Chioma Ajunwa – on winning “that” Gold

HUMPHREY NJOKU

Chioma Ajunwa had no idea just how important her victory in the Summer Olympics of 1996 was – until Nigeria announced a three-day national holiday in her honour. Ajunwa explains just what it meant to be the first black African woman to win Olympic gold in a field event – and how she didn’t understand the significance until she was swamped by a crowd that included dance troupes on a stopover in Senegal, on the way home.

“I am proof anyone can rise to the top, irrespective of background,” said Nigeria’s first and only individual Olympic goal medalist, in her characteristic, matter-of-fact manner. Chioma Ajunwa, or Assistant Commissioner of Police Chioma Ajunwa- Oparo, as she is now known, makes it clear she is a no-nonsense police officer first and a sports celebrity second.

However, when your accolades include playing both in a World Cup Football competition and winning a gold medal at the Olympics- the first, in fact, for any African woman field athlete and to this day Nigeria’s only Olympic gold – you can hardly be described as “anyone”.

However, that is the story Ajunwa likes to narrate and it is certainly one that resonates with young women athletes, or would-be Olympians, across Nigeria. Ajunwa runs a program to nurture athletic talent. In May, she teamed up with fellow ex-Olympian, Henry Amike, unveiling a nationwide programme dubbed Olympics Talent Hunt, to enrol more women in sport and improve Nigeria’s performance in future Olympics. Plans are also afoot to unveil a 14.5 million US dollar ultra-modern Sports Development Centre in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in Nigeria.


Pictures, awards and certificates in Chioma Ajunwa’s office.

As Ajunwa would like to tell it, however, she was once an “innocent kid” playing football as a pastime in the confines of her quiet village in Ahiazu-Mbaise, in Imo state. But she was never afraid of hard work, she emphasised.

Football, she said, was her first love.

“I started as a young girl, a teenager playing football as a moonlight girl. Along the line it became part and parcel of me.”

A prolific striker, she went on to represent the country with Super Falcons in their maiden outing at the FIFA Women World Cup in 1991 in China.

She cut short her days with the Super Falcons after falling out with the head coach and she switched to her second love, athletics.

Already, she had more than proved her abilities in the long jump, 100m and 200m, finishing the 1990 Commonwealth Games with a bronze and two gold medals and also performing well at the 1991 All Africa Games. Then, difficulties beset her and it was only an intervention by her then-boss at the Nigerian Police, Segun Odegbami – himself a former international star with Nigeria’s Super Eagles – that saved her career, she said.

“He took me up and sent me to the UK, where I concentrated on my training, under a very strict schedule,” she explained.

That was the turning point in her life as an athlete. She took part in the trials for the 1996 Olympics and made the cut-off that qualified her for Atlanta.

Her jump of 7.12 meters in the long jump at Atlanta, won her the Olympic gold medal. On that memorable day in the summer of 1996, when Ajunwa was called to the podium for the medal presentation, however, she still did not realise its import.

“Honestly, I won the Olympic gold medal but I did not know the effect or efficacy of one winning an Olympic gold. When they mentioned my name I felt so happy, I thought it was one of those medals I have been winning before, I did not know that this one was classic, ultimate, the one every athlete dreams to win in life,” she recalled.

If she didn’t know then, she soon would.

“We transited (through) Senegal. At the airport I saw (a) massive crowd that came out to welcome us with different dance troupes, drummers and cultural attires. And when we came to Nigeria was the climax of it all, the crowd I met at the airport was overwhelming and unprecedented. Government declared a three-day public holiday, we were driven round the country in motorcade.”

Ajunwa’s 7.12 m Nigerian record, set that day in Atlanta, stood for another 25 years until recently being beaten by another up-and-coming Nigerian athlete, Ese Brume. Ajunwa now hopes to unearth more young women like Brume – and herself – through her Chioma Ajunwa Foundation.


Chioma Ajunwa in her office during an interview at the Nigeria Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) in Alagbon Close, Ikoyi, Lagos on May 2, 2021.

With less than 50 days to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the retired Nigerian athlete is hopeful that compatriot Brume, who leapt 7.17m to eclipse Ajunwa’s record, will do even better.

“I wish well for my country, I wish well for my fellow athletes. It has been in history that Chioma Ajunwa was the first and only woman athlete to jump 7.12m. What else do I want? I have put in a lot another person should come and take over that is when it will show that we are doing well and that is why I’m joyous and I wish Ese Brume well and other athletes, too.”

There is no denying her pride in her own achievements, however.

“When you go to the track Chioma Ajunwa is the first human being on planet earth that played football to World Cup level switched to athletics and won Olympic gold.”

Today, Ajunwa is a Masters Degree holder who espouses education and hard work.

“Immediately I left the track I went back to school, I dropped fame, everything and headed to the University of Lagos (Unilag) for my first degree in Human Kinetic & Health Education. I never relented I went back for my Masters degree in Sports Administration and management. What I’m trying to say is in life everything you want to do is in your hand it depends on how you work towards it.”

A lot of that hard work ethic is being directed at the new training facility and bringing on a new generations of Ajunwas.

“It’s not for me it’s for our new generation,” she said.

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