Toyin Augustus, a Nigerian 100m hurdler, won gold at the 2006 African Championships and the 2007 All Africa Games. The 36-year-old tells IDRIS ADESINA about her athletics experience
You started your national athletics career in 2006 when you won gold at the African Championships in Mauritius. How was the competition between athletes then?
It’s about the same as it is now. There are only one or two athletes who can run under 13 seconds while some others were in the 13.3 to 13.9 seconds range.
You competed at the 2007 All Africa Games where you won your second gold…
It was amazing. I appreciate it more now than I did back then. I can look back and see all that I put into it and how God pulled me through. It certainly wasn’t easy and I couldn’t have done it alone. I have a lot of people to thank for helping me.
In 2009 you were banned after the World Championships in Berlin. How did you cope?
God was and is still my strength and my shield. He knows the truth and I leave my life in His hands. It was very difficult for me to cope with the accusations, distrust, and overall stigma which came with the ban. I fought it and did all I could do to get justice and clear my name with the little support I got but that door of my life is closed so I had to look towards the doors that had opened and I pursued my teaching and coaching career, which brought me full circle back to competing for Nigeria. I never lost my love for the hurdles. I gained love for my work, my students and the love of my life, my four-year-old daughter, Ayooluwa.
How supportive was the Athletic Federation of Nigeria during that period?
Unfortunately, the federation was not supportive at all. There was not an ally in sight and no one even wanted to listen to me. There was no one in place to even speak or work on the athlete’s behalf. My only help was from my friend EnefiokUdo-Obong, who tried to help me and told me how I could proceed after the ban.
You came back in 2013 but went out for a while again. What were you doing then?
I was teaching and coaching young athletes. I tried to compete but my schedule and responsibilities didn’t allow me to continue in the spring. I knew that if I wanted to come back I would have to take time away from work and fully pursue my training. That’s what I did last year. My employer granted me a sabbatical, which allowed me to train appropriately for Rio.
You were at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. How would you describe your Olympic experience?
It was amazing. I appreciated every moment of it. My mother and sister were there to cheer me on. I competed but not as well as I could have. I loved it all though.
How did you feel not being at the Rio 2016 Olympics?
I’m fine with it. I was sad at first, but I embraced the journey and it was fruitful in its own right. Still competing at this age and this level is already a blessing.
Nigeria failed to win an athletics medal for the second consecutive Olympics in Rio. Do you think this trend will change in Tokyo 2020?
No one can predict medals first of all. We also shouldn’t always judge our performances by how many medals we bring home. If we want to bring home medals it’s not just a one-year endeavour. We have to build from the ground and maintain good training and support for our athletes for the long run. It starts when they are young not nine months before the Olympics. The journey to reaping medals at the Olympics is a long one and that is what successful countries have been embarking on.
What do you think about the administration of athletics in Nigeria?
The administration of the sport in Nigeria is still a long way behind what it should be when compared to what obtains in developed countries. The country needs to invest more in athletes and make more competitions available for them to compete in. Athletes who are coming to represent the country from abroad have to be good enough to be a source of inspiration to those at home. The administrators need help to achieve this and they have to be accountable when help comes to them to enable them to get more.
Apart from you, Tobi Amusan is the other female hurdler of note…
We could have more hurdlers for sure. But the right things and grooming have to be done. I haven’t met Tobi but I’m glad she’s doing well. She had a good showing in Rio, which made me proud. I wish her all the best and I hope to run with her one day.
How easy was it choosing to represent Nigeria since you were raised in the USA and could have represented them?
It was very easy to decide. My parents have always been very patriotic. They encouraged us then and even now to promote, respect, and love our country and its people. Back then, I knew that I would run for Nigeria if I ever became good enough. I’m proud that I was able to do so and so are my parents. It surprises me when I hear other Nigerian parents saying we should stop running for our country.
What is the difference between home-based and overseas-based athletes?
We are all talented and passionate athletes striving to get better. Overseas-based athletes typically have a bigger world perspective having been exposed to more of the track world and more opportunities so they may think harder about what other options they have in choosing to represent the country.
Why do you think some athletes dump Nigeria for other countries?
Generally it’s hard to stay on the Nigerian team if you are in need of financial support and other resources. All of us need the financial support, but some need it more than others. I can understand the tough decision in choosing to represent the country or otherwise. If you are in a relationship and know that you could be treated better by someone else, wouldn’t you seriously consider leaving the first one?
How can athletes of Nigerian descent be made to represent the country?
If Nigeria wants those athletes to come home, they need to make the transition easier. They need a recruiter and they need to be accountable for taking care of the athletes. They can’t be made to compete for Nigeria, rather they have to want to compete for the country and Nigeria should make the transition an attractive one. Although it is an honour to compete for Nigeria, officials should feel equally as honoured to have athletes choose to come home. It should be mutually beneficial. I know of at least one athlete that wanted to compete for Nigeria and could not obtain any information about how to do so. Nigeria missed out on the Offili sisters and we will continue to miss out on other great athletes if we don’t change the way we conduct this business.
Don’t you think these set of athletes will be a threat to the home grown athletes?
If anyone is afraid of threats then they should think twice about being an athlete. Adversaries are everywhere and it’s in accepting the challenges that we become better and stronger. Also, the federation should be doing more to develop all our athletes on a year round basis, not just to camp them for two to three weeks before a major competition. The changes we need should be sustainable. We are all Nigerians and I fear that some people are putting the home-based athletes against the overseas-based and that is not good. It’s divisive and that is not going to help the greater good. There should rather be a network support system for both sets of athletes where the home-based can partner with those abroad. We should try to support each other rather than being divided.
How long more do we see you competing for Nigeria?
Only God knows. My body doesn’t respond in the way it used to and it now takes me a longer time to recover so I’m sure my days are numbered. Maybe I’ll break a record for oldest athlete to win an African Championships medal.