Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games remains Nigeria’s best outing at the global multi-sports event. Unfortunately, some of the gold medallists have had their gold medals stolen, while others lost theirs, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA
Memories of Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games are still fresh amongst the country’s sports faithful, as it remains Team Nigeria’s best ever performance at the Games since first competing in 1952.
Nigeria recorded a total medal haul of two gold, one silver and three bronze. It was the first and only time –till date – that the country won two gold medals in the Olympics.
The gold medal was won by the men’s football team captained by the mercurial Nwankwo Kanu, and policewoman Chioma Ajunwa (long jump event), while Olabisi Afolabi, Fatima Yusuf, Charity Opara and Falilat Ogunkoya won silver in the women’s 4x400m event.
Sprinter Mary Onyali (women’s 200m), Ogunkoya (women’s 400m) and boxer Duncan Dokiwari claimed individual bronze medals each.
Football is a religion in Nigeria, and that explains the mood when the Dream Team, as Nigeria’s U-23 national football team are known, beat Brazil 4-3 in the semi-final of the men’s event of the Atlanta Games.
The entire country erupted, even though it was in the wee hours of the morning (local time). All-night parties took over streets across the country, with bars running out of beer and alcoholic drinks; indeed most bar owners left their generators on till dawn, at a cost they had to bear later.
The football team, which comprised stars like Austin Okocha, Taribo West, Uche Okechukwu, Daniel Amokachi, Wilson Oruma, Sunday Oliseh, Emmanuel Amuneke, Celestine Babayaro, amongst others, went on to record another incredible comeback 3-2 win over Argentina in a dramatic final and claim a first-ever gold.
The celebration thereafter was a repeat performance of how the fans went into wild jubilations after the Brazilians were conquered.
Upon their heroic return home, the triumphant players were each given luxury apartments together with a plot of land in Lagos, N1m each, and the national honour of the Member of the Order of The Niger.
That was 23 years ago.
Today, the heroes have turned to villain of sorts. For some of the gold medallists, rather than smiles, the thought of Atlanta brings back sad memories.
The gold medals of some of these ex-athletes are either missing or even stolen.
Winger Amuneke scored the winner in added time against Argentina on August 3, 1996, in front of 86,117 fans at the Salford Stadium, Athens, Georgia, with teeming millions back home watching from their TV sets as the country went into frenzy.
The former Barcelona forward, who had already earned his place in Nigerian football folklore by scoring both goals in the Super Eagles’ 2-1 victory against Zambia in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations final, was benched for the gold medal match despite having started in all games leading up to the final.
However, he was to make a huge impact, entering the final tie against the South Americans in the latter stages and scoring another dramatic last-minute winner.
Amuneke told SUNDAY PUNCH that less than two years after leading his country to that amazing feat, his gold medal was stolen in his Festac, Lagos home.
“I can’t remember precisely the year it happened again, but it’s between 1997 and 1998, when I was away in Spain. I can’t explain how it was stolen because I was not around,” Amuneke, coach of Tanzania at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, said.
“The Olympic medal particularly is seen as one of the biggest achievements in sports. I have nearly all of my medals but the Olympic medal is the only one missing from my medal cabinet and I hope the International Olympic Committee can replace it.”
Kanu, captain of the Dream Team, was the Golden Boy of the competition.
The former Arsenal striker led by example on the pitch grabbing the winner against Hungary in the group stage, before two dramatic goals, one under 90 minutes and the other, a Golden Goal, in extra time, to hand Nigeria a first-ever appearance in the final of the men’s football event.
In January, Kanu, one of Africa’s most decorated footballers, shockingly disclosed in Lagos that medals, including the Atlanta gold and souvenirs, which he won during his football career, had disappeared at his hotel, The Hardley Apartments.
“This is the saddest day of my life as I cannot understand why this happened to me,” Kanu said. “All the medals I have earned, in addition to the Olympic Torch that I cherished, are all gone and I don’t even know who to ask for all these prized assets.”
The hotel, located in Victoria Island, Lagos, has been at the centre of a long-running legal dispute between Kanu and the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria.
Kanu was alleged to have used The Hardley Apartments as collateral for a bank loan but was unable to settle the debt, which prompted AMCON in 2015 to obtain an order from the Federal High Court to take possession of the property.
However, there was a new twist to the disappearance of Kanu’s medals, when AMCON said there were no medals in the hotel when they took possession of the property.
“The procedure was done with the court bailiff and inventory of property was taken, which did not include any medals as claimed,”AMCON’s Head, Corporate Communications, Jude Nwauzor, said in a statement made available to SUNDAY PUNCH in January.
Dutchman and coach of the football team Bonfrere said he didn’t have the privilege of taking his own gold medal out of the US.
In a recent letter addressed to the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, in which he pleaded with the state government to allocate to him the land promised him after the Atlanta feat, Bonfrere alleged that a “P.A.” to then Minister of Sports, Jim Nwobodo, collected his medal during the celebrations and never returned it.
The letter read in part, “The Minister of Sports during the Atlanta Olympics, Senator Jim Nwobodo, asked his P.A. to collect my Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, while on the line, after we were awarded. Since then I have written letters severally asking for it but no reply. I don’t have anything in my possession for winning the gold medal for Nigeria.”
Popular FIFA licensed agent, Friday Nwankwo-Kujah, a close friend of the Qatar-based coach, shed more light on the incidence.
He said, “Bonfrere didn’t return to Nigeria with the team because of what happened. The Presidency had to send a special flight to bring him back.
“Today, he’s a sad man because he has nothing to show for the good job he did for Nigeria; his gold medal was stolen, and the land allocated to him by the Lagos State Government has not been given to him.”
Coming from a four-year drug ban, nobody gave Ajunwa any hope of climbing the podium at Atlanta. She was more or less an outcast among her fellow athletes and the authorities, and had to train alone at some point, before the Games.
However, against all odds, she emerged victorious in the women’s long jump event with a jump length of 7.12m (on her first attempt) during the final.
The feat made her the first Nigerian athlete to win gold at the 1996 Olympics, and till date remains the country’s only individual Olympic gold medallist. She’s also the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event.
The case of Ajunwa, now an Assistant Commissioner of Police, is quite different from the others, as she’s not sure if she’s still in possession of the original medal that was presented to her 23 years ago.
“I’ve got a long story to tell concerning my medal. I put my gold in a bank but the bank called me and told me to collect my medal back in 2014. I collected it; it was inside the same container I had put it. I kept it in my box,” she said.
“Two years ago, reporters from BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) wanted to do a documentary on me and wanted to have a look at the medal. When I brought the medal out, I don’t think it was what I gave to the bank that they returned to me. Does gold fade? What I saw was faded.
“So, I told my manager about it and he said I should take the pictures of the medal for him to see. We are doing our findings right now; we want to get our facts right before taking action.”
Asked why the bank called her back to collect the medal, she replied, “It still baffles me, I don’t know, even as I speak to you.”
Emmanuel Babayaro and brother Celestine are the first and only Nigerian siblings to win gold at the Olympics. The brothers were also part of the Golden Eaglets that won the 1993 U-17 World Cup in Japan.
Emmanuel was goalkeeper of the football team, and kept the first game, a 1-0 win against Hungary at the Citrus Bowl, Orlando, before losing the number one keeper’s spot to Dosu Joseph.
When our correspondent enquired about his gold, he said, Emmanuel said his was intact.
However, few days later, the ex-footballer-turned-entertainer called our correspondent on the telephone.
“I think I’ve also lost mine,” he said.
“When you asked if my medal was with me, my heart skipped a bit. I had to go and look at where I kept it to be sure it was safe. I thought it was.”
Babayaro said what he thought was his gold was actually a souvenir given to participants at the Atlanta Games, adding that he had combed everywhere for his medal but couldn’t find it.
He stated, “There’s a place my wife arranged my medals, so I checked there and I thought what I saw was my gold medal. I was telling my wife that I learnt some of my teammates had lost theirs, and she asked me, ‘where is yours? The one you have among your other laurels is the replica of the gold.’
“I looked at it closely and carefully and I discovered it was the replica. I’ve looked for the everywhere but I can’t find it. I have no idea where it is.”
Another member of the football team midfielder Garba Lawal can only thank his stars for still having his gold with him after a robbery attack 12 years ago.
“I was lucky; mine could have been stolen too. In 2007, armed robbers came to my house but they didn’t take my medal. They saw it but maybe they were afraid to take it because it has the Atlanta Olympics inscribed in it and people may ask them where they got it from.
“ButI lost the MON (Member of The Order of The Niger) badge, because of its small size.”
Another member of the squad defender Abiodun Obafemi has his safely kept abroad.
“My phone was stolen in a church in Lagos, so how can I be sure my gold wouldn’t have been stolen if I kept it at home? I knew this could happen in Nigeria, so I kept mine safe in a bank in Germany,” he said.
OLYMPIC GOLD WORTH
Contrary to popular belief, Olympic gold medals have not always been made of pure gold.
Perhaps, this may shock those who steal the medals thinking they could make a huge fortune from selling them.
“Growing up, we heard the gold medal was very expensive, but you finally win it and discover it isn’t pure gold,” Babayaro said.
“When a lot of us found out that what we were given as gold were actually not pure gold, there was disillusionment.”
At the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the medals awarded to the first place team were silver and the runners-up received a copper medal. In the next set of summer Olympics in 1900, many of the winners received trophies and cups in place of medals. It was not until 1904 that gold, silver, and bronze medals started being awarded to competitors.
But the practice of giving out solid gold medals to winners was abandoned after the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden and was replaced by the current system of using a silver and copper alloy with a small amount of gold in comparison.
In pure monetary terms, the medals are also probably worth less than most people think.
Gold medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the most recently held edition of the Games, weighed in at 586 grammes, almost 20 per cent heavier than the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medals. They are 92.5mm in diameter.
The International Olympic Committee requires the gold medal to contain a minimum of six grammes of gold and roughly 92.5 per cent silver. The PyeongChang gold medal was 99.9 per cent silver with six grams of gold plating. Since the medal itself weighs 586 grams, it is comprised of 580 grammes of silver and just six grams of gold.
On February 2, 2018, gold traded at $42.85 per gramme and silver traded at $0.54 per gramme, according to JMBullion. At these price levels, the true value of a gold medal at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics was about $570.30 during the Games. Gold medals from the 2016 Rio Olympics were worth a comparable $565.62.
Giant centre-back, Kingsley Obiekwu, almost sold his own gold during trying times abroad. Perhaps, he would have been shell-shocked if he realised that what he had wasn’t pure gold.
“Honestly, I wanted to sell that gold medal at a point. That was in 2008 when I was in the United Kingdom; I wanted to sell it because I had financial challenges at that time,” the former Go Ahead Eagles defender said.
“Since nobody cared for you from your country, you had to fend for yourself. Surprisingly, even the Member of The Niger award that was given to us is not recognised. When you go to some offices and tell them that you are an MON, they won’t even look at you. What is the need of giving me an MON award if I cannot enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with it?”
But he is a happy man today as he can feel his medal, which he says gives him some soothing relief after an injury-ravaged career.
“I thank God I didn’t sell the medal at the end of the day. When I see the Olympic medal now, I feel very proud. It gives me joy. When I was in London, even my white colleagues in my office felt very proud working with an Olympic gold medallist.
“You know whites like evidence. When I told them I am an Olympic gold medallist, they didn’t believe but when I showed them the medal, they were surprised. They said, “What are you doing here? You are a superstar and you need to work in your country.” So, it was somehow disappointing.”
However, events have also shown that even though it’s not pure gold, the Olympic gold remains priceless and could sell far beyond the anticipated price in some cases.
Boxer Wladimir Klitschko, who also won gold at Atlanta, sold his medal from the Olympics for $1m in 2012 and donated the proceeds to a charity he set up in Ukraine to help impoverished children.
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