Atlanta 1996 Olympics silver medallist, Fatimat Yusuf-Olukoju, tells Idris Adesina about her athletics career, the way forward for the sport and many more in this interview
A new administration is in charge of athletics in the country. What should be its focus?
A lot of things need to be done. The new board made a lot of promises to athletes before coming on board. They should work on those things they promised and we can take the sport forward from there. There will be differences in a board – anywhere two or more people gather, there is sure to be – but they should put their differences aside and see how they can get the sport to move forward. The board needs support and they should not be afraid to reach out to people who are willing to assist in any way they can. For instance I will be willing to do that if they will yield to it.
Your All African Games records of 22.45secs and 49.43secs in the 200m and 400m are still standing. How do you feel still having them there?
It is sad that those records are still there. Those records should be more than 15 years and what are they still there for? Records are meant to be broken and that is only possible if the athletes are given what they need to perform. My husband Adewale Olukoju’s national record in the discus throw is still there as well. It is very sad. Every time we talk about Nigerian athletics, he is always bitter that the sport is not growing than it should be – rather it is going further down the drain. I will be very happy the day I get to hear that my records at the All Africa Games have been broken – and happier if it should be broken by a Nigerian athlete.
Nigeria in recent years tend to focus more on the track events at the expense of the field events. What do you think is responsible for this?
The lack of an established system is responsible for it. Back in our days, there was a structured system where athletes were discovered from the grassroots. The federation never joked with the school system and there were many inter-school competitions which exposed many of us to the state and national coaches. There are many more athletes in the country who are ready to jump high and throw long distances in the javelin and shot put but they are there undiscovered. We need to go back to the grassroots, especially the school system, and get these athletes from there. The Kenyans were usually known for the long distance races but today, they have broken into the field events and are doing very well. Nigeria dominated both track and field back in the days. But today, we are lagging behind even in the track events. When we go back to the grassroots, we will dominate both track and field as in the days of old.
Atlanta 1996 remains the greatest moment in Nigeria’s sporting history. What was the feeling like then?
It was the greatest moment in my career. I never believed I would achieve such a glorious outing then because I was out of athletics for two months then with a nasty injury. I joined the team a little before the Olympics and I was surprised that I could make the final of the 400m, where I eventually finished sixth. I remember that in the semi-finals, we had three of us there while two of us made the final. But in the 4x400m, I had to give my all along with Bisi Afolabi, Charity Opara and Falilat Ogunkoya to ensure we get that silver. That year set a standard for Nigerian athletics which is fast fading out. Those were the days where we could have three Nigerians in the final of events and we will go home with at least one medal.
Female athletes have always complained of sexual harassment and molestation by their coaches. Did this happen during your time?
Sexual harassment and molestation of athletes by coaches is a sad development in Nigerian athletics that needs to be nipped in the bud by the current administration. It has been happening a long time ago and it happened during our time as well. I think it is an ugly trend that keeps rearing its head in the country’s sports. Athletes have survived it because they kept their heads. The effect is psychological and it goes a long way in affecting athletes’ performances at time. Some of us who, refused to yield, almost have our careers derailed but we couldn’t be sidelined because we were good. Those who gave in still had to suffer from the psychological effects till date.
Do you have a personal experience?
I have a personal experience but I will not want to go into its details. I was just lucky that I was already doing well in the sport before mine happened – or else, my refusal could have derailed my career totally. However, it has helped me to become who I am today – the strong, fighting and well-behaved woman and mother, who represented her country purely and cleanly. I had to seek counselling after I left the country. If the act is not stopped, I am afraid my children may not represent Nigeria. I cannot imagine my 14-year-old daughter travelling alone with Nigeria and being molested or harassed by some coaches.
What do you think athletes suffering any form of harassment or molestation can do?
The athletes should not be afraid to come out. They should speak out in the open and let the press be aware of what is going on. Athletes in the country now believe that if they speak out, their dreams in athletics will die – and I’m afraid it is so because we currently do not have the machinery to tackle it. But that shouldn’t stop them from speaking out. When they speak out, the world will know who did what to them and they can get justice. When these kinds of coaches are being exposed, the federation will be forced to take actions. The federation as well should establish a kind of opportunity for athletes to come and lay their complaints. These can be investigated with the athletes protected and the right punishment meted out to the coaches involved.
Where is your 1996 medal now?
It is at home. Really, the medal has travelled and it has impacted a lot of lives in our community here. The local school, where my children attend, do come to borrow it to motivate their pupils. My children look at it and want to win one of theirs. The medal is a reason for me to realise that I have come far and it brings back memories – a lot of memories.
Will you say athletics has helped you?
Poverty made me fall in love with athletics. Really, athletics has more than helped me. It was an escape route for me. It gave me life and a living and helped me to become who I am today. It helped my family. I believe that I could have wasted away in the village back then if I didn’t take to athletics. I was to be married away to a very older man at a young age of around 15 or so. But my love for athletics saved me – my elder sister had been married off and I was next in line. But today, the rest, they say, is history. Today in Nigeria, the story is not too different. There are many children in the villages and communities in Nigeria who are potential medal winners for Nigeria. They need to be discovered and brought to the limelight for them to bring glorious moments to Nigeria like we did.
How can these talents be brought out?
A return to the grassroots will cater for that. From the age-grades – primary schools and secondary schools – the talents abound. The inter-school competitions should be revamped. The recent National Youth Games should be expanded and the federation should keep close tabs on the athletes discovered from there. The states should wake up to their responsibilities because the AFN cannot do it all alone. The states should get these talents out and present them at national competitions. We also need more track and field clubs in Nigeria. When private individuals know they can get glory from producing these athletes, they will invest in them. There should also be more national competitions all-year round. Back then.
Talking of investment in athletes, universities abroad have helped to train Nigerian athletes over time. What can our own universities do to replicate such?
After we grew up through the ranks in the Nigerian school system, we got scholarships to study and compete for schools abroad because of our talents. It is still happening today. The universities and colleges in Nigeria should be made to realise that sport is a part of learning. Apart from one or two competitions they hold in a year, I don’t think the Nigerian university system have competitions for their students – which is bad enough. These schools need to invest in sports and give scholarships to athletes who are talented enough. But before they can do that, the universities should come together and have a yearly competition where they test their might against one another – just like the NCAA in America. That’s how most of Nigerian athletes got into Europe and the US. If our universities have such, student-athletes will earn a living at home and the sport will keep growing.
Athletes complain of failure to get their entitlements for both local and international competitions. How can the federation stop the trend of owing athletes?
The first thing I noticed when I got to the US was that there was an established system in the States which is absent in Nigeria. From the discovery of the athletes to their winning medals for the US, there are steps to follow. Although the AFN will say it has no money to pay athletes, I believe it is because there is no established system and procedure to follow that sponsors fail to put their money into the sport. I cannot put my money into something and fail to see the result it has yielded. The federation should check its purse before making promises to athletes and once these promises are made, they should follow it up and pay. We had some issues of bonuses being owed back in our days but mostly, we had what was due to us. The federation’s sponsors dealt with athletes directly except in a few cases where they had to give the monies to the federation.
Will you allow your children represent Nigeria?
It depends on what obtains when they are ready to compete. My daughter, who is a sprinter, is 13 years now. By the time she is 15, she will be qualified to compete at the junior levels. Although she hasn’t chosen the country she wants now but if the Nigerian system is still corrupt and cannot protect young ones, then I will not want her to be in Nigeria. Her brother plays basketball and they both have their eyes on winning medals but I have to be careful to avoid exposing them to dangerous situations.
Nigerian coaches are said to lack the competence to produce world beaters. Do you agree?
I don’t agree with that. The coaches who produced our likes gave their all and there are many good coaches in the country at present. What they need is regular training and retraining to update them on the latest skills in the sport. Nigeria should send track coaches to countries excelling in that aspect and the coaches will learn well – same thing for coaches, who train field athletes. The coaches are good they only need regular retraining for them to be the best in what they do.
Blessing Okagbare is growing tired each year – as evident in her performance at the World Championships in London – and may soon quit. Do you think we have the athletes to replace her before she bows out?
We have many athletes that can replace her but I fear the country may struggle if the right things are not done before she retires. It is not easy to be the only medal hopeful of a country. There are other athletes who can win medals in the other events. Tobi Amusan is coming up in the sprint hurdles and Ese Brume is coming up in the long jump but the men are nowhere to be found.
Can you remember how you started athletics?
I remember that after I was discovered from the school, I represented Ondo State at a few competitions – age-grade and the National Sports Festival in Rivers State in 1988 – then the national coaches picked me and from there I travelled abroad. It was a seamless transition back then and I hope the system can return for the current athletes. I started with 200m but my coach sent me to run the 400m and I did well there too – that was how I became a household name in the two events.
What are your best and worst moments in athletics?
My best moment – apart from the Atlanta 1996 Olympics – was the first time I wore the Nigerian colours. My worst moment was in the 1999/2000 season when I came home to represent Nigeria and I got injured and I was neglected with no help from the AFN. Back then, Mobil insured us but an official failed to pay for my treatment despite entreaties made to him. I had to return to the States to take care of myself.
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