From marathon glory to jail: Nigeria’s ‘great race fiasco’ | Athletics

Lagos, Nigeria – A buzz of excitement rose from the crowd inside the National Stadium in Lagos as an unbelievable rumor began to spread.

The siren signaling the impending arrival of the marathon leader only added to the wait, and as the two runners entered the bowl, the murmur rose to a roar.

Just a few meters ahead was local man Gideon Hagack, locked in a sprint against Kenyan Benson Muriuki with 300 yards left to run. Hagack just held on to first place.

His victory at the Milo International Marathon in Lagos on October 9, 1994 caused cheers in the stands. But while still wearing his jogging suit, he was arrested for fraud, sent to prison, and his career was irretrievably ruined.

This volume is the subject of, In The Long Run – The Great Race Fiasco, a recently published book by Enefiok Udo-Obong, a former Nigerian private company.

The 2000 Olympic gold medalist has interviewed key athletes and witnesses, and scrutinized legal reports and documents to tell what he says is a remarkable but little-known story of injustice in sport.

Udo-Obong told Al Jazeera: “He was an icon and a shining star, but that period overshadowed his light.

“It is not only [destroy] Gideon, it killed the future of so many young men who admired you. They all saw what happened to someone they considered a hero, someone they considered a champion; How was he after all?”

Certificate of Success at Accra 1994
Certificate of Success at Accra 1994 [Courtesy of Hagack]

‘Joy turns to sadness’

Hagack was born in 1971 at Tuwan Kabwir in Pankshin, part of the mountainous Highland State in central Nigeria.

His athletic potential was evident in elementary school. Only after completing vocational skills training in 1991 did Haggak begin running full-time on the national stage, recording impressive records in various competitions around the country at distances from 5 km to 30 km, and then representing his country abroad.

He was selected to represent Nigeria at the International Milo Marathon in Ghana on September 24, 1994. He won, causing great fanfare at home and lighting up his dream of winning the world’s major marathons.

Competing in the Lagos event soon after was a physical strain, but with a record $4,500 prize money and buoyed by confidence in his performance in Accra, Haggak decided to enter the race.

But his surprise win could give race organizers an unexpected headache.

Haggak (64) in a national competition
Hagack, number 64, in a race [Courtesy of Hagack]

Nigeria does not have a rich history of distance running; much of its athletic pedigree is in sprinting, while East African nations, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, tend to dominate in marathon races.

In an effort to make the Lagos race as prestigious as possible, the organizers spent a considerable amount of money inviting top international marathon runners, many from East Africa.

According to Udo-Obong’s hypothesis, outlined in the book, that a local winner may have led sponsors to question the credibility of the race. Amid Hagack’s celebration and the media controversy, the theory that he must have cheated was raised and reached the ears of the special guest of honor, the military governor of Lagos State, Olagunsoye Oyinlola.

Hagack was taken to what he initially assumed was a private reception at Government House. After waiting there for six hours, shivering and starving in his wet joggers, he was charged with fraud and the governor ordered his immediate detention.

“It was a very sad and terrible experience,” Hagack told Al Jazeera.

“The joy of victory quickly turned into sadness. I went from being a successful athlete to being a locked-in criminal because some people didn’t believe it was possible to win an international marathon. Imagine sleeping next to criminals in prison, going to court for something I knew nothing about, and being treated like a criminal for succeeding.”

After being held for five days and denied access to a lawyer, Hagack was pressured to admit guilt because of the threat of long detention, but was told that if he pleaded guilty and apologized in court, he could be released. At the trial court, he still pleaded “not guilty” and was released on bail because he was a “first-time offender”.

However, despite AFN’s insistence on wrongdoing, Muriuki not only has no formal complaints about the results, but there is no consensus on how Hagack is alleged to have cheated.

In his report after the race, the technical director of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), Rotimi Obajimi, stated that Hagack “suddenly joined” top runner Muriuki, who he claimed had established an insurmountable 500-meter lead over the rest of the field, at the National Stadium.

“I remember this incident very well, because in the stadium complex, Hagack appeared out of nowhere to join the race and we have video evidence from the NTA. [Nigerian state TV] to back it up,” Obajimi told Al Jazeera.

“This is an international marathon and the global body for athletics IAAF agrees with our findings. It’s sad that some of the top AFN officials are gone because we did the right thing.”

In fact, at 5 random checkpoints along the track, ribbons were distributed to the contestants and Hagack collected all 5 of them.

After forming an independent panel of sports administrators to place the burden of proof on the accusers, AFN was subsequently unable to prove their case and Hagack was formally vindicated by the board in early November 1994.

The case against him was later withdrawn and an out-of-court settlement was reached.

When asked about the story and decided to order Hagack’s arrest, Oyinlola, now 72, told Al Jazeera: “It’s been almost 30 years and I really don’t remember anything about this particular incident.”

However, Hagack has yet to receive the agreed bonus and compensation. However, his state-appointed attorney, Danjuma Tyoden, received the amount of 370,000 naira (about $16,600 at the time) – 100,000 ($4,500) as bonus and 270,000 ($12,100) in compensation – from the sports department in late 1996.

Tyoden told Al Jazeera that he has never actually met Hagack in person to this day, although he has repeatedly attempted to do so.

He claimed that, when it came to receiving compensation for Hagack, he contacted Plateau State’s sporting director, who “put up a piece of paper and started listing how the money would be divided among the commissioner, the permanent secretary of the department, the director of sporting affairs, the chairman of the sports council, etc. He didn’t even mention Gideon.”

Therefore, he decides to keep the money received, but insists that he is willing to deliver it as soon as possible.

But Hagack denied Tyoden tried to give him the money.

“I was also looking forward to seeing him at the book launch, but he didn’t show up. For being honest, decent and sincere, at least I deserve the bounty he is holding,” he said.

‘Truth must be heard’

Even though he was vindicated, with a cloud over him and he lost faith in the system, the marathoner’s career was effectively over and the Lagos marathon was his last competitive race.

“Mentally and physically, I never recovered from that horrible experience,” he said. “My greatest satisfaction is finally being cleared [by the panel] but the damage remains forever. My last name will not be related to fraud: that is the most important thing to me.”

Now married and with six children, Hagack works for Plateau State’s sports council, training young athletes and leading an existence out of the public eye.

He explains: “I can’t let what’s stopping me stop other people from realizing their dreams.

Udo-Obong said it’s impossible to say what Hagack might have accomplished, and he was prompted to write his book because he deeply sympathizes with the injustice Hagack suffered: The 2000 Olympic gold medal in the 4×400 meter relay was awarded to Nigeria in 2012 after a member of the U.S. quartet admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

“[I] was denied the excitement and once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing the national anthem to me in front of millions,” said Udo-Obong.

While the too callous treatment Hagack received startled Udo-Obong, the most regrettable thing for him was the death of his championship aspirations.

“[Hagack] was jailed for winning,” he said. “He tried to climb the ladder and they killed his career.”

However, Hagack was grinning at the book launch in April this year.

“I am very happy to see this book because the truth is finally getting a chance to be heard,” he said.

“[The book] serves as an important reminder of how the people who should lift you up can eventually bring you down.”

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