal is about 1.2kg but the value of the medal is more than the monetary reward because If l had the medal 13 years ago, I know the endorsement and races I would have had simply because of that gold medal. I can’t quantify the value.

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What type of national honour you hope for at the end of the day?

I don’t know but the minimum is Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).

Your late team mate Sunday Bada wasn’t there to receive the award, how touchy was his absence?

Yes, Sunday wasn’t there, but his wife represented him.We were happy that everyone could have a feel of the award, nobody felt cheated. We were happy that our coaches were rewarded as well, because there names were not on the list initially. But kudos to the President who displayed his knowledge of sports. When the list came to him he asked, don’t this team has coaches, that he can’t award this without their coaches. And the coach’s names were submitted to him immediately.

Could you clarify on the coaches that handled the relay team and those that received the award, was the person who submitted names of two coaches for the award wrong?

No, the person was spot-on. For clarification purposes, when we went to Sydney Olympics, we were there as a group. ln athletics we have different coaches, coaching different sections. We have sprint coaches, quarter-mile coaches, long distance coaches and coaches handling the 4x400m relay team and we have the overall coach. Off course, the head coach was Armelia Edet. She was in charge of sprint and hurdles. After the Sydney Olympics, the President then, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo hosted the team with his usual handshake. So, basically, that has been concluded. But for the 4x400m relay team, the only reason we were called by the President was that the silver medal we won was upgraded to gold. And when you win a gold medal the country honours you in a special way. Like the Paralympians won gold and were received in a special way. So, they called that team back to come receive the medal which the IOC has brought to the country. And that gold medal was won by a particular team, so who were the coaches of that team, there’s no argument about that. The coach of the entire Nigerian team was not on reception, rather the coaches of that particular 4x400m relay team.  And the president specifically asked, “Who coached this team? I don’t see why there should be any controversy there. I would have loved the whole coaches to be rewarded, most times they work hand in hand, but there was no argument that we have two coaches and the coaches were recognized by the President.

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Are you still one of the think-tanks of the AFN President, Solomon Ogba?

I advise the AFN president on technical matters on personal level. He opens his eyes to me and listens to what I have to say. I really do not have direct influence on what happens in the federation. When he was first elected I was his special assistant not personal assistant.

How will you describe the state of Athletics in the country right now?

We have the fastest female sprinter in the world (Blessing Okagbare, 10.79secs.) it’s so good, we have never had that before. The state of athletics now in Nigeria is very healthy, we have a crop of young athletes we believe will do well in Rio 2016 Olympics. Blessing was on a programme that would get her ready for Rio in two years time. But she is two years ahead of it and she is good for a medal or two at the world championships this month.

Okagbare was projected to get us a medal at the London Olympics, but this did not happen. She was one athlete everyone was looking up to but she couldn’t deliver?

Let me educate Nigerians a little bit more. Most times we don’t understand the dynamics of athletics. Blessing going to the Olympics has a personal best of 11.00secs and the other people she was competing against were running 10.7 and 10.8seconds. So, there was a big gulf. If even she was winning some meets which others were not running, there was a gulf and she was running all the time. Now, this year is different. She has programmed herself very well because AFN president Solomon Ogba has been in touch with her coach John Smith, one of the best in the world. This time around, Blessing in one meet does long jump, in another sprint. You can see that in a space of three weeks she had only ran one 100m race. Unlike last year she was running every week. And this is helping her to peak at the right time for the World Championships. Her body can rest and mind you, she has ran 10.79 ahead of the World Championships which is excellent. At the London Olympics she ran 10.9 twice in space of hours and that took a lot out of her. Now, she could run a heat in 11.1 and 10.9 in the semi-final, it won’t take anything from her because she has more in her tank and you can see that the progression is there.

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We should understand that when an athlete ran her personal best, we should not feel disappointed, she ran two personal best last year. This time at the World Championships, she would be in proper shape, who knows what she would run that time.

Nigerians want to know what you do for a living?

I’m into fitness consultancy and sports management. I run a fitness centre in Lagos, ‘Fitness Options’. And I try to assist young athletes that feel they have talent, give them a little bit of training. What we are trying to do is to let young men and women in sports get basic education and try to manage their career, but I do that on charity level, but fitness consultancy is what I do professionally.