He posted Lee to the University of Ife where he had admitted and assembled several young and extremely talented athletes, and Ron to the University of Benin that already had a rich pool of young exceptionally gifted athletes. He kept George Idibia at the commission’s headquarters in Lagos as head of the team. Lee and Ron, working with the respective State sports councils, did the talent discovery and development in Ife and Benin, and Idibia and Akioye did the finishing in Lagos. Between the four gentlemen, in two years, working far from the glare of the rest of the world athletics community they nurtured into maturity, perhaps, Nigeria’s greatest athletics ensemble in preparation for the Olympic Games of Montreal, Canada, in 1976!
So Lee Evans is back in Nigeria. He is a legend of track and field. In 1968 at the Mexico Olympics he won two Gold medals in 400m and the 4 X 400 m relay and broke the world record in both. I have always been curious to know how Lee Evans came to Nigeria soon after he retired after the 1972 Olympics. This past week I asked him. It had to do with the story of how he met Isaac Akioye. It is interesting. Soon after winning the Gold medal in 1968 Lee received tonnes of congratulatory letters. Of the lot one letter stood out, not because it had a different message from the rest but because it came from Africa, from an unknown Nigerian who called himself Isaac Akioye, wishing him well and seeking his acquaintance. After that Mr. Akioye and Lee kept in touch with each other and Akioye kept him abreast of his vision for Nigerian sports and his journey into sports development in the country. When Akioye offered him an opportunity to come to the NSC to join him in developing a national athletics programme for Nigeria the offer was too tempting to turn down. Lee accepted the offer and came to Nigeria. He teamed up with Ron Davis as the pioneer foreign athletics coaches in the NSC. There were several other foreign coaches in other sports including football. That’s how Lee Evans, Ron Davis, and George Idibia (a Nigerian coach) became the members of Mr. Isaac Akioye’s dream team that built a solid base for the development of world class Nigerian athletes!
Both Lee and Ron left the services of the NSC in 1979 after fast-tracking Nigeria’s place at the apex of African athletics at the third All-Africa Games in Algeria! Some thirty years after, with experiences establishing athletics programmes in 6 other African countries, working with great athletes all over the continent, and returning to America to serve as athletics directors in an American university, both Lee Evans and Ron Davis are back in Nigeria to join, hopefully, once again, in reviving Nigeria’s original vision to become one of the best nations on earth in track and field particularly the sprints and jumps. I met both gentlemen in Abuja this past week helping to prepare the Nigerian team going to Berlin next week for the World Athletics championship! It was a happy re-union for us. They remembered me quite well from the past, after all we were together in Lagos as they prepared Nigerian athletes for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. We went to Montreal together as well as the All-Africa Games in Algiers. They left shortly after that when the crisis in the NSC started to brew!
Although no contract has been entered into with them by the AFN or NSC, they hope that will be done soon so that they can begin work once again to unearth, train and guide Nigerian athletes through the long, enduring and often torturous journey to the top of world athletics. They also think athletics development should be anchored to the school system, that training centres must be established in different parts of the country and manned by experienced coaches. They believe young Nigerian athletes in schools should be supported to enter athletics programmes in selected American universities. They think the future of athletics in Nigeria is very bright indeed.
Meeting and discussing with Lee Evans and Ron Davis re-kindled my hope for athletics in Nigeria, and that things will soon change. I encouraged them to disallow any hardships or shortcomings they will definitely encounter to discourage or frustrate them, and to see this second coming as another opportunity to better what they did here in their first coming. Mr. Isaac Akioye may not be physically here anymore but in his place is one pioneer beneficiary of Akioye’s succession programme, who was trained by him and who inherits all his best tenets and vision – Patrick Ekeji! I can see that they both love this country and are ready and willing to give up a lot in serving Nigeria. I assure them that the future holds great promise and that they should be a part of the historic wind of change that will soon be blowing across this country in the not too distant future!