Africans who have had the opportunity of flying the flags of their countries at major international sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup or the Summer Olympic Games would say it is the peak moment of their professional careers as sportsmen. This nostalgic wave of participating in the country's colours can become a heroic feat if the sportsman or the team eventually emerge overall winners of the competition. The thrill of victory in sports is a memorable one that history never stops reckoning with, and a number of African sports personalities - past and present, have put their countries on the world map with the sheer excellence of their sportsmanship. Our focus today is on the ex-Nigerian female athlete Chioma Ajunwa-Opara who against all odds, leapt to glory at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games and handed her country Nigeria its first ever gold medal honour in the history of the competition.

Chioma at Atlanta '96 Olympics

Chioma Ajunwa-Oparah, popularly known as Chioma Ajunwa was born on 25 December 1970 in Ahiazu-Mbaise, Imo State, South East, Nigeria. She was the last of nine children, with six brothers and two sisters. Her father passed away when she was very young, leaving Chioma in care of her mother who solely raised her.

Chioma addressing a group of students in an outreach

Chioma had been a very keen participant in athletics from her school days, but she suffered a temporary setback at the age 18 when she gained admission into the university and was unable to register due to her mother's illness. She resorted to becoming an automobile mechanic but she jettisoned the idea after her mother strongly disapproved of it.

Chioma celebrating her gold medal win at Atlanta '96

Chioma would eventually go on to become a professional sportswoman. She originally played football as a striker for the Nigerian women's team and was a member of the Super Falcons to the inaugural 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup in China. Her football career was however short lived as she fell out with the team coach and left the camp after failing to register any appearance at the competition.

Chioma competing in long jump final, Atlanta '96 Olympics

Chioma Ajunwa as a sportswoman, also performed as a track and field athlete and specialised in the 100m, 200m and long jump events. She competed in the 1990 Commonwealth Games, winning a bronze medal in the 4x100 metres relay. She also took part in the All African Games in 1991 where she won gold in long jump.

In 1992, Chioma was banned from taking part in athletics for four years after she failed a drug test. She claimed that she was innocent. After serving her suspension, Chioma went on to become the first West African woman, as well as the first Nigerian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a track and field event when she emerged victorious in the women's long jump event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Chioma leapt a competition record of 7:12 metres on her first attempt at the finals of the event.

Chioma at the awards ceremony, Atlanta '96

For this heroic feat, Chioma was granted the National Merit Award of MON (Member of the Order of Niger) by the then Nigeria military head of State General Sani Abacha. She also received a chieftaincy title from her native Imo state.

Chioma receiving independence day award in 2010

On October 1 2010, Nigeria's third democratically elected president Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan conferred on her a special Golden Jubilee Independence Award, as one of the 50 distinguished Nigerians and friends of Nigeria for her contributions to the development of the country. She was also appointed as chairperson of the Women's Development Committee of Imo State Football Association in 2011.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Chioma Ajunwa

Chioma is currently serving as an Assistant Commissioner in the Nigerian Police Force. She had joined the force in 1991 and rose to the rank of Assistant Supritendent of Police in 1996.

After years of being active in track and field events, the Nigerian star launched Chioma Ajunwa Foundation in December 2017 to give back to the society that made her who she is. Among the fundamental issues the foundation deals with include youth mentorship and kicking out banned drugs from sports. In March 2018, the Foundation, in collaboration with the Abia State (South East, Nigeria) government sponsored an U-16 Athletics competition for secondary school students.

The Olympic gold medalist Chioma is happily married to Howell Chidera and is a mother of three children - two boys and a girl. In 2021, 25 years after she won the Olympics gold, the Lagos State government gifted Chioma a 3-bedroom flat to redeem its pledge to the athlete who was initially promised the house after she won gold in 1996.

Chioma Ajunwa
Chioma Ajunwa is most certainly a legend and an inspiration to African women. We, at Power of Africa celebrate her.