Okunnu: Versatile schoolboy athlete made in King’s College for Nigeria
EVEN at 77, Femi Okunnu has an undying passion for sports. His first contact with sports was in the 1940s, when he started out as a sprinter in his primary school days at Ansar Ud-deen Primary School, Alakoro. He went on to play hockey, cricket and squash, representing Nigeria in hockey as a schoolboy against the then Gold Coast (now Ghana). The rivalry between him and close friend, late Abdulkareem Amu, at Kings College was a beauty to behold.
Going down memory lane, he said: “My first contact with sports was during the Empire Day sports meet. That was a regular feature every year on May 24, when all primary schools converge on the birthday of Queen Victoria, because Nigeria was still a British colony then. Throughout my secondary school years at Kings College, I took active part in athletics, cricket and hockey.
“The major event I did in the primary school was the 440 yards and I was quite good at it. The popular schools that gave us tough time were Holy Cross School, Government School and St. Matthias School. The rivalry was very keen, especially among schools. We did more of team events, though there were individuals who stood out at these competitions. I took part in the 440 yards competition in 1947. I was a finalist in that event, though I cannot remember what position I finished in but I didn’t come first and I wasn’t also the last.”
He added: “That was the main event but the competition was very, very keen. The Holy Cross School boys were our major rivals in the primary school days though I cannot remember the names of some of the students now. Holy Cross had a very strong team at that time and their supporters had a song for them, ‘Holy werepe, Holy’, which always inspired their athletes.”
After his glorious years at Ansar Ud-deen, Okunnu was admitted into Kings College, Lagos in 1948, where he continued his quest for sporting and educational honours. He recalled: “Right from my first year as a junior student at Kings College, I continued my sporting career in athletics and added hockey and cricket.
“I was a member of the school team in hockey, cricket and a member of the College Athletics team and participated regularly in the Graier Cup, which was among all secondary schools in Lagos and the Western Region of Nigeria.”
For Okunnu, secondary school was another platform, as he was more mature and approached competitions better than he did at Ansar Ud deen. According to him, “the competition at the secondary school was keener than in elementary schools. Some of my contemporaries at school, especially during my final year in 1953/1954, were Amu, who was my classmate and the national champion in 440 yards.
“The Kings College 440 yards team had Amu as the fourth leg, I was the third leg, the late K. Jibowu as the second leg, while Tarhor Kobina took the first leg. No other school was able to beat our team that year and we also set a school record in that event.
“Our rivals in those days were Baptist Academy and Eko Boys High School, which had Baba Shittu. Molade Okoya-Thomas was in Baptist Academy and like I said, we beat all of them. I was second to Amu at national competitions and knew that it was only Amu that could beat me in the 440 yards among schoolboys in Nigeria. He was a phenomenon at that age, I must confess.”
However, Okunnu devised a means to be at par with Amu at the school’s inter-house sports: “What I used to do at inter-house sports competitions was to avoid Amu in the 440 yards and opt for other events to also get 12 points, which Amu was very sure of getting. So, to get 12 points in 1953, I competed in the 880 yards, beating the reigning champion, late Omoladun,” he said.
His performance caught the attention of national team selectors, who invited him to the hockey team that was preparing to travel to Ghana in 1953. He spoke further: “In 1952, Amu and I were invited by the Nigeria Hockey Association for international hockey against Gold Coast (now Ghana). So I had my first taste of international competition as a student.
“It was a very interesting experience. We had to be on top of our game to be in the first XI. The competition in Ghana was tough because the Ghanaians never liked to lose in any competition or game. Our first game was at Kumasi and the international game came up in Accra later. I was also in the team that played the return leg in Lagos, by which time I had left school and was playing for Marine XI. I had travelled to Accra before then but that was for Kings College to compete against Achimota College in athletics.”
Despite his performance on the track, he did not make the Nigerian team to the 1952 Empire Games in Wellington, New Zealand, which he attributed to his not being good enough and being under aged. However, he described that period as the golden age of Nigerian athletics.
“As a student, I didn’t make the team to the Empire Games in 1952 because we had better athletes and I would say I wasn’t good enough. The late Majekodunmi won silver medal in the high jump; he was the best in Nigeria at that time,” he recalled.
“I would call this period the golden age of athletics in Nigeria. I remember very well an afternoon at the Police Ground in 1952 or 1953 when four Nigerians broke the high jump record of 6ft 3in set in 1938 by George Garrick. Majekodunmi led the record-breaking quartet. Others who participated in the event were Guobadia, Bello-Osagie, Odeyemi, Odobor and one other.
“In the sprint, we had S.O William, a first class brain, who became my permanent secretary in the Ministry of Works. He was a fine gentleman. He was a schoolboy British champion in his days in the long jump. K. B. Olowu was Williams in the long jump.
“In the sprint we had Arogundade, who was the captain of UAC, Omogbemi, Areoluwa Fatai, who was also a versatile athlete from St. Gregory’s College. Ajado was also from UAC, which had the best sprinters in those days. These were men who could clock under 10 seconds in 100 yards. It was a period Nigeria did very well internationally.”
While also in school, Okunnu got the opportunity to play cricket when he was in the senior class and would also go on to represent his school against its fierce rival, Government College, Ibadan. He said: “Cricket is a very popular game at King’s College. It is as old as the school itself. King’s College was founded in 1909 and cricket was introduced into the school a few years later. The game is still very popular and I am happy that more schools are now playing it.
“I started playing for King’s College in my later years in school because it was difficult breaking into the school team as a junior student. Our major rival in those days was Government College, Ibadan. St. Gregory’s College and CMS Grammar School also played but we always beat them. The year Methodist School mustered enough courage to play first XI against us, they were all out for four run.
“And of course, the first two batsmen of King’s College knocked out the four runs. And we banned them from playing first XI for so many years. We used to look forward to going to Ibadan while the Ibadan team was also willing to play against us in Lagos. At a time King’s College were wearing shoes to play, other schools were playing bare footed. Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was very good at recording scores.”
His drive to excel in sports, according to the legal luminary, was also partly due to his father’s support all through his active days. Unlike some parents who would only want their children to study alone, Okunnu’s father gave his blessing to his son’s sports programme. And the son explained it thus: “My father was in full support of my taking part in sporting activities.
“A typical example was when he gave his nod for me to be part of the Nigerian hockey team to Ghana in October 1962, a month to the school certificate examination. The principal wrote a letter to my father and also Amu’s father to ask for permission for us to travel and my father, just like Amu’s father, willingly did so. The parental support was very much there.”
According to Okunnu, combining education and sports came to him naturally and the fact that the school had allotted time for sports helped him greatly: “For me, education and sports go together,” he noted. “We had a group of all-rounders, who were good in academics and sports in King’s College at that time. It was a question of priority and the time you choose to do what.
“Every activity had its own time. Academics was morning, sports in the afternoon and at other times you can snatch while we had our prep in the evening. So, with one’s natural ability, it was possible to combine both without anyone suffering.”
The humble, die-hard Arsenal fan would not claim glory for all he achieved in sports but instead thanked the coaches that helped shape his career and many others. He said: “I would also use this opportunity to pay glowing tribute to our games masters, officials, coaches of various schools, especially late J. A. Ojo and Jerry Enyanzu at King’s College. This special set of people devoted their time to bringing out the best in young boys and girls in schools all over the states.
“The volunteers in those days were great. They were not paid but they still discharged their duties well. They were lovers of sports. You don’t get many of them these days, the emphasis now is on money.”
He remembered with nostalgia his days as a young boy in Lagos: “Growing up in Lagos was very exciting. Life was less stressful,” he noted. “Everybody was his neighbour’s keeper. If a young boy committed an offence, your neighbours beat him up and his parents go to thank them later in the day.
“For sports, we had Bombata field, Oko Awo playing ground, Ojo Giwa, which was a very large space and it was here that Thunder Balogun, Baba Shittu, Experience Otun and Small Montana, who played for Nigeria in those days, learnt to trade.”
He continued: “For school boys, that was the main playing ground for us in Lagos. There was also the Isale Gangan and Campos Square. We also had the Race Course and the Toronto field in front of King’s College, which is now occupied by Independence Building – then it was an open field for boys to play football and any other game.
“It is sad that successive governments have neglected that Bombata field and it is now a motor park and uncontrolled market. I will like the state government to remove the market and the motor park and rebuild the Bombata field.”
To keep the delinquents out of the streets, according to Okunnu, the colonial government established the boys and girls club. He recalled: “We had the Oko Awo Club, Olowogbowo boys and girls club, Ita Faji, and Brazilian boys and girls club, among others. They had clubhouses where they learnt how to do various sports. The late Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey, who became the bantamweight champion of the world, learnt boxing in one of these clubs.
“Unfortunately, that system or programme was left in abeyance. I hope the state government will revive the boys and girls clubs. Though I know they are doing something on the issue of area boys, but bringing back the boys and girls clubs would help reduce delinquents in Lagos.”
After leaving King’s College in 1953, he continued playing cricket and hockey before leaving for the University College, London, to read law. He explained: “After we left school, we formed a cricket club called the Wanderers. We had the Chief Justice of North Eastern and North Central States of Nigeria, Jack Morocco, the editor of Sunday Times with a few of us who had just left school – Peter Enahoro, former Editor of Times, Tayo Adesanya, Owofodurin and others.”
In his first year at the college, some students got to know that Okunnu played hockey for Nigeria and he was drafted into the college’s First X1. He said: “Playing hockey for my college was fun and I also took part in athletics. However, I took part in two winter games and really enjoyed those competitions.”
He returned to the country in I960 and quickly got involved with sports administration while also becoming the Federal Commissioner for Works in 1965. According to him, “when I returned home in 1960, there wasn’t too much for sports any longer. I picked up squash but it was to help reduce the stress of work.
“The Nigeria Olympic Committee offered me the post of legal adviser, while I later became vice president of the NOC up to the 1996 Olympic Games under Raheem Adejumo, who was the then president. Currently, I walk around my neigbourhood to keep fit, though the few times I did, it ended abruptly as people kept staring at me.
“I am also an Arsenal fan since the early ’50s. I also follow other European football leagues and competitions and tennis.”
To make sports better, he said: “Sports should not be left in the hands of the federal government but government at all levels have roles to play in the development of sports in the country. Individuals and the organised private sector also have roles to play. There is little being done by the government and it interferes unnecessarily in the running of sports in the country.
“That is why some governments are in conflict with the International Olympic Committee. The federal government is supposed to provide facilities and funds for the preparation of athletes for international competitions and not dabble into running of the sports.
“As an individual, I set up a fund for tennis at Yoruba Tennis Club, which is in its third year. I believe that the club can live up to its name and develop sports organising competition for young one. The competition is for secondary schools and it’s getting better each year. It is with programmes like this that individuals can also help develop sports in the country.”