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.”

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, ObisiaNwankpa 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 said.

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; that’s 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.

In recent development, the Team Nigeria athletes who were denied lifetime opportunities to become Olympians and medalists are set to be honoured.

Also, Nigeria’s 1980 AFCON winning squad will similarly be honoured with listing in the newly created NIIA Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame in addition to cash award from Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Barrister Allen Onyema.

Speaking at a media parley in Lagos yesterday to unveil plans to honour these worthy former footballers and athletes who sacrificed their lives for the country but got little or nothing in return, the Air Peace owner, insisted that he’s moved to be involved as a way to tell them their sacrifices for the country will not be in vain.

“We are talking about Nigerians who used their prime to serve this country. They arrived Montreal, Canada and just on the eve of the opening ceremony, were asked to pack their bags and leave camp because Nigeria and the rest of Africa had resolved to boycott the Games as a result of support some countries were giving apartheid South Africa regime.

“These were athletes that had prepared for four years. Some were on top of their events like Charlton Ehizuelen, Imadiyi, Bruce Ijirigho and our 4x400m men’s relay team that were sure gold or silver medal hopefuls. In fact, Ehizuelen had the world leading jump to the Olympics. They jettisoned their dreams because of Nigeria. Most didn’t recover and never had the opportunities to become Olympic medalists again in their lifetime.

“How many can do that today? Those who can even venture, will Japa (elope) and not return to Nigeria but these our heroes and heroines obeyed. These former athletes and the 1980 AFCON winning squad are those to be honoured as Air Peace Sports Diplomacy Ambassadors come July 28, 2023,” observed Onyema who was a fantastic footballer and sprinter as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan. He played league football for NISER FC until he graduated.

Apart from listing them in the Wall of Fame, the Air Peace CEO also pledged to give some financial incentives as well as guarantee each of those still alive, 12return tickets to local destinations and one foreign trip to any country that his airline operates on the route.

“It is not because I am rich that I am doing this. It is because I have a heart that appreciates and gives to appreciate those who serve this country, diligently. We are therefore calling on other corporate bodies to also find a way to appreciate our heroes, those who sacrificed for this country.”

Mrs Kikelomo Atanda-Owo, the CEO/Chief Consultant of Z-Edge Holdings, the PR firm handling the project was full of appreciation for the Air Peace Chairman for the initiative to honour the country’s past sports heroes. 

“We believe that this will spur the present generation and those coming behind to give their all to Nigeria, knowing that their efforts will not go in vain.”

The ceremony has been scheduled to hold at 6pm in the Ballroom of Eko Hotel on Friday, July 28, 2023.