By Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
GLASGOW, Scotland – It was at the Commonwealth Games 20 years ago in Victoria that Daniel Igali decided to leave the Nigerian wrestling team and seek political asylum in Canada.
Thursday night he sat ringside, watching the wrestling at the Commonwealth Games. With him he had the flag of Nigeria and the Maple Leaf â€” appropriate for the former wrestler who is a hero in both countries.
“Of course, any time Canada is wrestling, I’m there cheering,” Igali said. “I was telling somebody, I won five gold medals (Wednesday), because Canada won three and Nigeria won two.”
Igali won world and Olympic gold for Canada, and the image of the wrestler laying down the Canadian flag on the mat before bending and kissing it is one of the most enduring of the 2000 Olympics.
Igali, still fit and trim at 40 and with the same wide smile that lit up a nation in 2000, is the president of the Nigerian Wrestling Federation. He had plenty to smile about in Glasgow, with 12 of his 14 wrestlers winning medals.
The Commonwealth Games, he said, are “very precious for me, because of my history obviously.”
But more than that, Nigeria takes the Games very seriously, he said. The government pays monetary rewards to medallists â€” $7,000 for a gold, $5,000 for silver and $4,000 for bronze â€” which can forever change the lives of his athletes.
“For Nigerians, that’s a lot of money. For these athletes who probably earn about $200, $300 per month, that is like their yearly wage,” Igali said. “It goes a long way for their lives. It’s a big deal for them and I’m just so happy that so many have won medals.”
Igali also made sure his athletes arrived in style. He had olive-coloured suits custom-made for all the wrestlers, with pink bow ties. The women were also given designer bags.
“I just felt any time our teams are travelling that they need to be, especially at the airports, they should be respected. They should look like a team,” Igali said. “In Nigeria, soccer is big, when soccer players are travelling, you look at them, you know that’s a national team travelling so I needed to do that for the wrestling team.
“And they’re happy with it.”
Igali decided to return to Nigeria a few years ago, to give back to the country of his birth. Through his Daniel Igali Foundation, he’s built a school and sports academy that has 11 classrooms, plus a gym, library, computer room, and living accommodations.
He’s not afraid to speak his mind. Last year, he and fellow Canadian Olympic wrestling champion Carol Huynh lead the group that convinced the International Olympics Committee to keep their sport on the Olympic program.
He’s also been outspoken lately about the 200 schoolgirls who were abducted in April.
“It is a sad situation with the girls. There’s no day that passes that you don’t hear the government talk about their plans to free them,” Igali said. “Our hearts are with them. The wrestling team too is obviously touched by it, because girls need to have freedom, just like girls all over the world, and the girls on my team do better even than the boys.
“We talk about it sometimes, but when you’re in competitive situations like this, we allow the government to take care of these things.”
Despite the tension in Nigeria, Igali doesn’t regret his decision to leave Canada and return home. He was driven to build a strong wrestling program there, and he is starting to see results.
“Canada has a lot of competent hands in wrestling. We need to make wrestling strong in the Commonwealth, and Nigeria as a country has 70 million people, so wrestling needs to be taken a bit more seriously there,” he said.
Since Igali’s return, Nigeria’s governing body for sports has made wrestling one of their five core sports.
“These are the kinds of things I wanted to do, so when we get to competition, we’re a bit more competitive, so it’s not just between India and Canada (traditional Commonwealth wrestling powers), Nigeria is now in the mix.
“Hopefully when we go to world championships and Olympics, we’re able to start winning international medals. So it brings a bit more prestige to the sport.”
Sampson Clarkson, who won bronze in the 65 kilogram category for Nigeria, said Igali is a hero at home for what he’s done for the sport.
“He loves wrestling,” Sampson said. “We appreciate it, we thank him and hope that God will provide for him to do more in wrestling.”