It was a Buddhist monk in India, Jack Kornfield, who said “everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” This saying is apt in the life of Nigeria’s first and only individual Olympic gold medallist, Chioma Ajunma who recently retired from the Nigeria Police Force as a Deputy Commissioner of Police after 35 years of meritorious service.
Ajunwa who also became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event was born on December 25, 1970. She is the only girl and last born of nine children in her family.
Born into a humble background in Ahiazu-Mbaise of Imo State, Ajunwa was the youngest of nine children. Growing up in a financially challenging situation, she faced obstacles along the way.
At 18, she couldn’t afford to obtain university education and so she decided to train as an automobile mechanic. However, her mother didn’t approve, and she eventually found her calling in sports and inevitably the Police Force.
In an interview with Channels Tv, she revealed how she was recruited into the Police Force.
“When I was around 13 or 14, I was walking on the street and saw three Policemen, including a female officer, coming towards me. I got scared and thought they wanted to arrest me.
“Strangely, they asked me to come to them. I asked why and then started running as fast as I could. My friend saw me running and asked why. I told her I didn’t know what I did, but the Police were after me. When they caught me, they said their boss wanted to see me. I asked why.
“They took me to their boss, and he was surprised to see me because he expected an adult. He asked, “Where is the antelope? Where is the person I asked you to bring to me?” They told him I was the one and explained that I was a fast runner, so the locals called me the antelope. After asking me questions about myself, he offered me N200 to join the Police for the Police Games qualifiers.
“I refused the money because I was afraid my mother would be upset. Instead, he gave N500 to the female Police officer and asked her to take me to my mother. He wanted her to explain why they wanted me. After that encounter, I was eventually recruited into the Nigeria Police Force and taken to the Police College before going to Ilorin for the Police Games,” she narrated in the interview.
In several fora, Ajunwa had stated she never regretted leaving football because she found success in athletics. According to her, there was a coach who knew she was the best player but kept her on the bench, so she decided to leave the team’s camp and focus on athletics.
Initially, Ajunwa played football for the Nigerian women’s team, Super Falcons during the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China. However, she didn’t get many opportunities to showcase her skills and felt benched most of the time so she felt it was time to leave football and move to athletics, her second love. That decision alone opened the door to the achievements that she recorded in sports and the Police Force.
In her active days as an athlete, DCP Ajunwa specialised in 100m, 200m and long jump, eventually competing at the African Championships in 1989 and the All-Africa Games in 1991 where she won gold medals in the long jump.
Just like every other human, she faced challenges, but her career was saved by the legendary Segun Odegbami, who served as a consultant on sports to the Nigerian Police Force. It is said based on his recommendation, she was sent to the UK for focused training. That singular step became the turning point in her career as she participated in the 1996 Olympics trials and qualified for Atlanta where her star shone on a global stage.
In Atlanta, she made history as the first Nigerian to win gold at the Olympics, when she achieved the feat in the long jump event. She made a jump length of 7.12 meters (on her first attempt) during the final to pick the gold medal. Her record of 7.12m stood for 25 years until fast rising Ese Brume surpassed it on her way to winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.
Her feat in Atlanta made her the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event while being an officer with the Nigerian Police Force. She was a Sergeant in the Nigeria Police Force when she made history in Atlanta.
“Honestly, I won the Olympic gold medal but I did not know the effect or efficacy of one winning an Olympic gold. When they mentioned my name I felt so happy, I thought it was one of those medals I have been winning before, I did not know that this one was classic, ultimate, the one every athlete dreams to win in life,” she recalled.
Unfortunately, shortly after her success, she got entangled in a doping issue and was banned for life alongside five others.
Speaking in a recent interview with Lagos radio in Lagos which was monitored by our correspondent, DCP Ajunwa said she was among the six athletes who were banned for life after they failed a doping test.
“They said we failed the dope test. Yes, we failed the dope test, eventually Chief Segun Odegbami called the people to say that this is the first time Nigerians are doing dope tests here. Come and check what they did was right,” she said.
This indeed played a role in Ajunwa starting a self-funded anti-doping campaign years later called “Compete Fair and Clear” through which she spread anti-doping messages to athletes and coaches all over the country.
Upon her retirement, the police force celebrated her in a post on their verified X handle while reeling out her many firsts in sports and her storied career. She had excelled at the All-Africa Games, Commonwealth Games, and African Championships, accumulating a treasure chest of medals including the prestigious national honor of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).
The mother of three besides being a policewoman and a sports advisor, Ajunwa is also a master’s degree holder who embraces education at all levels while launching her foundation in 2017 aimed at discovering and supporting Nigerian stars in sports.
“Immediately I left the track, I went back to school, I dropped fame, everything and headed to the University of Lagos (Unilag) for my first degree in… health education. I never relented. I went back for my Master’s degree in Sports Administration and Management. What I’m trying to say is in life everything you want to do is in your hand, it depends on how you work towards it,” she said in an interview.
Her exit from the tracks and recently the Nigerian Police Force has shown that life is a testament to the power of perseverance, breaking barriers, and achieving greatness, both in the world of sports and law enforcement.
DCP Ajunwa indeed persevered and rode on the wings of sports to fame and wealth. She remains an icon whose influence extends far beyond the track and field into the hearts of millions of Nigerians.
It is also worthy to note that 27 years after she made history in Atlanta, Nigeria is yet to celebrate another individual gold medal at the Olympics. As it is, Ajunwa remains Nigeria’s all time best individual athlete.