August 1, 2020

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Africa Olympic stories: Enefiok Udo Obong’s 12-year wait for gold

Nigeria men's 4x400m team
Nigeria were elated with the silver in the moment

The race for men’s 4x400m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was over in less than three minutes. But it took 12 years for the result to be confirmed – that Nigeria had won. It remains Nigeria’s only Olympic track title, as well as and the country’s most recent gold. Enefiok Udo Obong ran the anchor leg that day and took two men in the last few metres. This is his story.

The quartet of Enefiok Udo Obong, Clement Chukwu, Jude Monye and Sunday Bada. Nigeria’s 4x400m gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics will go down in history because of the drama that surrounded its wait.

Going into the race as underdogs – with the USA the overwhelming favourites to triumph – the goal was to post a record African time and see just where it placed them in the final.

“Our coach Innocent Egbunike told us we were posting faster times than his team did when they won bronze at the 1984 Olympics – so our goal was to break the African record,” Udo Obong told BBC Sport Africa.

“But as the race progressed and we got to the semis, we believed we could perform miracles,”

Starting right alongside them was the USA team: Alvin and Calvin Harrison, Antonio Pettigrew, and, anchoring the quartet, one of the undisputed all-time track legends, Michael Johnson.

Udo Obong – only 18 years old and at his first Olympics – was Johnson’s counterpart.

“It was actually my first competition outside Africa,” Udo Obong said.

“I had that youthful exuberance – the feeling that I could do anything.

“The rest of the team were established internationals – Sunday Bada was well decorated, Clement Chukwu came in as the NCAA champion from the USA and Jude Monye had a world indoor experience.

“But they were not so optimistic of our chances, because they knew who we were up against.”

How the race unfolded

2000 Sydney Olympics men's 4x400m final
Udo Obong took Nigeria from fourth at the final changeover to the silver medal

It was Chukwu who ran the opening leg, and made a good start. But his pace dropped as he got to the changeover – whereas on the home straight, Alvin Harrison’s pace increased so dramatically it seemed like all his competitors had lead shoes.

Nevertheless, between Chukwu and Monye – who was up against Pettigrew – the Nigerians were in fifth at the halfway stage, battling with Britain. The USA were already stretching their lead further but Nigeria were in the pack for silver and bronze, behind Bahamas and Jamaica.

Sunday Bada ran a fine third leg and had Nigeria in fourth, pulling away from the British quartet.

Udo Obong recalled watching Bada run towards him.

“When I saw Bada running, I had the confidence that nobody could run faster than me,” he said.

“I was calm as I waited for the baton. I was up against Michael Johnson, but I was young and totally without fear.”

Udo Obong, sensing the struggle of the Jamaican and Bahamian in the 100m mark, took to the inner lane. It had been left open. It was the perfect chance.

As he came off the bend, Udo Obong was still fourth. But he was faster – gaining, gaining – and he pelted for the finish.

As the commentators watched a measured Johnson cross the line first, Udo Obong surged past first his Bahaman and then Jamaican rivals. To widespread surprise, Nigeria had taken the silver.

It was a dream come true for the West African nation.

But no-one knew at the time that the race, which had taken 2m56s, would not truly be over for another 12 years.

Wrongly exonerated

Michael Johnson celebrates winning the men's 4x400m relay with Team USA
Michael Johnson anchored the USA home but would later lose the medal – the only member of the quartet never to fail a drugs test

Nigeria’s ultimate triumph was down to a man who did not even feature that night in Sydney – an American runner named Jerome Young.

Young had featured for the USA in the semi-final, but was dropped for the final to make room for more established names who had skipped the semis to save themselves for other competitions.

But Young was lucky to be on the team at all. He had been accused of committing a doping offence the previous year, on 26 June 1999, and been found guilty. However, he had appealed that to the Doping Appeal Board of the USATF – which runs athletics in the US – and they had overturned the guilty verdict.

Some four years later, however, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) decided that the Doping Appeal Board of USATF had reached an “erroneous decision” when exonerating Young.

This meant he was stripped of all his results from 1999 to 2001 – including the 2000 Olympic semi-finals. To Nigeria, this meant that even though Young did not run in the final, the USA should lose their gold – because without Young, they would not have been there.

“Young was ineligible,” Udo Obong said. “We knew he had to be disqualified.”

For a while, that seemed to be the situation. But the US finalists appealed. It was unfair, they said, that the team that won the final should lose their medals because of an offence that none of them had done.

By now this case had also reached the CAS. And in 2005, the CAS sided with the US. Their team could keep their medals.

But then came some shocking news. Young, it turned out, was not the only member of the team using drugs.

In 2008, Pettigrew confessed that he had used them too.

“Pettigrew admitted to using drugs,” said Ugo Obong.

“We were waiting and hoping that something would be done, but it took forever. The news didn’t come to us as a shock. We were all waiting for Michael Johnson to give up his gold.”

Pettigrew and Johnson voluntarily returned their gold medals to the IOC in June 2008, but they were not given to Nigeria; instead, the IOC gathered further information on the doping cases, which only got darker over time. Both Alvin and Calvin Harrison received drugs bans. In 2010, Pettigrew took his own life.

Absent captain

Udo Obong
Udo Obong often struggled with injuries after Sydney 2000

Finally, the weight of the evidence left the IOC announcing in 2012 – just before the London Olympics – that Nigeria were the 4x400m men’s winners from three Games beforehand.

“It’s a feeling of nostalgia. A lot of times I ask myself did we do that?” Udo Obong recalled.

“Sometimes you work very hard and improve your time in training, yet see someone else run faster than you – and you wonder, what am I doing wrong?

But we didn’t think drugs were involved. We were just focused on ourselves and hoped the authorities were doing their own part.”

In 2013, Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan formally presented the relay team with their gold medals in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Coupled with another 4x400m medal, a bronze from Athens 2004, it made Udo Obong undisputedly Nigeria’s most successful Olympian of all time.

But it had come too late for the captain of the team, Sunday Bada, who had died of a suspected cardiac arrest after collapsing at the National Stadium in Lagos.

“It felt sad not to have Sunday Bada present,” Udo Obong said.

“It was like a reunion. It was the first time we had the whole team together again. He was our captain and we missed him.

“It was very emotional. We were just glad that we finally earned it.”

BBC Africa News

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Mohamed Mohamoud

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