As an athlete, then as a team manager and later as a coach, Yussuf Alli has been to eight different editions of the African Games.
Alli who is Nigeria’s record holder in Long Jump shares his experience with PREMIUM TIMES on what is fondly referred to as Africa’s Olympics.
While revealing his best and worst memory of the African Games, Alli believes the fanfare around the sporting event has waned.
Enjoy excerpts from the interview.
PT: When you hear the Africam Games which in your days was called All-African Games what comes to your mind?
Alli: I think the first thing that comes to mind is Nigeria as a country trying to win the African Games because we always see ourselves as the giant of Africa but when you put everything into perspective, you find out that we want to win but we don’t prepare enough. At the end of the day, we either come second or third, one time we even came fifth. We are too big a country, we should not be losing African Games.
PT: So how many editions of the African Games have you been to
Alli: The first one I went to was 1987 in Kenya, I also went to 1991 and then 1994 and 1999 as a Team Manager, then in 2003 we hosted, then 2007, I went as a coach , I also went as a coach to 2011 and 2015 editions, so I have been to eight editions.
PT: How was the performance at these previous editions of the African Games you have been to, individually for you as an athlete and collectively for Nigeria.
Alli: The first I went in 1987. when it comes to my event. Track and Field, we won. We had 16 gold medals, I think that is still the highest ever in the history of African Games.
That year, we dominated all the sprints, relay and jumps. I think that year, Nigeria finished second overall, Egypt won that year.
The next one I went to was in 1991, Nigeria also came second, Egypt also won. Then in 1995, with the inclusion of South Africa in the Games, Nigeria dropped to the third position. Since then we have been battling between the third and the sixth position.
PT: There seems to be no buzz around this edition of the African Games. Do you think this big event is waning down on its importance?
Alli: I think to me in Nigeria we have lost the hype around the African Games. In those days when you walk around the streets of the country especially Lagos, you will know Nigeria is going for African Games. But this year, honestly people are even asking questions – when is African Games, have they started – when the game is already ongoing.
I think this year, everything is down, perhaps because of the economic downturn across the world including in Nigeria. For me the African Games is no longer glamorous as it used to be, even the athletes, the Games is no longer showbiz as it used to be. In those days, weeks, months before the African Games, athletes already have their wares, your tracksuits and all your kits are ready. But now, I doubt it, I don’t even know the colours they would be wearing
PT: What is your most memorable and then sad moment at the African Games?
Alli: One great moment I remember was the 1987 edition in Kenya. In the last event of that edition, it was the 4x400m Men’s relay, Kenya thought they have already won as they were in the clear lead like 50 meters to go before Innocent Egbunike came from behind to catch and overtake Kenya’s Simon Kito. I remember the President of Kenya then, Arab Moi, said this Innocent is not innocent. Till tomorrow I will always remember that incidence.
Then the down part of it was in 1995 in Harare when we won the 4x100m relay and after the dope test, one of Nigeria’s athletes tested positive to a banned substance. As you know, Nigerians always try to cheat in track and field and that is not good enough.
So long and short we lost that gold medal and it was very painful for me not just as the manager, the other members of the relay team were also downcast.
PT: Most of the records at African Games are held by Nigerians, how does that make you feel and is this a reflection of what athletics is in this country or was several years back?
Alli: Those records speak to how great Nigeria was. If you look at it, the last of those records was set in 1995, there are no recent records. Nigeria used to be a power to reckon with in Africa and the world as a whole. Then at the Olympics games, world championships and all the big meets, you will always see Nigerian athletes back then. But now the only people you see around in circuits is maybe Blessing and then Tobi Amusan, you don’t see any Green White Green again. It is sad. But we can still come back and do the right thing. We have the numbers, we are about 200 million and that is massive. All we need is the right structure and the right minister with the direction and focus on what needs to be done.
PT: So do you have high expectations of Nigeria doing well at this African Games
Alli: Not at all, we did not prepare well enough. Sports generally needs the best of preparations and I have not seen that going to this Games. I am not talking of preparations in terms of paperwork by the sports ministry; in terms of the nitty-gritty which is the athletes, we did not prepare.