On the final day of competition of the 2021 U20 World Athletics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, Brown Ebewele looked at the medal table displayed on the scoreboard at Moi International Stadium and nodded his head repeatedly with a smile.
“Our young athletes have done really well and I am sure that Nigerian athletics will soon take its rightful place in the senior sector.”
Ebewele referred to the duo of 17-year-old Imaobong Nse Uko, who won gold in the women’s 400m with a new personal best of 51.55 seconds, and the US speed star Udodi Onwuzurike, who also brought Nigeria gold in the men 200m with a new personal best of 20.21 seconds.
Prior to Nairobi 2021 (August 18-22), Nigeria’s best finish was seventh at the 1990 edition in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where it won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals.
To get a better result in Nairobi, the President of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), Tonobok Okowa, brought in experienced coaches Seigha Porbeni and Brown Ebewele to tinker with the team. It has largely paid off.
Team Nigeria’s trip to Nairobi 2021 was historic, taking third place for the first time in the history of the competition with four gold and three bronze medals, narrowly losing second place to Finland, which took four gold and one silver medal. Host Kenya won eight gold, one silver and seven bronze medals in the competition, in which 166 countries took part.
Ebewele told the Guardian before leaving Moi International Stadium that he would play his part in the young athletes’ building process to become world champions. “The challenge now lies with us (coaches). With the right steps, I am sure that some of these junior athletes will win medals for Nigeria at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.
Ebewele continued, “Take a look at our mixed 4x400m relay that set a historic championship record of 3: 19.70 here in Nairobi. I see again how Nigerian athletes rule the world. “
Unfortunately, Ebewele could not fulfill his promise to help the new AFN board of directors to turn the young athletes into world champions in the senior category. He died on New Year’s Eve after surgery in Warri, Delta State. A few years ago he sustained serious leg injuries in a car accident on the Lagos-Benin motorway.
The news of Ebewele’s death on Friday night came as a great shock to Nigerians, especially members of the athletics family.
Ebewele, a former Olympian and former Edo State Commissioner for Sports, led Team Edo to the 20th National Sports Festival in Benin City last year.
Popularly known by his fans as the “Juju man”, Ebewele introduced the decathlon to the country’s athletics in 1978 while competing as an athlete for what was then the state of Bendel.
A well-respected athletic trainer and activist, he rose to the post of Edo State Sports Director during the tenure of former Governor Lucky Igbinedion and then Edo State Commissioner for Sports.
As sports director, Ebewele led Team Edo to the top of the medal table when the state hosted the sports festival in 2002.
Ebewele was also instrumental in Team Nigeria’s victory at the COJA 2003 All Africa Games in Abuja, as he advocated the inclusion of special sports as a medalist.
Nigeria’s medal winning at the Games came from special athletes.
Early in his track and field career, Ebewele started as a junior athlete in the maiden edition of the National Sports Festival for Lagos State in 1973. He was a junior hammer thrower at the time. He also represented the state of Lagos at the second edition of the Fiesta in 1975. The two editions of the sports festival took place in Lagos, but were won by what was then the state of Midwest.
Ebewele’s first competition for the then state of Bendel was the Kaduna ’77 edition of the National Sports Festival. As a mature athlete, Ebewele won a gold medal for Bendel State and also set a national record in the hammer event in Kaduna.
He went on to represent Nigeria at the 1978 All African Games in Algiers and won a silver medal in the decathlon. He also represented the country in many international competitions.
AFN President Tonobok Okowa and the association’s technical director, Samuel Onikeku, described Ebewele’s death as a great loss for Nigerian athletics.