Chioma Ajunwa-Opara, also known as Chioma Ajunwa, endured great hardships as a child, and even as a sportsperson and wife, life was equally tough. Her fortune however changed when she switched from football to the track.
Ajunwa played football for the Nigerian women’s team and was a member of The Falcons during the Women’s World Cup in 1991. However, a coach she says she never hurt kept her on the bench even when her skill was needed.
Out of frustration, she resigned from the team noting “I’ve not regretted the decision (to leave football) because I’ve made my mark in athletics.”
As a multi-sport athlete, Ajunwa competed at the African Championships in 1989 specializing in 100m, 200m and long jump. She was in session again for the 1991 All Africa Games where she won a gold medal in the long jump.
Having ditched football with full focus on her track competitions, Ajunwa became the first athlete in Nigeria to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, “and to date remains Nigeria’s only individual Olympic gold medalist.”
She is also the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event. The Christmas born also had to endure many years of trying to conceive without success. Despite the support of her pastor husband, the celebrated athlete was worried claiming “In Igboland a woman without child is like an outcast.” Eventually, she birthed three children comprising two boys and a girl.
Ajunwa herself, born in 1970, was the last of nine children, made up of six brothers and two sisters. Her athletic gift was apparent early on, even at eighteen when she won a partial scholarship to the university but was unable to enroll because her mom was so deprived she couldn’t raise the fees. Her father had also died early on.
Adversity struck again when Ajunwa “was banned from the sport for four years after failing a drug test in 1992, despite maintaining her innocence.”
It was after serving her suspension that she won Olympic gold in the women’s long jump event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, “with a jump length of 7.12 meters (on her first attempt) during the final.”
Although celebrated, her feat was overshadowed by Nigeria‘s Olympic football team renamed the Dream Team when they beat Argentina to also win a gold medal.
With attention shifted on the boys, Ajunwa years later stated in an interview that “I toiled so much for this country, but then I was dumped…That I could be the only individual gold medal winner for Nigeria in over half-a-century of participation in the Olympics and I could still be treated like a scourge, I couldn’t believe it.”
Following her Olympic gold medal at Atlanta ’96, Ajunwa was given a national award – Member of the Order of Niger (MON) by President Sani Abacha, but even here she found that the financial package given the boys was astronomical compared to what was given her. It prompted her to note: “I’m not envious of anybody but this is the time to express my feelings that I deserve more.”
Curiously, in 1996 when Ajunwa put Nigeria and Africa on the map, she was a junior police officer. She has since risen through the ranks in the Nigerian Police Force.