Culled from Punch
A former Olympic medallist and sports enthusiast, Falilat Ogunkoya-Omotayo, MON, speaks to BUKOLA BAKARE of Punch on her career, foundation, marriage, and other related matters
What are some of the things that keep you busy these days?
I currently run the Falilat Ogunkoya Sports Foundation; so, I am quite preoccupied with that. We recently organised a competition and discovered some talents. I am also the chairperson, Ogun State Athletics Federation and a member of the Nigerian Olympic Committee. My goal has always been to help our athletics – a blend of the old and new – by encouraging them. This is an opportunity that we didn’t have during our own time as athletes.
Can you recall what stirred your interest in athletics?
I recall that I loved to play table tennis as a child and I also had passion for track and field events at the same time. I saw the track as the only place I could freely express myself. There were no inhibitions on the track and I saw every race as mine; one that I wanted to win. So, I always had full control. For me, each race was like a hurdle that I must jump over.
One of the highlights of your career was your historic win at the Atlanta ’96 Olympics. Can you recollect others?
Atlanta ’96 Olympics remains evergreen for me because the 400m race was a very tough one and it was one that was called the Real Woman’s race. Hence, the training, prior to the competition, was not an easy one but at the end of the day, I was very elated that I could participate. The climax for me was when I won the bronze medal and became the first Nigerian female athlete in the Olympics to win an individual medal. That alone was the icing on the cake for me because no athlete in Nigeria won an individual 400m race and I was able to set a new African record.
What do you think is responsible for the dearth of sports in Nigeria?
At the moment, sport is not being prioritised in Nigeria. It’s the same thing as making education a priority in the country because it is synonymous with the development of youths. Government must be able to harness talents from a tender age and constantly train them ahead of competitions such as the IAAF meet, the Olympics, et al. Once the government prioritises sport development in this country, it would be a step in the right direction.
Also, we do not appreciate our own. If you take a critical look at the World Championships, all those athletes who go there to compete are appreciated by the countries they represent and are given the necessary support. I look forward to the day when we will begin to do same as a nation.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I attended Saint John’s Anglican Primary School, Ode-Remo, in Ogun State, and moved to Sijuade Primary School in Ile-Ife, Osun State, where I completed my primary education. Thereafter, I went to Ode-Remo Community High School for my post-primary education and subsequently, I attended the Teachers Training College, Sagamu.
So, why didn’t you become a teacher?
That’s a very interesting question. I used to stay with one of my sisters who was a teacher at the time but that didn’t really rub off on me. I would later travel to the United States of America where I took part in a fitness management course but I didn’t want to become a coach because it’s too stressful.
How would you describe your personality?
I’m an easy-going person and very accommodating. In my free time, I always love to cook. Even when I was in active sport and I had to prepare for major competitions, you will still find me cooking. I also love to watch tennis and dance as well.
What are your favourite genres of music?
I don’t really have favourites but you will find me listening to reggae, juju and other genres. Music nowadays is just noise and you really cannot make meaning from what the artistes are saying.
Why did you establish the Falilat Ogunkoya Sports Foundation?
I just decided to give back to the sport. We organise 100, 200 and 400-metre races for primary and secondary schools. I’ve organised a few competitions in that regard. I’ve also tried to reach out to retired athletes through the foundation and I don’t want the up-and-coming ones to see them as being unhappy. Hence, if they are well-taken care of, the younger ones would be motivated and that was why I started the Falilat Ogunkoya Foundation and it has been in existence for 11 years.
What are some of your challenges since inception?
Funding was a major challenge when we started but thankfully, some state governments and corporate bodies were able to assist us and we’ve been able to cross several other hurdles that have come our way over the years.
What are some of the memorable moments that you remember from your childhood?
I recall that whenever I went out to play table tennis as a child, it would take a long time for me to return home and my grandmother didn’t like it because I stayed with her sometimes. Consequently, my aunty bought a table and placed it in the front of the house, so that I could play the game there. At the close of school each day, I’d return home with my friends and take charge of the game; we would play together and have so much fun as children. It was quite a memorable experience for me back then. Sometimes, I sit down in my quiet moments, relieve those experiences and have a good laugh. Those memories have remained indelible in my heart.
As a sport-inclined person, how would you describe your fashion sense?
On the contrary, I don’t dress like a sport person as many people would have thought. I love fashion. I remember when I was in secondary school, my father told me that when I returned from school, I should go and learn how to sew but I shuddered at the thought of learning how to become a tailor; it just didn’t sound right in my ears. In those days, there was nothing like fashion designers like we call them now. I love to dress well and I pay particular attention to my shoes because whenever you dress, people want to look at your shoes first. As an athlete, I couldn’t do all of that. Now, I love to wear nice dresses; short dresses that are not too revealing and tight. I also like to wear heels because as an athlete, I wore more of canvas and sneakers. When I was a Special Assistant on Sports to the former governor of Ogun State, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, my fashion sense was really top-notch.
How would you describe motherhood?
Motherhood is such an indescribable feeling; it’s the best thing in the world. I think all women should go through the experience to understand what I’m saying.
I am blessed with a son and I thank God for the privilege that he has given me. He is a little bit interested in sports but you know how it is with children of nowadays –you cannot tell them what to do. They may see your ideas as being old-fashioned. You were previously married to your former coach, Tony Osheku, and currently married to Professor Oluwaseun Omotayo. What are some of the lessons that you learnt from your previous union and how has it helped to shape you in your current one?
Sometimes in life, when certain things happen, you just have to learn from the experience and move on. There is something that Yoruba would always say and when translated to English, it literally means that in every good that you do, there is always a bad element and vice versa. My first union didn’t work out and I had to move on but people don’t realise that when a certain thing is not good, until you experience that same thing with another person before you have a rethink. I would say that it is not everybody that is lucky like I am to move from one marriage into another one. I always tell people that the most difficult thing in this world is marriage and anything can happen. It is fraught with ups and downs and it’s a bridge that you have to cross and it takes inner strength for you to be able to get to the other side. I’m from a polygamous family and my father had a lot of wives. If you came to my house back then, you won’t believe that we were from different mothers. That made me to understand that if my first marriage didn’t work, I just have to work hard to ensure the success of the second one with God’s grace and continuous prayers. That was a lesson that I took away from the experience.
What are your other interests?
I am very passionate about the plight of the less-privileged and I wish that I could set up a foundation to cater for their needs. When opportunities are created for these people, you will see how far they can go in life to attain their goals. But if the opportunities are not there, you cannot bring out anything good in them. I hope to set up a foundation in that regard in the not-too-distant future.
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