MEET NOJIM MAIYEGUN: THE FIRST NIGERIAN OLYMPIC MEDALIST

Very few of the present generation has heard of him. As a matter of fact, not many of the older generation still remember him. Yet, he wrote the name of Nigeria on the blue print. This happened in 1964.

Anytime reference is made to Nigeria about Olympic medalists, apparently, there will always be the mention of the first man to win a medal for the country. Nojeem Maiyegun etched his name in history when he fought his way to a bronze medal in the men’s light middleweight boxing event and broke the jinx of futile outings for Nigeria at the Olympics.

Born in February 1941, Maiyegun, known and called “Omo Oloja” by fans, had spent more than half of his life in Austria where he decided to settle down in 1971, to attract more international fights. “I was 16 when I knew about boxing. It started when I went to fetch water at Bamgbose Street in Lagos”. In his response to a newspaper interview, Maiyegun said that there used to be a boy at that time who bullied everyone whenever he got to the public tap; he used to beat Nojeem a lot. However, when Maiyegun got to know that the boy was a trained boxer, he decided to seek out a boxer trainer known as Bonny Ade who secretly trained him for six months until he was able to face the boy and beat him at the public tap.

His parents were not happy with him when they got to know that he was training as a boxer and they used to beat him a lot but each punishment only made him stronger.

He became a dreaded figure in school. In every faceoff at Tinubu Methodist School, Lagos, his classmates gave him his way. His newfound skill turned him into a bully though.

Before long, he became a household name and before one could think of it, his name had started appearing in newspapers as one to behold in Nigerian boxing.  Although his parents never liked boxing as they believed that it was meant for hooligans, they reduced their criticism of him when things started changing in sports.

His most memorable fight in Nigeria was with Gilbert ‘Gilly Joe’ Osoba. Gilly Joe worked with the Nigerian Ports Authority, while Maiyegun was with Constain West Africa. Both boxers were clearly the best in their category but when Maiyegun beat him twice, there was no question about who the real king was.

He got the nickname, “Omo Oloja” after he said in an interview that “Facing Gilly Joe in a rematch would be a good marketing campaign for boxing and it would attract capacity crowd”.  This was however misinterpreted by the police as a ‘hard drug peddler’ and that prompted his arrest on the Carter Bridge, Lagos.

Barely three years after training as a boxer, he had his first international fight against Ghana’s Joe Blackey in Accra in 1960 and he won. He also won an African championship contest in 1962 in Cairo, Egypt. That moment marked the beginning of his ambition to be a world champion.

Besides winning the Olympic medal, he won a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966 and a few more medals which included African championship gold and a medal from the 1960 Independence celebration tournament.

Maiyegun relocated to Austria in 1971, to continue his professional boxing career. He was considered the most dangerous boxer in the middleweight class in Austria. There was a cartoon in one Austrian newspaper which depicted his gloved hands as guns, meaning he ‘killed’ all opponents with deadly punches. That picture was popular after he defeated famous American boxer, Denny Moyer, in a world championship fight in Vienna in January 1973.

Maiyegun’s dream of winning a world title was cut short by blindness. He was fast losing his sight but he stubbornly went on to fight Domenico Tiberia in December 1973, in a world championship contest. He lost on points. It was his fourth career loss, and the last. He wept bitterly, knowing he would never be able to make a comeback to the ring.

Always ready to be a pioneer, it is on record that he was the first blind boxer to fight for a world championship title. Though he lost the fight on points.

It is also on the record that he was the first blind man in Austria to climb a mountain, 1,700 metres high and jumped with a parachute.

And how did he take care of himself at the end of his boxing career? He had no other choice than to take up menial jobs to survive after his boxing career ended in Austria. He was employed as a street cleaner and janitor but had to be accompanied to carry out his duties. He worked for 28 years before retiring.

Maiyegun yearns to come back to Nigeria, his home, but he is afraid he will not have adequate care. This is a real sore on Nigeria. This is a man that Nigeria should be ‘worshipping’ as her first saviour of honour in the Olympics. After all, he was the first man to break the jinx after Nigeria’s debut in the Olympics since 1952. He brought honour to Nigeria. But what has the country done for him. He lived almost all his life outside the shores of the country. The much he could gain after his 1964 glory is for the nation to bring him back home and take proper care of him as he can no longer see or go anywhere without assistance.

As a matter of fact, it is very certain that the sports ministry has no track record of him if the then Director General of the NSC, Dr. Patrick Ekeji, could refer to him as ‘late’ while presenting the champions’ trophy named after him (Nojeem Maiyegun Cup) to Team Delta, winners of the 18th National Sports Festival in Lagos in 2012. Although, he has since apologized, it still boils down to the point that the ministry didn’t know about him or has forgotten about him.

Asked if he got any award for winning the medal, Maiyegun, in an interview said that he was not given any award and he didn’t think much of it. However, former head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida (retired) gave him an award in 1989. The award was eventually retrieved by the sports ministry the following year for no reason. So, he has nothing to show like a national award for doing the country proud as first Olympic medalist.

We need not wait for another centenary celebration before we remember our heroes. Nojeem Maiyegun is definitely a hero and we must honour him by bringing him back home with a sure hope of taking good care of him.

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