Forsaken champions: Nigeria’s para athletes battle penury
On this day last year, Team Nigeria arrived Rio, Brazil, for Paralympics 2016. Fourteen days later, they landed Nigeria’s Abuja Airport to a cheering crowd of dancers and onlookers who gathered for a glimpse of the champions and their medals. The team had hauled 12 medals including eight gold - the best result in Team Nigeria’s Olympic and Paralympic history. Today, the same team lavish in penury as Lolade Adewuyi finds out in this special feature for The Guardian
Every morning, Olajumoke Olajide rises around 4:30am from her Amukoko residence to get to the National Stadium where her coach, Aliu Adebayo waits for her to begin the day’s training. Her travails in this community on the outskirts of Lagos, a neighbourhood where unemployed youths run rampage and rape is rife, starts from the bus stop where she requires two people to help her board the yellow danfo bus. Many times, she has to wait for more than an hour before a helpful conductor will agree to fold up her 15 kilogrammes wheelchair and stow it into the bus and onwards to Surulere.
Olajide lost the use of her legs when she was four years old after falling ill. She says an injection caused paralysis to her lower limbs, a classic case of poliomyelitis. Her parents ran helter-skelter in search of solutions, visiting healing homes, orthodox and religious as she became confined to using leg braces and crutches that came with pains so she started to crawl.
She dropped out of school in Primary Six when her parents could not afford the high cost of a special needs school and was asked to learn shoe making but could not sustain her interest.
Moving in with her aunty in Orile Iganmu led her to a chance meeting with a neighbour, a night club bouncer who encouraged her to take up sport in order to engage herself. In 2009, Olajumoke had a life changing experience when she met people with different levels of paralysis at a charity donation organised by the MTN Foundation in Rowe Park, Yaba.
“When I got there, I forgot about my disability when I saw other people that had worse than me. I cried with them but made many friends that day,” she said. She left the place with a tricycle in tow and the name of a coach at the stadium.
She went to the powerlifting arena where she met Coach Are who encouraged her to keep coming. But someone advised her instead to go to the tracks where she met Coach Adebayo who would put her in a racing wheelchair for the first time.
“He took me as his own sister and encouraged me. He showed me what I am capable of achieving,” she said.
Following the early body pains of active competition, Olajumoke settled down to track and field where she began to compete in T53, a category for athletes who have spinal injuries since her condition had worsened over time. She won the gold medal in the 100m wheelchair race at the National Sports Festival Eko 2012 in Lagos. And she became a member of the national team.
In 2016, Olajumoke broke the 11-year-old African T53 100m record that was held by Kenyan Anne Wafula, at her first international race, the International Paralympic Committee Athletics Grand Prix in Dubai.
It was a moment of personal fulfilment and triumph after many disappointments. “I didn’t know the moment when I started crying, I was so happy,” she said. She was left out of the Nigerian Paralympic Team to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games but has not given up hope. “When I saw my colleagues win medals in Rio I cried and told myself ‘one day I will become a Paralympian and I will win something when I get there.’”
According to figures released during the 2016 International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPWDs), 19million Nigerians live with at least one form of disability. But this has not stopped many from taking part in sport. Nigeria won her first gold medal at the Paralympics in 1992, four years before gold was won by an able-bodied athlete at Atlanta ‘96. At Rio 2016 where the country got a bronze in football, para-athletes won eight gold medals in a total haul of 12 which has led for calls to prioritise the Paralympics above the Olympics. Yet, the treatment that para-athletes have received has been incommensurate with their output as Onye shares an even worse experience.
Onye’s big heart
Lauritta Onye, 33, was one of the stars of the 2016 Paralympic Games. Outgoing and highly personable, Onye won a gold medal in the F40 shotput for women when she broke her own world record and her celebration twerk was shown on TV screens across the world. Born with achondroplasia which makes her adult height 4ft 1in, Onye laments that nothing has changed for her since that success.
“I thought that my country was going to honour me and I was going to be awarded. When we got to Nigeria, they welcomed us at the airport in Abuja. The next day we were all asked to return to our destinations. They did not take us to see the President,” Onye said. The President has yet to call for the team.
Frustrated at the lack of financial rewards for her achievement while her opponents have been rewarded, Onye said her motivation for continuing in the sport has waned. Having no car, she gets around by public transport and suffers when it rains because she has to walk through floods, where she sometimes has to be carried across drains.
“There are bills I have to pay and because I am an athlete I am unemployed, I do not receive a salary. I need a car because I don’t have long legs to jump over gutters and people have to carry me, it’s not good. After all my hard work…” she lamented.
“When people recognise me in public transport, they ask why do I still take public transport as an Olympian. When I am coming to training and I see flooded streets, I cannot jump because I don’t have long legs. Men take advantage of me, they say ‘let me carry you my baby.’ It’s annoying.”
Onye once fainted during training because she had not eaten. “I fainted because I had not replaced the lost energy. It is very embarrassing for me.”
Her gold medal, which hangs in her house, is a reward for a decade of hard work where she has reached beyond her physical limits. However, Onye continues to find it hard to participate in international competitions that should help her rankings. The Nigerian para-athletes can’t find funding to attend competitions this year and Adebayo’s academy can’t do anything about it.
The Paralympic Committee has a standard categorisation for athletes, with the coding prefix T (track) and F (field). National athletics coach, Aliu Adebayo, trains Track athletes with limb deficiency (T51), leg length difference (T52), impaired muscle power (T53) and those with impaired range of movement (T54).
Adebayo himself, won a T54 men’s 100m gold for Nigeria at the 1999 All Africa Games in Johannesburg, but poor preparations meant he lost the title in Abuja, four years later, and in Algiers, in 2007. He said that it was due to lack of competition. “We went and rested on our oars when the competition went back home to prepare to beat me,” he reflects.
Back then there was nothing for para-athletes to do. They just showed up to compete after a few days in camp.
His coaching career took off as he saw the need to use his experience to prepare younger athletes. His life has been dedicated to supporting para-athletes and helping them find purpose in a country where even able-bodied people struggle for a living.
He recalls the day Olajide first came to the stadium. “She came with her mother who was crying about the amount of pain that her daughter would suffer, but I assured her that all would be well.
“I told her, ‘Look at me, am I not on the wheelchair too? How will I hurt her? Mark my words, these tears you are shedding will become joyful tears tomorrow’,” he said.
Having sent the mother away, Adebayo proceeded to turn the 22-year-old into a top athlete just like he had done for others before.
Adebayo spends personal funds to ensure his athletes can get access to international standard wheelchair and other training equipment, sometimes at the detriment of his own family. Adebayo’s work with other para-athletes has taken a toll on his family’s finances but he has vowed never to stop creating the change he wants to see happen.
“My wife and I have agreed that she will take care of breakfast and lunch for the children while I bring home dinner,” he said, with a lump in his throat.
So, every morning, Adebayo waits for his athletes at the National Stadium not minding what the weather is and where the money is going to come from. “I tell my athletes who are now abroad to always remember to send something to assist those following behind, that’s how we were able to buy top wheelchairs for our training.”
And he has been able to make many of them dream beyond their circumstances. Michael Olugbenga Adeniji, a T53 wheelchair athlete belongs to the foundation run by Adebayo. He travels from Ikorodu every morning via BRT buses to train at the stadium. His joy is that the BRT buses are free for physically challenged people but would like to see specialist sport centres built for para-athletes across the state.
T51 class athlete, Lucky Ajudua, was inspired by watching para sports on television and so came to the stadium to pursue his dreams. “I want to win a gold medal for Nigeria at the Paralympics one day,” he said.
Babatunde Sheriff, a T54 athlete has been participating in the sport for eight years. Sport, he said, has helped him to become accepted in society. “I am able to pay for my house rent and do other things,” he said.
Strength despite adversity
As she rests after her session, Olajide shouts out instructions to a younger athlete who is doing his rounds on the tracks. It is her own way of taking up responsibility for other athletes just as her coach has admonished.
She dreams of reaching the top of her sport one day and having the opportunity to give back to the sport just like her coach Adebayo is doing.
“The one thing I would like is to help change the perception about disabled people. The way people look down on us is not good,” she said.
“I feel discouraged sometimes because we have not been able to attend any championships this year. Someday maybe we will stop practising and go find other things to do.”
Onye, who has been in films and is a star on the big screen, hopes to settle down and raise her own family soon. She would be happy to have a partner that will support her athletics dreams and maybe finance some of her international travel to compete. However, she’s also aware that marriage could mean ending her career.
Still, her sense of humour shines through. “I want a man who is God-fearing, fashionable and romantic. I have been approached by many men but I am taking my time because all that glitters is not gold.” Speaking of gold, exactly how much is needed to keep Nigeria’s Paralympic champions and hopefuls, well engaged and ready for future medals?
Is this the future?
To win medals in any sports competition requires a huge investment in training, facilities, coaching staff, diet and overall well-being of the athlete. For example, the United Kingdom, according to uksport.gov.uk, spent £5m to prepare athletes for the Atlanta ‘96 Olympic games. By UK standard, that amount was considered a token because it landed Team Great Britain on the 36th spot on the overall medals table.
But since that time, UK Sports, the body responsible for funding UK’s Olympic athletes has spent more than £900million on preparing athletes for the games. More than £274m was allocated to support Olympic athletes for Rio with an additional £73m spent on the country’s Paralympians.
That investment did eventually pay off - UK earned a second spot on the overall medals table in both the Olympic and Paralympic games. Not surprising, Nigeria came a distant 78th and 17th respectively on the overall Olympic and Paralympic medals table respectively. Notwithstanding the success, the UK is not resting on its oars. Between 2017 and 2020, it plans to spend over £70m to prepare Paralympians for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games. Much of the funds come from the National UK lottery and government subventions. Nigeria on its part, has no official record of how much it spends on her athletes.
For doing their country proud at the last Olympic games, US Paralympians each got $5,000 for winning Gold, $3,000 for Silver and $2,000 for winning Bronze medals, even though most of the athletes complained they should have gotten same reward as their able-bodied counterparts.
Why are Nigerian para athletes having it so difficult in spite of recording such international feats for the green-white-green flag? The Secretary General of the Paralympic Federation of Nigeria, Chinedu Osuoha attempts an explanation:
“Government is saddled with catering for more than 40 sporting federations, the government alone can’t do the magic, corporate bodies have to step in.”
In June 2017, FrieslandCampina WAMCO Nigeria announced a renovation of the para athletes power gymnasium in Nigeria’s National Stadium, Lagos. Under the partnership with the country’s sport ministry, the food and beverage company will refurbish the gymnasium and equip with facilities. This arrangement also includes provision of nutritional support for athletes.
Many of the athletes agree that corporate sponsorship is the way out of Nigeria’s sporting mess. But until then, Onye, Olajide, Adebayo, Sheriff, Adeniji, Ajudua and their many colleagues vow to keep training for as long as they can. The question is, for how much longer?
Photos taken by Bunmi Amosun
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