In 1995, quarter-miler Florence Ekpo-Umoh defected from a Nigerian camp in Germany and went on to represent the European country winning several laurels with them. She tells ’TANA AIYEJINA why she switched allegiance to Germany in this interview
What have you been doing since you quit the tracks?
I have been taking care of my kids and I have more time for them now since I quit running. Combining taking care of kids and sports was hard. My kids needed me all the time. Now I’m home with them. But I still keep fit. I’m just living a normal life like the others
Most athletes go into coaching on retirement. Are you thinking towards that line too?
Maybe it’s something I will do later but right now, I have not thought of becoming one.
Nigerian parents don’t normally allow their daughters to go into sports. Was it easy when you started as an athlete?
No, it wasn’t easy at all. They (parents) said I must go to school because sports wasn’t meant for women. In fact, my grandmother said sports could make a woman not to have kids because she felt it made women muscular and made them look like men. But today, I have two beautiful children.
How were you able to breakthrough?
Honestly, it wasn’t easy but I didn’t give up because it was fun being an athlete. If you ran very well, you could make the team and travel with the other athletes to other states. This was something I never dreamt of before. So, that gave me enough reason to keep giving my best as an athlete. I was encouraged by many people and coaches at that time too.
What was the society’s attitude towards girls that were into sports then?
Some people were friendly while some were arrogant; some were nice and some were jealous just because you were talented and beautiful. I just concentrated on what I was doing and didn’t let all these disturb or distract me.
Who was the athlete that inspired you while growing up?
It was former Nigerian hurdler Maria Usifo. I used to watch her on TV in the 80s. I still remember how I sat glued to the TV watching her win two gold medals in the 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles events at the 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi, Kenya. It was amazing
Benin City is reputed for producing top athletes. Having grown up there, did it influence your choice of becoming an athlete?
Yes it did but sports runs in my family too. My father was a 400m runner while my half-sister was a marathoner. She was very good too. But they didn’t compete internationally.
Why did you decide to represent Germany rather than Nigeria?
I did because I saw a better future ahead of me and a lot of opportunities if I represented Germany. I trained hard to become one of the best when I joined the government team.
In 1994, you represented Nigeria at the World Junior Championships. What was the experience like as a young girl competing internationally for the first time?
That was my first big championships and the feeling was so strong. I was so proud and happy to represent Nigeria and wearing the green and white colours of the country.
But a year later, you defected to Germany during a training camp, why did you take the decision?
I switched allegiance to Germany because I had this feeling that if I stayed one more year in Nigeria, my career would end. I saw athletes begging to make the team. It was a big shame. They (officials) chose who would travel and so I took the bold step to leave.
Was it easy sneaking out of the Nigerian team’s training camp in Germany?
Yes it was. I just told them (Nigerian officials) that I was going to take a walk and I left my bags behind.
How were you able to cope with the new environment and people?
That was very hard; I didn’t understand the language and the people were not friendly at all. But I had no choice; it was still better than coming back home.
How then did you break into the German athletics team?
I got married to my (German) coach and started running in some small meets. During one of the meets, the German head coach came to my coach and asked him if I could represent Germany and my coach said I could.
Did the German fans accept you, a black girl, into their team?
At first many didn’t. Some were writing bad letters against me; that I didn’t belong here (Germany); that Germany was for Germans. At first I felt so bad. I thought if Nigeria was good, what would I be doing here (Germany)? But I didn’t let that disturb me and I continued fighting my way through.
What’s the difference between athletics in Nigeria and Germany?
Germany is far better in terms of taking care of athletes and they are well-organised. Their athletes come first before anything. They make sure that you are okay and every six weeks, you go for a sports test to make sure you are very healthy. But in Nigeria, we have a very long way to go. The Germans have between three and five training camps in the indoor and outdoor seasons and meets. They also have meetings for the officials and coaches on how to improve their programmes and also encourage the athletes to perform better. Here (Germany), athletes have the right to speak on how they feel, whether they are okay with an offer or not but that is not possible in Nigeria. In Nigeria, you are scared to speak your mind because they will drop you from the team. Athletes are risking their lives just to make the country proud, yet they are made to suffer. They (athletes) are suffering and I pray God should help them out.
Your kids are also athletes. Would you advise them to compete for Nigeria in the future?
Never, Nigeria is even worse now. My time was better and that was back in the 90s.
What do you think should be done for things to get better in Nigeria?
We must treat everybody the same way and athletes must come first too.
What are your best and worst moments as an athlete?
My best moment was when our 4x400m relay team won silver at the World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, in 2001. My worst moment as an athlete was when I had my right knee operated in 2010. I felt bad because I knew that it would be very difficult for me to stage a comeback.
You won the European Championships too…
(Cuts in) Yes, it was so good being crowned a European champion in 2002 in Germany. I ran the first leg in the final, on the way to victory. I love running the first leg in the relays. The championships was quiet competitive; different teams came with different challenges but thank God we scaled the odds and we emerged champions.
But the German 4x400m relay team came last at the 2008 Beijing Olympics…
(Cuts in) It happens in sports; we prepared well but we didn’t come out with the right result. That’s sports for you.
When you ran against Nigeria at the World Championships in 2001 and at the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, were you out to prove a point to the Nigerian officials?
It was a mixed feeling competing against Nigeria because I was born and brought up there. I didn’t need to prove a point to anybody because they saw it themselves: there was a huge difference between running for Nigeria, my country and Germany, my adopted country.
What’s your advice to young Nigerian athletes?
They need to work hard, be focused and set long-term goals for themselves.