A hug for Chika Amalaha

Olumide Iyanda


Buzz by Olumide Iyanda

Email: oiyanda@yahoo.com Twitter: @mightyng

Olumide-IyandaChika Amalaha had requested that whatever cash prize the government wanted to give her for winning gold in the women’s 53kg category at the Commonwealth Games be converted to a scholarship. I was driving to the office on Monday morning last week when I heard presenters of Yoruba sports review programme, Lori Papa, on Bond FM Lagos relate how the teenage weightlifter made the request.

According to the report, the 16-year-old argued that a tertiary education would be more beneficial to her and her family on the long run than whatever cash amount Abuja had planned for her. I could have given anything to hug the young woman at that point. Not only was she strong in mind and body; here was a girl whose wisdom belied her age.

Like million others, I was pained when it was announced on Tuesday that she had failed a drug test. Her ‘A’ sample was found to contain amiloride and hydrochlorothiazide, which are both prohibited as diuretics and masking agents. A ‘B’ sample test conducted on Wednesday also came out positive. Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) Chief Executive, Mike Hooper, confirmed what everybody had feared on Friday when he said: “I can report that the analysis on the Nigerian weightlifting Chika Amalaha’s B sample has been completed, and this has confirmed the analysis and finding of the A result.” She was stripped of the gold medal on Friday with a likely two-year ban for a first-time offence.

“The Commonwealth Games Federation has determined that Nigerian weightlifter, Chika Amalaha, has committed an anti-doping rule violation and has fully suspended her from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow,” the CGF said in a statement. “As a result, Amalaha has been disqualified from her event at the Games, with her result in the competition nullified.” Dika Toua from Papua New Guinea was subsequently awarded the gold medal with the India duo Santoshi Matsa and Swati Singh claiming silver and bronze.

A handbrake was suddenly pulled on a promising career. Poor Chika, she went from being the youngest female winner of a Commonwealth weightlifting title to a “drug cheat” in five days. She was the first athlete to test positive for banned substance at the Games. With a provisional suspension hanging on the young Nigeria’s head as at Tuesday, President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Sir Craig Reedie, expressed his shock that an athlete so young should test positive for banned substances. In his words: “I am very disappointed that somebody as young as that appears to have committed an offence at a multi-sport event like the Commonwealth Games.”

I am as disappointed as Reedie, but he is pointing his finger in the wrong direction. The offence was not committed by Chika. The guilty party are the coaches and officials that led Team Nigeria to Scotland. The by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) that it will ‘seriously investigate’ Amalaha’s entourage to find out how she came to have the banned substance in her system is a step in the right direction.

Nigerian veteran weightlifter, Ruth Ogbeifo, spoke my mind when she said: “I blame our coaches squarely for her predicament. As I see it, the issue is about meeting the right weight and she couldn’t have accessed drugs all on her own. I understand she competed about three months ago in Mauritius and she won without drugs, so how come she used those drugs now? Even if she got them herself, it is the duty of the coaches to know whatever medications their athletes are using and to research to be sure if the drugs contain banned substances. The problem is that the coaches are lazy, incompetent and do not qualify to handle national team athletes. The point is that maintaining the required weight in your class is a primary condition in weightlifting and one of the main tasks of a weightlifting coach. You have to constantly monitor your athlete to be sure of what she is taking, what she is eating, what she is drinking in order to maintain a stable weight. There were times we had to stay very, very light on food for months. A regular and well supervised programme assures that, but our coaches are just doing nothing. Coaching in weightlifting goes beyond telling athletes to bend down this way or hold their arms up this or that way. It is total supervision of the athlete which obviously was absent in this case.”

How could a system that could not coordinate what athletes wear be strict about what they eat and drink? Didn’t the CGF query the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) over the inconsistency in the use of jerseys by our athletes at the ongoing Commonwealth Games? An official of Team Nigeria confessed that athletes came dressed in different colours because the NSC gave the various sports federations money to acquire their own sporting apparels either through direct purchase or sponsorship. Those who got sponsors covered the sponsor’s name with masking tape which fell off at times. NOC President, Sani Ndanusa, have promised that that the development that led to the query does not happen again, but what assurance can he give this 16-year-old she would not become a global sporting outcast?

Truth be told, Chika is a victim of the failure of our sport administrators. All the hi fives over Blessing Okagbare and other medallists will not take away Amalaha’s pain and despair unless she is, like Ogbeifo advised, “encouraged rather than alienated”. There are fears that she may be discarded and forgotten as we are wont to do over here. But that should not happen this time. Giving her a scholarship to conclude her education may be a good place to start. And like Chioma Ajunwa, she can come back older, wiser and stronger in the nearest future.

I still would love to give her that hug.