That the name Chika Yagazie Chukwumerije is synonymous with taekwondo is not a hidden fact. At age three, the son of prominent politician Uche Chukwumerije, (one time minister of information and culture), stepped into taekwondo picture and has not looked back since then.
The +80kg Africa games gold medalist said of his journey from infancy to Olympic medalist. “I started taekwondo at age three. I train hard and push myself. I write program for myself and follow it to the end.
I studied mechanical engineer for my first degree and my father would have loved me going to the field, but I told him I want to go to three Olympics, and he readily supported me.”
Before stepping on the Olympic podium in Beijing Olympics 2008, ‘Chika’ as he loved to be called, had conquered Nigeria and Africa.
“In retrospect, I am grateful for the medal. At a time I was actually upset because I honestly thought I would win the gold. But, when you look back in a world that has billion of people, some people make it to the Olympics and the Nigeria 200m strong, only few of us made it to the Olympics.
“So far, we just had a hundred and something Olympic medalist and you are just grateful that you put in a lot of hard work. What made it really upsetting is that you realize how lonely you are.
The technical support was not there. And having been to so many countries to see how things are done. I really applaud Nigerian athletes. Anybody you see on top, trust me, they did a lot to get there. I see them as super heroes. I think our sport system is not strong”
As soon as he got the Olympic medal, he decided to leave the center stage to groom young Nigerians into world-class athletes through the Chika Chukwumerije Sports Foundation.
“I’ve been running a foundation since 2010 and every year I use to run a workshop whereby I bring champions together and share my experiences with them. In 2014, I decided to form a team and so I signed a partnership with FCT Educational Board.
Four schools were allocated to me and I go to one school every week. I did not say ‘I’m an Olympian pay me for doing it.’ I felt it is my way of giving back. And in about a year, 500 students had passed through my training and I just select a few and from 2015, I started training them. Elizabeth Anyanacho is one of them and today she’s going to the Olympics. I built here step by step.
“In 2015, I told her that your target is to be at Tokyo 2020. And she was wondering how we’re going to do it. I said, we’re going to train for the next two years and in 2017, you will start competing.
She has competed for only three years and she’s going to the Olympics. So, what I feel is that there is so much we should do and can do.”
LIFE AFTER TAEKWONDO
Already, Chukwumerije is talking about life after taekwondo and he’s looking at an unlikely sector; Farming. In-fact, this new love was triggered by the pandemic lockdown, a positive; he said he’s taking away from the Covid-19 lockdown.
“I am sad that the world slowed down. Obviously a lot of people have lost their lives in this pandemic. It restructured peoples’ lives, especially in the area of finance and you actually feel it because you get more requests for help and you are on the edge too.
“However, I use the time productively because if you know my routine before the lockdown I never had any rest, thinking about the next taekwondo program and travelling up and down. I’ve used the time to rest, reflect and to do some things I love doing. I used to cook but for a long time, there was no time for cooking.
In the lockdown, I started cooking again. Most importantly, I started up my garden. After seven weeks at home I asked myself why can’t I use the space behind the house and plant some crops. Some of my students were around and so we talked about it and we decided to start and we planted a lot; from ugwu vegetable, tomatoes, okro, maize, yam, coconut, turmeric and more.
When I want to cook I will just go to the backyard and I will get vegetable and will make correct soup and eat. There is a certain joy I derive from going behind the house whenever I want to make soup and get nearly all I need. It is also therapeutic. There is also something about making the ridges, digging a lot and planting the seed and diligently watering it to life.
“I don’t know how long I will be in taekwondo given that I’ve been doing it all my life, but certainly in a few years I’m going to reduce my activity in taekwondo and definitely I love what I’m doing with farming.”
He believes that Nigeria sporting system need a re structuring with sporting federation made more professional to survive in this dynamic world. However there is a caveat: Government must play their part well.
“I’m always happy that I have supportive parents and siblings, people like Patrick Ekeji, and Alhassan Yakmut, that looked at my program. I knew that destiny is in my hand. It is what I wanted.
I wanted to be at three Olympics and I achieved it. A lot of people wanted to be at the Olympics but they could not because they are not good enough but because they did not get the right help and support.
Chi further highlighted how. “One, our human resources, all the champions that we have, we need to call them out and appreciate them. I don’t know of one that feels valued in Nigeria. If you need to give them houses and land, please do.
If you need to retrain them, please do, so that we can actively push them to train the next generation. There is something different about this set of athletes. For example look at what Daniel Igali is doing.
His wards look at him with respect because he has won the Olympic gold. Sometimes the person mentoring is important. If you have been at the highest level you bring something more to the table.
“Secondly, I do not agree that government should hands off sports. What I think is that everyone should play their part. The foundation is important. Federations need to build a solid base. Grassroots is the key and we must tend to it. The conversation is vast. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m equipped to do it.”
POLITICS OF THE GAME
To get it right, Chika is of the firm belief that the right people should step into the politics of the game.
“When we talk about having the right people why do we shy away? I remember during the election into the board of taekwondo federation, things got dirty. A lot of mud was thrown. I rolled up my sleeves and said, ‘if that is the way you want to run lets go.’
“Thirty years ago good people started leaving the country and the ones you tagged as bad and corrupt stayed and the drain continues over the decade. Now, we find that those people who wanted to change the world are no longer here but out there and when you are not in the plane you can’t change it.
I remember when I finished my Masters in the United Kingdom (U.K) three years ago, I came back. Is it convenient to be in the federation? I say it is not. I’ll probably make a very good living outside the federation doing what I do very well.
But I stayed because each time a good person leave it becomes worse for the generation coming up. And what the good people must do is to go into politics.
“I will tell sportsmen for free that going into politics is the right thing to do. That is where the laws are made. That is where you can make the impact. Improve yourself, if you have to get degrees, get it. Build your networks. If you have to go to yours grassroots, do so and build from there. Because the people who you feel should not be in charge, that is what they do and still doing.
“So, I don’t think ‘good people’ should fold their hands and say ‘I’m here, use me and if you don’t I’m out of here.’
“Now that we have a team in taekwondo we are doing a lot. We are building a database, we are building club management system. Since 1987 we didn’t have a constitution, we are doing it. We are making a difference. So, good people must make the difference.
Farming gives me the same feeling with what I’m doing with my foundation and the boys and girls I’m working with. When I first met them they don’t know anything about taekwondo, computer or how to use software, things ordinarily young people know. So, you have to start from the scratch; teach them the basic and gradually begin to give them life. I’m very glad that I have this experience in this lockdown.
When it comes to youth sports, I don’t think the goal is medal but allow them to feel young with discipline. You don’t push them? You love them and allow them to grow naturally. My experience from Beijing to London is traumatic because I was always alone, trying to be the manager, and the coach.
We keep putting a cost to medals when we did not do anything to build them and build their confidence, expose them and make them feel loved, only to put them under pressure when a tournament is down the road.
I don’t think it is progressive to look back. I’m not bothered by the past. I know that I’m a natural athlete and if I had come from say Germany, I would have won a couple of world titles.
Honestly, it is hard to leave when you are on top but we need the top athlete, the top administrators to start mentoring the next generation. It shortens there time to the top. We need to start getting to international board and play the politics.
If you want see the real Nigerian go to the market. I see many good Nigerians and a few bad ones but because they are exceptionally good at what they do, when it is the wrong thing, they still do well. And that is why you hear a lot about Nigerians for good and for bad.
WE ARE WHO WE ARE
As a Nigerian ambassador whose name has attracted help from abroad to boost quest for world beaters in the sport, Chika, who is also a writer feels every inch Nigeria. He is not perturbed by the negative names the country is attracting no thanks to the fraudulent activities of some Nigerians abroad.
“I guess we are who we are. I love us. I won’t change the way we do things. I don’t have a problem with the fact that we have attitude.
“When you say that there is corruption, there is corruption everywhere. You know what the issues are and so you must be smart to get around it and still do the right thing. For example, the National Sport festival is around the corner and every state wants to win medals, but they know that it is my domain to organize, and they know that Chika won’t bend. It’s not like I’m a saint but these are areas I can’t bend.
“In bringing change, there is a lot of problem because there is poverty and also we are also used to short cut. A lot of former athletes complain that they would do better if they are there and I challenge them to come on board.”
Like his father, Chika is not afraid to step into partisan politics but he feels the time is not ripe for him.
“Our parents brought us up to have independent minds. I’m sure that down the road, one or two of my siblings would probably get into politics. My brother Chaka already contested in the State House of Assembly, he didn’t win on paper, but he enjoys it. For me, the best thing my dad did was to leave a good name.
He was upright and a good man. A man’s legacy is how you raise your children. Do I enjoy politics, certainly, I do.”