Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nigerian diaspora: Athletes

While Nigeria has of course produced many of its own musicians and actors, the children of Nigerian immigrants have made an even greater impact in the entertainment world. Now we turn our sights to athletes.

Arguably the greatest decathlete of all time is an Englishman born to a Scottish father and Nigerian mother. His real name is Francis Morgan Odayele Thompson, but most know him as Daley Thompson can lay claim to 4 world records, 2 Olympic gold medals (1980 and 1984), 3 Commonwealth gold medals, 1 World Championship gold and 2 European Championship gold medals. This multitalented individual even played professional football for a few years after retiring from the track - competing in ten Olympic events clearly wasn't enough variety for him.

Thrilling and frustrating Arsenal fans in equal measure is gangly striker Emmanuel Adebayor, the 2008 African Player of the Year. While he was born in Togo and plays his international football for that small African nation, he is actually of Nigerian Yoruba ethnicity (the surname is a dead giveaway of Nigerian-ness).

London-born Justin Fashanu is known as the first black footballer to be sold for £1m, but also as the first professional footballer (and still the only one) to come out as homosexual. The tale of the gifted Fashanu is a sad one; in 1981 at his big-money move to Nottingham Forest, his coach Brian Clough shunned him upon hearing rumours about his sexuality, banning him from playing or even training with the club. His career never truly recovered. When he publicly came out in 1990, he became the target of abuse from crowds and former colleagues, and was publicly disowned by brother John, also a pro footballer. In 1998, despite being cleared on a recent accusation of sexual assault, he committed suicide, no doubt feeling the world was against him.

Aston Villa's rising football star Gabriel Agbonlahor was once selected for Nigeria's under-21 squad, but he pledged his future to England instead (he is Birmingham-born of Scottish-Nigerian descent). He is only one of many English players of Nigerian ancestry plying their trade in the Premier League - there's also Carlton Cole, Ugo Ehiogu, Ade Akinbiyi, Shola Ameobi, Dickson Etuhu, Sam Sodje and Nedum Onuoha, to name a few.

John Amaechi, son of an English mother and Nigerian (Igbo) father, is a trailblazer in the same way as Justin Fashanu; the 6 ft 10 in centre was the first ever NBA player to publicly identify as gay. Unlike Fashanu however, he waited until his career was over, fearing the reaction he would receive in the highly macho environs of the NBA. This was understandable - former star player Tim Hardaway said in reaction that he would refuse to play on a same team as a gay man - though other players came out in support of him. Amaechi currently works as a broadcaster and community activist, and is renowned as a far more erudite thinker than most in the sports world.

Of course, when it comes to Nigerian basketballers, there have been none greater than Hakeem Olajuwon. His storied career includes winning MVP in 1994 and championships in '94 and '95. My favourite Olajuwon anecdote: a devout Muslim, he was named the Player of the Month in February 1995, despite fasting virtually the whole month for Ramadan. The man nicknamed "The Dream" was born in Nigeria but later became an American citizen and played fittingly on the Dream Team at the 1996 Olympics.

Other Nigerians or Nigerian diasporans to play in the NBA include Emeka Okafor, Michael Olowokandi, Ike Diogu and Yinka Dare.

The blazing young star of Australian Rugby League, Jamal Idris has a Nigerian sprinter father and an Aboriginal mother. At 192cm and 106kg, Idris is a monster athlete - he was once ranked top-10 junior in the world at javelin - yet aged only 18, he is still finishing his final year of high school as well as appearing in his debut NRL season.

Want still more Nigerian-ness? Try here:

Mrs Omokerede, pushy Nigerian Mum

Gina Yashere on Def Comedy Jam

1 comment:

  1. Hi,I just stumbled on your blog and am a fan already.Love the way you covered this particular post.Am a Nigerian too and funny enough I grew up in the same "hood" with Olajuwon. Nice one buruv!