QUEEN of tracks, Chief (Mrs.) Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo retired from athletics in 2004 after 20 years of burning the tracks, Falilat won many laurels in her hey days some of which were 1998 World Cup of Athletic Champion, 400 metres grand prix champion, 200 metres world champion and two-times Olympic medalist. She is the first female Nigerian to win an individual Olympic medal and holds the African record in 400 metres till date. For doing Nigeria proud at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic, she was decorated with the prestigious national honour of MON.
Born on May 12, 1968, at Odelemo, Sagamu, Ogun State to Mr. Lamidi Esesuuru and Mrs. Mulikat Ogunkoya, her first marriage to her manager/trainer, Tony Osheku crashed few years after it was consummated, the union produced a baby boy, Junior. Her second marriage in 2007 is with Professor Oluwaseun Omotayo, a former psychologist with Nigerian national team and presently lectures at the University of Ghana. Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo, who started athletics at the age of 12, spoke to ENCOMIUM Weekly on Wednesday, June 27, 2010, at the Indoor Sports Hall, University of Lagos Sports Centre, Akoka, Lagos, about her life as an athlete and how she will guard her second marriage jealously.
What have you been up to when you left the tracks?
I am retired but not tired. I have a foundation, the Falilat Ogunkoya Sport Foundation for young people because I believe they are the ones to take over from the older ones in future. So, the foundation was set up in 2004, we have done a few competitions, we have done one for the Ogun State government, there is a meet for 400 metres because my specialty is 400 metres. We have done game masters and game mistresses in Lagos State, we have done talent hunt for some students to get scholarship to the US, we are partnering with some schools in the US on that and we have just finished the all secondary schools in Oyo State, sponsored by Governor Adebayo Alao Akala. We have picked some of them that I believe by 2015 to 2020, few might represent Nigeria on the world stage.
That’s preparing the ground for Nigeria’s sport in future, how have you been coping with all that?
It has not been easy because we have to plead with the private sector to identify with the young talents, these are people who will take over in the future. What we do is to recycle our athletes, footballers, that means no chance for new talents which is killing our sports and nobody is paying attention towards that direction, that is what my foundation is doing. We are going to organize the MKO Abiola Tracks Meet because he was the one that supported sports. Personally, I want to do that because of the support he gave to me as an athlete, we are still working on that.
When did you actually leave the tracks?
When did it dawn on you that it’s time to leave the stage?
20 years is enough for me. 20 years doing ‘on your marks’, so I believe that I have contributed a little bit and that the talent God gave me I have made use of it, that is why I decided that it’s time for me to start a foundation, to give back to the sport that made me.
When is the accurate age for an athlete to retire?
When the ovation is loudest, it’s not when people start saying what else do you want. Because sometimes it’s better to give the young ones a chance to come up, it’s not that some people don’t want to leave, it’s because Nigeria don’t appreciate their own.
You have won so many laurels as an athlete, how were you able to get to the top in your career?
You always have obstacles, when you have a goal, you write it down in your room in a blackboard, when you wake up in the morning you see where you are going, that’s my goal. I want to be an Olympic medalist, I want to break African record, and whenever I am training I put that at the back of my mind that this is it, and then you need a lot of prayers. You should not worry about what is going on around you because whatever that’s going on is to distract you, but if you keep on focusing and you talk with the right people, when you talk to one person and that person wants to discourage you, you know that you don’t need such a person, but when you talk to another and he encourages you, you know that the person is your friend that wants you to progress. So, you need good people around you. It takes a lot of hard work, encouragement and determination especially from the parents.
Were there times you wanted to give up on your dream of becoming an Olympic medalist, maybe because the medals were not forthcoming?
Yes, it was very difficult because the encouragement must come within you and for you to excel. What I did was that, when I hear ‘runners on your marks’ before calling Nigeria, they will call my name and I will tell myself I won’t let the people down, let me work very hard at it and that’s what kept me going, I never gave up.
How does one make it as an athlete?
To make sure you keep working at it, it’s like you want to study for an exam, if you don’t study you will fail, if you keep on working at it, with all your mind and people say they see you everyday passing by to the stadium to train and one day when they see you on the pitch for an international tournament the people will remember how you always went for training every morning, passing through their area all the time, that’s it, you don’t have to give up.
Why is it that athletics is not as lucrative as football?
The ones that make money are making it because I read on the internet that Ashafa Powel’s contract with Nike is about $750,000, and if he goes to the Olympics or any tournament and he wins laurels, he will still collect money. So, it depends on how well you work, whatever profession you choose, if you work hard you will still achieve something, those footballers too make money but if you look at American basketball and US football they make a lot of money too. If you look at American athletes they make money because they have TV rights, if you are in the top five athletes in the world you make a lot of money.
Why do you think an athlete will wake up and decide to use drugs for performance enhancement?
It’s a short cut that leads to trouble, that’s not the way, if you work hard, its like studying for an exams, when you get to the exam hall it will flow when you have prepared very well. The same thing if you train very hard, when you hear, ‘On your marks’ you look at yourself and say I am trained, I worked hard, you see the race will come.
Many athletes have naturalized in other countries abroad, why didn’t you do that at your time, is it that none came for you?
I just don’t know how to tell my mum and dad that I am running for a country other than Nigeria. People left because they believe Nigeria focus too much on football, how many footballers have left, none. The authority should just look into Nigerian sports, we can excel, we have talents, we have people that can make Nigeria proud, what we need to do is to help give them a push.
Of all the medals you have won, which is the most precious to you?
The Olympics, I am the first athlete to win an individual medal for Nigeria. If somebody had told me that I would open the door to win that bronze in 1996, I wouldn’t have believed I came home with two medals. I was very happy to have done that, and when I was ranked the best 400 metres runner in the world by Track and Field and IAAF ranked me the best quarter miler in the world, no Nigerian has ever been ranked like that.
When you were still very much active, how often did you practice?
I practiced at least twice a day, in the morning and the evening. All I did was sleep, eat, train because I was very fortunate I had a contract with Nike, I started wearing Nike products since 1987 and I didn’t stop until 2004, so I wore Nike all though as an athlete and they have been very supportive. In 2006, they gave Ogun State team a hundred pairs of shoes.
So, how are you coping with all these busy schedule and marriage?
As an athlete, it was not difficult when I am home, I am at home, when I am on the field, I am on the field, now that I am not running I have more time to cook because as an athlete you cannot eat outside, you have to cook, you cannot eat fried food, you must watch your cholesterol. So, as an athlete, I am used to that. Sometimes, I go to mama put, I do that in the off season but when you are in the season, you must watch what you eat.
We have so many cases of athletes getting married to their manager because of the closeness between them, how will you describe your own experience?
My own experience was okay because it made the job very easy, you train and come back. But the athletes of nowadays, some of them marry their teammates because it’s very difficult for other people to understand you and your job, people around you make the job very easy and they understand. Look at Sanya Richards and her husband, who plays American football, she runs. So, when you are a top athlete in the world, if you marry the person on the track with you, whenever you travel both of you can go since you do the same thing, they allow that.
What are the mistakes you are going to avoid in your second marriage?
I just have to keep my fingers crossed because I believe the matrimonial home is the toughest as an athlete, I can go out and train and I know what I am going to get but when you are in a marriage, it’s totally different because even when you know that person, for ten years you will still see some things you have not known about him. I will just keep my fingers crossed and I will pray. MC Hammer says, ‘If you want to make it today, you got to pray.’ So, I just pray and keep my fingers crossed, take it one at a time.
How much support are you getting from your second marriage?
A lot, even in my first marriage when it concerned my tracks he was very supportive and now that I am not an athlete, I think it makes it easy because I will not be travelling like before. Whatever I do now he supports me, you know as a professor.
– FOLUSO SAMUEL
- This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, June 29, 2010