INTERVIEW: How Nigeria can get more ‘Amusans’

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Despite the harsh realities, challenges, and unfavourable conditions, many Nigerian coaches are going out of their way to continue to unearth talents for the country.

Rarely do many get a mention when the glory moments arrive, but they remain fulfilled seeing their hardwork flourishing into something they did not imagine.

For Coach Ayodele Solaja, popularly referred to as Buka T in athletics circles, his joy knows no bounds seeing one of his products, Amusan, become a world record holder and a world champion at the same time.

In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Buka T relives the humble beginning of Oluwatobiloba Amusan in the ancient city of Ijebu Ode.

Sadly, the coach reveals how several other talents; some even ‘better’ than Amusan never made it to the world podium.

Excerpts…

PT: Congratulations Coach! Are you heading to the Commonwealth Games to see your girl (Tobi Amusan)?

Buka T: No, I’m in the World Juniors camp in Asaba. We are preparing for the competition coming up in Colombia.

PT: So, how is the preparation going on with the youngsters?

Buka T: It’s going on well. We are in full gear, all things being equal.

PT: Do you see Nigeria matching up with the feat we made in Nairobi or even doing better than we did at the last World Juniors?

Buka T: I think because some countries didn’t attend Kenya under 20, this one might be a little bit tougher, with the Americans coming, but at the same time, we have good athletes that can perform well. I think we will do as much, if not better.

The coach and some other athletes

PT: Most people know that Tobi Amusan is one of the numerous athletes who passed through your tutelage. Did it come as a surprise when you saw her performance at the World Championships where she broke the World Record?

Buka T: It was a surprise. I didn’t see the World Record coming. What I actually saw was her being on the podium. I was expecting maybe a 12.3s or so. I felt that even gold would be good enough because anything could always happen in the finals.

When she ran the rounds and broke the African record, that was when I knew that something like that could happen. I knew she was not running all out, she was running to qualify, and she was running so relaxed. I knew she had so much more in store after that race. That was when I had that inclination that it was possible.

PT: How proud are you that a girl you trained has conquered the world in record-breaking fashion?

Buka T: I was wowed, not just because she was a girl that I trained. I would have felt the same for any athlete that came out of Nigeria. This is something that is unprecedented. It is something that virtually nobody saw coming. For the fact that it was somebody that I trained, there is no way I can express that joy.

PT: For those that do not know, can you just give us a brief throwback on how you and Amusan started out and how it has been since then?

Buka T: Here in Ijebu Ode, I made it a point of duty to always attend inter-house sports or any trial that is done in the stadium. I can’t really say this is exactly how we came in contact but I know that at one time or the other, because they were so many. I would go to their schools and then they would start coming to the stadium and then their friends too will start coming with them.

It must have been one of those times when I was going to their schools and she was one of them. It wasn’t like she was outstanding because if she was an outstanding athlete, then I would say this is exactly when we met.

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She wasn’t outstanding and she was so smallish. We used to call her ‘shanko’ because of her small stature. It must have been one of those times when I went to their school and it wasn’t only their school; I went to virtually every school around Ijebu Ode area to scout for athletes.

I started noticing her very well around 2009 when she was part of my athletes as a group, but I noticed when she started making the school sports teams. She was representing Ogun state in the school sports team, that was when I started putting my attention on her because she was now standing out, even with her small stature, you could see that this was someone that is likely to do well in the future.

PT: Amusan has said in past interviews, that she did not start out as a hurdler, can you tell us more about her early days as a sprinter and the transition into the hurdles event?

Oluwatobiloba Amusan (Photo Credit: World Athletics on Twitter)

Buka T: When she started, she was a sprinter and a jumper. She wasn’t a hurdler. Up to 2013 when she went to Ukraine and the AYAC – African Youth Championships in Warri, she was just a sprinter and a long jumper, actually. It was after that competition in Warri that I decided to introduce her to the hurdles. I didn’t just introduce her to the hurdles like that, I wanted her to do the Heptathlon, because she was multi-talented.

She could run and jump and my vision was to make her someone like Patience Itanyi, who also had a smallish stature and did well in Heptathlon. My idea then was to train her for a season for that. I started training her in the hurdles, the shot put, and javelin until it now became obvious that she would do so well in the hurdles and that is when we now faced the hurdles.

PT: According to Amusan, only her mother gave full consent to her involvement in Sports. Her father did not. How were you able to manage the periods when both parents were not in agreement for Tobi to do sports?

Buka T: At one point, the father said she shouldn’t come to the stadium anymore, that she should face her studies. I was always in touch with her mother. Once in a while, she would sneak to the stadium but after some time she stopped coming. At that period I was in contact with the mother and through the mother, was talking to the father because the father doesn’t work in Ijebu Ode and only came in during the weekends.

I was always talking to the mother and she would now talk to the father. After her WAEC, with persistence, because I felt that if I had relented, that would have been the end.

The mother used to be a sprinter but as she told me, she said it is because of the way she was treated when she was running, she doesn’t want her daughter to pass through the same thing.

I was always telling them that hers will be different because I don’t wait for you to be part of the team. I want you to excel so that they can’t do without you. So that you don’t become a second fiddle and bring someone from outside to replace you. They see you first before considering others and I told them that I would make sure that she’s at the top of her game so that it wouldn’t come to a level where we have to beg for her to be on the team. At the end of the day, the father consented and she started training.

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PT: The father later gave his consent?

Buka T: He was now her major supporter because when we wanted to travel, he will be the one to bring her to the bus stop with his car and we will talk. He was now supportive in every area.

Buka T at work

PT: The belief is that we have many untapped Amusans scattered across Nigeria. What do you think, as a country, we need to be doing differently now to get the best from the talents we have?

Buka T: I think the most important aspect of our sports culture is that the private sector should take over. That is the major thing. That is how it is done where sport excels all over the world. Once the government is in charge, the role of government is more about the organisation but when, for example, I am a private club, the government will not go out of its way to come and sponsor me.

If an enabling environment is not there for the private sector to come in, then people like us will continue to suffer. Take Tobi, for example. I can tell you that among Tobi’s set, she was not the best, she was one of the best but not the only best. There was one girl called Ronke, the same set, the same school, same class. That girl won school sports in Calabar and I went to their school for inter-house sports, the girl came first in 200, Tobi came first in 100 metres.

When you look at the girl’s stature you will know that she was a little bit ahead of the others. What helped Tobi was support from her parents. Not from any other place but from them and a little from me. The other girl I’m talking about didn’t get support from her parents because she was fatherless and her mother was not well-to-do so she faded along the way.

READ ALSO: Tobi Amusan: Nigeria’s ‘almost girl’ who now rules the world

At that point in time, I had no sponsors. The little resources I had, I had to start sharing among different athletes that I had. In Tobi’s case, her parents were always there to support her financially. There was a time when I had to take six of them to Akwa Ibom under my own sponsorship for about three months in 2012.

I took care of their feeding and everything for over three months, Tobi included. I could do that but imagine if I had sponsors. I would have done much more. The government will not go out of its way to start giving you money when you are not a government official. They don’t even give government officials money unless when they want to do camping.

Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan has won a Gold medal in the Women’s 100m Hurdles at the World Athletics Championships, after breaking the world record with a time of 12.06 seconds. (Photo Credit: World Athletics on Twitter)

We are talking of a whole season. The private sector should be encouraged to be more involved in sports in this country. The best places to get athletes at the grassroots is the schools, so they must be a form of synergy between the ministry of sports and the ministry of education in all spheres – federal, state, and local, so that they will bring out a kind of programme that will reconcile both of them.

There must be that synergy and most importantly, let us try to put square pegs in square holes. You don’t see a situation where a doctor is made minister of justice, but in sports, anybody can be a minister or commissioner.

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Let us bring technocrats who know their onions, who know what is happening so that they can help us to forge the sports forward so that we won’t go one step forward and three steps backward. You bring someone and he has to learn on the job and we have gone back three or four steps before he knows his onions he is removed and another person is brought.

That kind of thing doesn’t allow for continuity. These are just a few of the things that we have to talk about. What about facilities and equipment, how many schools have standard tracks, and facilities for training? Now the sports council is redundant because of the lack of money for competitions. The coaches in the sports council, how can you get them to work when there are no competitions?

This year (2022), how many underage competitions did athletics do all over the country? We are supposed to be doing under13,15,16,18,20,23. So that someone that comes today and says she’s is under 13 won’t come tomorrow and say she is under this when we already have you at this particular year you are at this age. When the first competition the person is under 18 and she has been trying for how many years, what does she do, she cuts down her age because there is no competition to cater for them.

Oluwatobiloba Amusan

PT: Do you think what Tobi has been able to achieve will make more parents see that sport is not evil and it can go hand-in-hand with education. How will it change the orientation of parents and encourage young lads to go into sports?

Buka T: In Amusan’s Alma Mata, there is one young girl there that is very talented. She’s about 13 years old. I even bought her spike shoes only for her father to say that she cannot continue with sports. I did everything to convince the father to the extent that I put down an undertaken that if she doesn’t pass WAEC I would take the responsibility but at the end of the day, no way.

But maybe with this that has happened, You know, because there was a rally even in the girl’s school in Our Lady of Apostles concerning Amusan’s victory. Maybe it would now get to the father and get to the mother.

Because she was brandishing a $100,000 cheque. Convert that to Naira now… And maybe that would help and maybe that would inspire them.

Some parents would say “I want my child to only study” and by the time we are telling them, Sports and Academics always go hand in hand. they would ask “This stadium you are going to? how much would you pay my child? You know.

So, this victory from Amusan now would make them know that if it is about the study? No problem, if it is about making money? No problem. But both would always go together. I’m sure that it would go a long way for parents to allow their wards to allow their kids, especially the female gender.

PT: Thank you for your time and keep producing more stars for Nigeria.

Buka T: You are welcome. Once we get the support we need, we can definitely do more than we are doing now.

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