Ogunkoya Omotayo – Being a wife is tougher than being an athlete


OgunkoyaOmotayoNigeria’s first Olympic Games individual medalist in athletics and the only sportsperson to have won two Olympic Games medals, Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo, shares her childhood experiences, career, marriage with Prof. Seun Omotayo and lots more in this interview with ‘TANA AIYEJINA

How did you start running?

I am from a polygamous family and I started running with three of my sisters- my elder sister from my mother and my other two sisters from my step mother- from the primary school. We ran relays for our school. The four of us were the fastest, so we represented St. John Anglican Primary School, Odelemo, in the relays. I left my school for Sijuade Nursery and Primary School, Ife because my father wanted me to go there. I spent one year there and returned to my hometown, Odelemo. My primary school sports master incidentally moved to the new secondary school, a Muslim school, in the town. They wanted to go for 4x100m relays. The man drew a line and said, ‘Run.’ My siblings and I occupied the first four places and he picked all of us to represent the secondary school. They brought a coach from Abeokuta, John Afuwape. Then they had all secondary school games in Remo, sponsored by A.A. Adesanya and I went to Sagamu to compete, there were no spike shoes. I ran the 100m, long jump, 4x400m, 4x100m. They said for me to be the most valuable athlete, I had to run the 1,500m, I did and I won all the events I participated in. That was when coach Efuakpe came to see my dad.

Were your parents against you going into sports?

My mum was really worried because I was born as premature and for three months she was with me in the hospital while I was in the incubator. But my dad felt, ‘Maybe this is the path God has chosen for her.’ We used to travel every week, running in different schools, chasing towels, plastics and flasks. So it became fun for me until we went to Abeokuta to compete in 1980 in preparation for school sports. I ran a race but I was very scared because great athletes like Lydia Bankole, Alaba Ojumola, Shade Asowunmi, Mosun Soneye where there. I asked myself, ‘Are these the people I am going to run with?’ They were the relay quartet then for Ogun State in the 4x100m relays. When they were going for Bendel ‘81 National Sports Festival, I didn’t go because I was too young. But in 1985 NSF, I went to Kwara and I won four gold medals.

Since your mum didn’t want you to compete, did you devise tactics to keep running without her knowledge?

You know our parents then, as soon your dad says it’s okay, then it’s okay. It’s amazing how our mothers respected their husbands. As soon as my father said I should go, it was okay with mum. The only thing she did was that as a Muslim, she prayed for me and gave me Quran verses to read. She said it was the best way she could support me. So there was not much problem after that.

How did you feel winning four gold medals in your first participation at the NSF in 1985?

It was okay until I won the four gold medals. But after that, it was scary. People didn’t know me before then but after my feat, everybody wanted to beat me. My games master, Dele Oladejo and Afuwape were always there for me.

Who were your earliest tracks rivals?

It was Tina Iheagwam. In 1984, Mary (Onyali) didn’t make our team. When we went to Ghana for African Zone 3 competition, she wasn’t in our team. But she left for US before any of us. When we got to Athens in 1986, Tina won the 100m in the world junior championships. Mary ran the 100m and 200m. I and Tina did 100m and 200m respectively. Tina beat Mary in the 100m and I also beat Mary in the 200m. So we defeated her. She was not happy but at the end of the day, we got together and we ran the 4x100m for Nigeria. In my early days when I was doing the short sprints, I also competed against the likes of Beatrice Utondu.  We were the 4x100m relay quartet in the early days. Beatrice will start; she will give the baton to Tina; Tina will give to Mary and Mary will give me. I was always the anchor leg. So that was what we did at the 1987 All African Games in Kenya. I ran the 100m and 200m. Mary won the 100m I came second, Tina won the 200m and I came second as well. I competed in the 100m, 200m 4x100m and 4x400m in Nairobi.

Why then did you decide to stick with the 400m later in your career?

During the ‘87 AAG, Kenya was about to beat us in the 4x400m relay. They always have a pre-AAG competition. So I said, ‘They want to run 400m? Let me just go and play.’ So I went there and my time was better than all the athletes they brought.  After we won the 4x100m, they moved me and Mary to 4x400m. We won the 4x400m and I thought they were doing me a favour.

Are you saying choosing the 400m was a wrong decision?

The 400m is a tough race. If you are not a real woman, you can’t do that race. That’s why you don’t see a lot people doing it. I had to learn to be tolerant for me to be successful.

You were not tainted with drug issues during your career.

I was never tempted to use drugs. I looked at where I was coming from, the way my mum and dad preached to us. I am from a polygamous family but my dad didn’t let it show and my mum is from the Adedoyin royal family in Sagamu. So if I did, everybody was going to be asking too many questions which I wouldn’t be able to answer. What I did was to be very careful. I followed International Amateur Athletics Federation rules to the letter. If you go to the Internet, they put a list of athletes who have been involved in drug issues. You will see Nigerians that have violated the rules. They have a book; you cannot take even analgesic; you can’t. The National Sports Commission have their own doping system, they have their rules and anytime we go for competitions, there is always a scientific congress, where they preach what to do and what not to do. There are so many things you have to guide against and I tell you, nobody wants to bring shame to their country; but when it happens, we have to deal with it. I am an Ijebu woman, so I stuck with what I knew, Vitamin B Complex.

Some people have the view that men run away from sportswomen because of their built. Did this happen to you?

You know when you are a top athlete, people are intimidated. They tell you, ‘You have too many muscles; you are too strong.’ But it is different in America. Even Jamaicans now, their husbands stay with them. But you know our mentality is different from everybody in the world.

Were you able to adjust easily to life when you first got to America?

I was. I got my visa in 1986 to go to the US.  I was advised by coach Agbede to go to Mississippi State. He said they had a large white population; 75 per cent white and 25 per cent black. So I picked Mississippi State. When I arrived, snow started. Everywhere was cold and I was coming from New York. I met a guy when I wanted to get my ticket to go to Starkville, where my school was. The guy asked, ‘Are you here alone? Where are your parents?’ I said they were in Nigeria. When I got to Starkville, my coach gave me all my kits and clothes. You won’t believe it; I left all my clothes in Nigeria. But my coach was so kind. I had to adjust. When we go to track meets during weekends, they gave us meal money. This food money is more than your apartment money. You know Americans like to eat. My coach knew that I didn’t like eating American food because I didn’t want to put on a lot of weight. So the school would give me my meal money and I would buy food and cook. He made sure I weighed myself every week. It wasn’t hard to adjust.

Did you witness any form of racism during your career abroad?

There was none. When I got to Mississippi, people were like, ‘What are you doing in Mississippi?’ It was because of what happened in the late 50s. But I am an athlete. When you are doing well in the US, you have a lot of friends. Anytime I was competing for my school, they would be singing, ‘Fali, Fali, Fali,’ and banging objects. They were the ones that shortened my name.

How did you feel when you first won a medal at the Olympics in 1996?

Every athlete wants to win a medal at the Olympics because that is the ultimate for us. But when you are running with Marie-José Pérec, Cathy Freeman, Pauline Davies, Fatimah Yusuf and Sandy Richards, it is tough. That’s the toughest 400m ever run in the Olympics because the last girl clocked 50 secs. Pérec ran 48 and I had to run 49.10 to get the bronze. It was really tough. It made me Nigeria’s first female Olympics individual medallist. I was very proud to be on the podium in Nigeria’s colours while our anthem was played.

What about the second?

I had to run 48.90 for us to get the silver medal and I felt, ‘So I won two medals at this Olympics?’ I was happy but very tired because I ran four rounds of 400m and another two rounds of 4x400m.

Can you tell me about your beautiful moments?

It was when I had my son and when I was ranked the best 400m runner in the world in 1999. No Nigerian has been ranked like that. I also won the Golden League and Grand Prix. You have to be top three in the world before you are picked for the Golden League. I was able to achieve what I set to achieve.

When was your worst moment?

That was in 1999 at the World Championships. I would have picked a medal but something happened in the last 30m of the final race and I was short of breathe. I couldn’t breathe and I kept asking myself, ‘Fali, what’s wrong.’

Is your son an athlete as well?

You can’t tell kids of nowadays what to do. Once they are with their Blackberrys and iPods, they are glued to the internet. My son was born in the US and he is schooling there. He likes athletics and football but I have told him whatever he wants to do is fine with me.

Is it true sportswomen find it difficult to have babies?

Women athletes are the easiest people to get pregnant because they are so active. American female athltes will compete for three years, give birth and go back to the tracks again.

How have you been coping as a professor’s wife?

He is most understanding. It’s even more difficult than being an athlete. When you are at home, it’s totally different, you have to be patient. It’s been fun though and really interesting for me. Your brain has to be extra sharp especially when he starts his grammar. He doesn’t say because he is a professor, he knows it all. He still seeks for my own ideas on issues, which is okay.

How has a star like you coped with living in in Ijebu Ode?

If somebody told me I would be living here, I would say, ‘Me?’ Sometimes I can be inside the house for three days, so it doesn’t bother me much. I believe God has helped me and I have to thank my parents for their support.

How did you spend your first big money?

It was from parents that I learnt that money was difficult to come by. But at meets, I ran and they paid me. I could buy whatever I wanted to buy. After we came from Ghana in 1984, my dad said he learnt I was given some money. I said, ‘Which money?’ He collected the money from me and bought me a land in Lagos. The newspapers will always publish stories about money given to us, so my dad always knew I had money. Now I am always grateful to my parents for guiding me. That was why I was able to invest. My dad always told us that land will never spoil, rather it will grow. In 1996, Buba Marwa gave us land in Lekki Phase 2. Some athletes sold theirs but I didn’t. I tried to manage what I had. Sometimes life is not the way it should be. It is when you retire that you appreciate money. Then, nobody wants to give you money. Civil servants that accompany us to events get allowances and estacode. When they retire, they are on pension. But we are not. Government does not even say, ‘Thank you these people for representing Nigeria.’

Do you think government appreciates its retired heroes?

They don’t. When they want to go for competitions, they don’t even want to see us. But Gbenga Daniel gave me the first opportunity to know what it takes to work with government. I was a special assistant to him and I was in charge of the games services during the Gateway Games. Ogun State ex-governor, Oladayo Popoola, electrified my town after my performance at Kwara ‘85. Sam Ewang gave me a two-bedroom apartment in Abeokuta in 1996. You need your people more when you retire. We must appreciate and help our own.

How did you feel with Nigeria’s dismal outing at London 2012 Olympic Games?

I couldn’t have run the race for them. What is important is the base. Some people won their heats and failed in the final. It’s because of the way their coaches trained them. There is a way to run different rounds. Why not place second in the heat and reserve your energy for the final? Look at Ajoke Odumosu, she won her heat in the semi-final but she was last in the final. She used all her energy in the semi-final because she wanted to enter the final.

What is responsible for athletics dwindling fortunes?

After each competition, you prepare for the next one. What can you achieve from three weeks training? In my time, we spent three months in camp. We must use the best. At Olympics, Americans are the most disciplined. When they say lights out at 10pm, nobody violates it but come and see my Nigerians. At 12am, they are still in the cafeteria. You must set a high goal for yourself, which some of us did. And you must have people who can talk to the athletes.

What is the Falilat Ogunkoya Foundation about?

It is for the grassroots; for primary and secondary schools. We’ve done three competitions; all secondary schools athletics in Nigeria twice and all secondary schools athletics in Oyo State once. We need to make sure that we discover new athletes.