Forty-seven years after Nigeria boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games and evacuated its athletes from the event, a member of Team Nigeria to the Games, Segun Odegbami, says “it was the most shattering experience of our lives,” The PUNCH reports.
Twenty-nine countries — mostly African and including Nigeria — boycotted the Montreal Games after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand, whose rugby union team toured South Africa earlier in 1976 in defiance of the United Nations’ calls for a sporting embargo against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Then military Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, ordered the 45 Nigerian athletes and their officials to return home on the eve of the Games’ opening ceremony — eight days after they had arrived Montreal.
According to Odegbami, Team Nigeria’s delegation was already in competition mood when the news of the country’s withdrawal was broken to the athletes.
“On that day in Montreal, we had been there for about eight days, and the feeling was out of this world, there was food 24 hours, music, artistes playing. It was a festival, the Nigerian football team played a friendly match against Canada and we won 3-0. Canada got to quarter-finals of the Games.
“We had such a fantastic team, team spirit was very high, we had some of the best athletes, the 4X100m team could have won a medal. Boxer Davidson Andeh, who later became world amateur champion, was in the team, Obisia Nwankpa was at his best as an amateur boxer, long jumper Charlton Ehizuelen had the best time in his event and was going there as a potential gold medallist. We had a team that could win medals,” Odegbami told The PUNCH.
But the ‘festival’ was cut short when members of the Nigerian delegation got an urgent call to assemble in Abraham Ordia’s room, where they were told of the Nigerian government’s decision.
Ordia, a Nigerian, was the then Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa, the highest ruling sports body on the continent then.
“We didn’t know much about apartheid; that was the first time some of us heard about it, but the message was coming from the President of Nigeria. We had one hour to pack our things and they bundled us inside a box and took us to the airport. There was a scramble because we all had to leave,” Odegbami added.
“When we got to the airport, the place was jam-packed with black athletes, no flights to take them anywhere. They were all sitting on the ground or lying down because there were no longer seats for them. The white people were just looking at the athletes.
“Fortunately for us, we had a President; thats why we must commend Olusegun Obasanjo, who was President at that time. He ordered that a brand new plane DC-10 that was still in the hanger in Atlanta should be released to bring us to Nigeria. So, as we waited at the airport, we saw the plane taxiing, it was freshly painted and had never been used.
“We were the first Africans that were lifted out of Montreal and that was within hours of our getting to the airport, but it was the most shattering experience of our lives, to be at the doorstep of the Olympic Games and not able to go in to participate.”
According to Odegbami, about 20 of the 45 athletes in Montreal are dead, while several others are facing different health challenges.