A Refugee’s Fight for Olympic Gold — and Citizenship
All Daniel Igali had when he fled Nigeria was a T-shirt, toothpaste, some underwear — and a dream about winning Olympic gold.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because many countries have turned their backs on refugees, but this is a story about when one nation didn’t.
The final freestyle wrestling match is about to begin, and to set the stage at this particular Summer Olympics, a CBC broadcaster explains that no Canadian wrestler has ever won gold. “If you don’t know the story of Daniel Igali,” he says. “He came to Canada back in 1994 to wrestle in the Commonwealth Games for Nigeria. He finished 13th that year. There was unrest in his country. He decided to stay.”
The one word the announcer doesn’t use during the six-minute match? Refugee.
Plenty of ink has been spilled recently about whether countries should admit more refugees. And this summer, in Rio de Janeiro, the International Olympic Committee plans to let some refugee athletes compete on a special team. No such team existed when Igali was growing up in Nigeria in the ’80s and ’90s — a time of military coups and a shaky transition to civilian rule. Universities didn’t really support or encourage students to pursue athletics professionally, Igali says, so even though he was the African National Champion in wrestling at age 20, he felt he had to choose between school and his sport.
Igali sprung out of a surprise air hug by one of his coaches with a somersault to the floor, where he’d soon run circles around a red maple leaf and deliver it a respectful kiss.
Igali arrived at a decision in Victoria, British Columbia, where he represented Nigeria at the ’94 Commonwealth Games, and where he says he was entranced by a post-secondary system that encouraged both school and athletics. “I was at the height of my career and wanted to go to the Olympics one day,” Igali recalls. So on the eve of his scheduled departure, he met with his coach. “I told him I’d stay back.”
But life as a refugee wasn’t easy. Igali, nearly 7,000 miles away from his family, understood little English and owned a single carry-on bag, which held a T-shirt, a tube of toothpaste and a couple of pairs of underwear. A volunteer Commonwealth Games driver was nice enough to house Igali, who earned his keep doing a bit of carpentry as he trained at a local wrestling club and started to climb up Canada’s refugee-to-citizenship ladder.
A combination of kind Canucks, along with a college track that supported Igali with a much-needed scholarship, ultimately helped him earn landed-immigrant status and, eventually, citizenship in 1998. He recalls how local politicians wrote letters on his behalf to get the time he spent outside Canada representing the country at sporting events to count toward his citizenship application. “If they didn’t count that time,” he explains, “I couldn’t have gotten citizenship and gone to the world championship.”
All of which led Igali to Sydney in 2000. After fighting two matches earlier that day, he took on his final opponent, Arsen Gitinov of Russia. Igali secured the first couple of points, and while his competitor managed to tie the match, the young Nigerian roared back in the second period and won — nabbing the gold. But his most dramatic move was yet to come: After the match, Igali sprang out of a surprise air hug by one of his coaches with a somersault to the floor, where he’d soon run circles around a red maple leaf and deliver it a respectful kiss. “I needed to do a lap of honor around Canada … to show my appreciation for taking in a boy from the jungles of Nigeria,” says Igali, who later secured his spot in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.
Since then, Igali’s gratitude has extended to a broader support for wrestling, and sports in general, both in Canada and in his motherland. After losing a 2005 bid to become a member of British Columbia’s legislative assembly, Igali — depressed by the result — began spending more time in Nigeria, where he’s now president of the country’s wrestling federation as well as a second-term congressman who chairs house committees on sports and agriculture. Dwindling oil sales and an unemployment level as high as 40 percent in some areas have curbed some of his ambitions for developing a better sports infrastructure. But he’s still trying to “compel the government to give young men and women the opportunity to participate in the sports of their choice [while] alleviating the cost,” says Igali, who splits his time between Nigeria and Canada, where his wife and children still reside.
Ebi Avi, a Nigerian sports journalist, says the athlete has inspired a new generation of wrestlers in their African homeland — more than a handful of whom will compete in Rio. “They see him as one of the best things to ever happen to wrestling,” Avi says. For refugees around the world, Igali’s story also shows that it doesn’t matter where you come from, says Justine Bouchard, a Canadian wrestler who’s competed at four Olympic trials and was getting her start when Igali won gold. “At the end of the day,” she says, “it’s about how you compete.”