Nigerian's award upgraded
The first thing visitors notice inside Jude Monye’s apartment is the large flat-screen TV resting on a shelf in the living room.
It’s not the TV itself that is so intriguing, but rather Monye’s reaction to what is playing on-screen, seemingly in a continuous loop.
It’s 2 p.m. on a scorching-hot August afternoon in Lawrence, and Monye has folded his 6-foot-3 frame into a sofa chair to watch the Olympic track races. All the events already have been aired on tape-delay. The runners are sleeping in Beijing, where it’s 3 a.m. the next day.
Monye isn’t bothered by that fact in the slightest. He has TiVo’d the entire track lineup.
Because of the time disparity, Monye, in fact, already knows the results from every race. He woke himself up at 5:30 a.m. just to see another country’s live feed on the Internet. But here he is, carefully eyeing each heat with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a 9-year-old boy who dreams of someday becoming an Olympian himself.
Monye just can’t bear to miss these races, even the second time around while at work. He talks to the screen, sharing in the runners’ joys and commiserating in their failures from half a world away.
And as you watch the races with him, you get the feeling that even if these weren’t the Olympics, even if these races were taking place at the Kansas Relays, Monye still would be watching. He tells you as much.
“I just love track,” Monye says.
The women’s 100-meter hurdles semifinal is up first. There’s Lolo Jones of the United States.
“Oh! I feel so bad for what happened to her,” Monye says in his soft Nigerian accent. Jones fell in the final, on the next-to-last hurdle, moments before capturing the gold medal. “She’s such a nice person.”
Monye is floating in his own track-and-field world.
“Look, there’s Danny McFarlane,” he says as Jamaica’s 36-year-old track star flashes across the television. “We ran against him in the Olympics : “
Then, it becomes clearer. Monye isn’t just a fan; he is a former Nigerian Olympic medal-winner, caught up in watching the spectacle of a sport he once commanded.
A faded photo displayed prominently under his TV proves it. His mother proudly wears a medal; Monye is at her side. Her first wish when Monye returned home from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney was a picture with her son and his Olympic medal, the Sydney Olympic logos etched into the neck band. Monye won it in the 4×400 relay for Nigeria – one of just three medals the country won at those Olympics.
The reflection shines so brightly off the medal in the photo, it is difficult to discern what color it actually is. In fact, for eight years, nobody has been able to determine what color medal Monye and his Nigerian teammates earned, silver or gold.
The 34-year-old man, who has devoted his entire life to track, still waits for the final results from his most famous – and infamous – race.
And as the Olympics in Beijing concluded, finally, the answers are sprinting toward a finish.
A born sprinter
Jude Monye just wanted to run. He hadn’t even heard of the Olympics when he discovered his talent at 7 years old. His friends would dash across the dirt roads in Benin City, Nigeria, running until their little legs couldn’t take it anymore. Nobody in town could touch Monye in the sprints, though.
“Everybody would go look for somebody from the next street or block,” Monye said. “And I would beat everybody.”
He watched the great American sprinter Carl Lewis win four gold medals in the 1984 Olympics. Monye was 9 and spending the summer in Lagos with his Uncle Susu, a professor at the University of Lagos.
When Lewis ran, Monye studied the reactions of his uncle, who would jump around, hooting and hollering at the TV screen. All Susu spoke of that week was Lewis.
“I’m looking and thinking this Olympics must be really important if a professor is going to be screaming like this,” Monye said. “I said from there on, maybe this is something I would like to do.”
Monye frequently came home from elementary school with prizes for his mother after winning races. At Immaculate Conception College, his high school in Benin City, Monye emerged as one of the top 400-meter runners for his age. The rest of the world learned of his racing brilliance at the World Junior Track Championships in South Korea. He was 17. His performance in a 4×400 relay was so impressive, he received scholarship offers from Nebraska, Mississippi State and Idaho, among others.
Mississippi State was the first school to finish all the necessary paperwork. Monye said he was coming.
“I wasn’t even really particular about where I was going,” said Monye, who arrived in August of 1993. “I just wanted to go to the States.”
That freshman year was a constant struggle with his head coach at Mississippi State, Reynaud Alexander.
Monye had very little coaching up to that point. In some ways, he still was the little boy running freely on the dirt roads back in Nigeria. Alexander tried convincing Monye to change his mentality in the 400 to maximize Monye’s potential. Alexander demanded faster splits in the first 200 meters. Monye told him it was impossible.
“It took about a year to convince him,” said Alexander, who retired as MSU coach in 2001 and now lives in Louisiana. “You would have to be on the track to understand that Jude and I had some real knock-down, drag-out fights about what he was going to do and how he was going to do it.”
Once Monye began listening to his coach, there was no stopping him. In 1995, he set a school record that still stands in the indoor 400-meter dash – 45.94 seconds. He qualified for the Nigerian Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996 in both the open 400 and the 4×400 relay. A hamstring injury two weeks before the Olympics derailed his chances at a medal, but he was only 22 years old. He knew he would be back.
Monye began a career as a professional runner in Europe and set his sights on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
‘The race of our lives’
Nigeria’s runners qualified easily for the Sydney Olympics in the 4×400 relay. They were fast. Maybe the fastest relay team in the history of Nigeria. They won their semifinal heat in Sydney and bounded into the final with great confidence.
The finals were set. Nigeria would be in lane four, with the heavily favored United States team of Alvin Harrison, Antonio Pettigrew, Calvin Harrison and Michael Johnson in lane five. Monye would run the second leg of the relay, going up against Pettigrew. Nigeria’s team consisted of Clement Chukwu, Monye, team-leader Sunday Bada and Enefiok Udo-Obong, who would run the final leg.
Monye said the mood during the warm-up was strangely calm. Chukwu, Monye and Bada all figured this might be their last Olympic race ever, and they wanted to go out on top.
“I’ve never seen a group of guys be so determined to do something,” Monye said. “When I saw the four of us just playing around, so relaxed, in my mind I knew something special was going to happen.”
When Chukwu handed the baton to Monye for the second leg, though, Nigeria stood in fifth place. The U.S. already had made up ground on the outer lanes and took over first.
Monye broke down to lane one at the beginning of the back straightaway, slowly but surely closing the gap on fourth place. Pettigrew didn’t give any ground and maintained the lead for the U.S. In Monye’s final meters, he had come nearly even with both third-place Jamaica and second-place Bahamas as he handed off to Bada. But when Bada passed the baton on to Udo-Obong for the final 400 meters, a medal seemed out of reach. Michael Johnson was on his way to pummeling the competition. Jamaica’s Danny McFarlane – the same person Monye watched on TV in Beijing – had taken over second, and Bahamas’ Chris Brown held third place.
Monye’s mother, Priscilla Egbe, watched breathlessly back home in Nigeria as the stretch run unfolded.
“I saw that Nigeria was in fourth place,” said Egbe, who is staying with her son in Lawrence. “By my screen, I knelt down. I said, ‘God, I want them to get a medal. Let them take third at least. I don’t want them to be the last loser and finish the race in fourth.'”
And just like that, her prayers were answered.
Udo-Obong passed Brown two seconds before the finish line. Then, he blew by McFarlane at the line, dipping his head across one-tenth of a second faster.
Nigeria had captured a silver medal.
All four Nigerians embraced, joyously celebrating the accomplishment. They had finished the race in 2:58.68, a full two seconds behind the U.S., but good enough for the best time any African country ever had run.
“We all ran the race of our lives,” Monye said.
None of them went to sleep that night in the athletes’ village. Monye called his mother 30 minutes after the race. Tears streamed down her face. There was pandemonium back home, where the four runners would get a special dinner at the president’s house upon return.
“The joy was too much,” Monye’s mother said. “I was happy that he made it.”
Trouble for the Americans
As all of Nigeria rejoiced, there was no way of knowing what lay ahead for the United States team.
Scandals engulfed that 4×400 relay squad in the ensuing years.
First, it was revealed in 2003 that Jerome Young, who ran in the semifinal heat of the relay for the U.S., tested positive for steroids the year before the Sydney Olympics but was allowed to compete anyway.
In 2004, The International Association of Athletics Federations ruled Young was not eligible to compete in Sydney and wanted the U.S. team stripped of its gold medal. A year later, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that decision, and the United States kept its gold.
At that time, the medal dispute became a dead issue. It seemed the case, which had a statute of limitations of eight years, would pass through the Oct. 1, 2008, deadline without another peep.
But that was only the beginning of the Americans’ problems.
Young got caught doping again and was barred from competing for life.
Calvin Harrison received a two-year suspension from track and field in 2004 for testing positive for a stimulant a year earlier. Twin brother Alvin received a four-year suspension in 2004, after he admitted to using several undetectable performance-enhancers.
While both Harrisons admitted to usage only after the Sydney Olympics, questions about that 4×400 race were being raised again.
Then, in May 2008, Antonio Pettigrew revealed the final straw.
Pettigrew, who raced in the same leg as Monye in Sydney, admitted in court he used performance-enhancing drugs before, during and after the 2000 Olympics.
Michael Johnson, the only American runner from that race not involved in a doping scandal, gave back his gold medal in July, saying his team hadn’t won the race honestly.
Finally, on August 2 of this year – just days before the Beijing Olympics – the International Olympic Committee officially stripped the United States of its gold medal.
Monye and teammate Bada shared a euphoric moment on the phone after they heard the news. Each had begun to wonder if they ever would see that gold medal in their lifetime.
For Monye’s former coach, Reynaud Alexander, the message was clear.
“Once you start using drugs for the price of success, it’s like you’re selling your soul to the devil,” Alexander said. “Because sooner or later, he’s going to collect. But now, if you want to pay that price, that’s totally up to you.”
The IOC has set no time frame for redistributing the gold medal, but Monye believes it will occur in the next two months – before the statute of limitations expires.
Coming to Kansas
Monye’s career brought him to Lawrence in October 2002. His body already was beginning to wear from a grueling track schedule.
An old college track buddy, Calvin Davis, convinced Monye to train at KU with track coach Stanley Redwine. Redwine knew Davis from their days together at the University of Arkansas, where Davis ran and Redwine served as an assistant coach.
Monye and Davis went to work in Lawrence, training year-round.
Injuries finally caught up to Monye in 2004. His Achilles tendons were so painful, he was forced to retire three weeks before Olympic qualifying for Athens, Greece.
But Monye never left Lawrence. He loved the college-town atmosphere and became a U.S. citizen in 2004. A year later, he took a job in town as a claims specialist at Vangent Inc.
Monye says he doesn’t know when, where or how he’ll receive his gold medal, but he can hardly wait. His mother calls it a gold of destiny. It’s the final piece to the puzzle of a track career that ended too soon.
Then Monye says he isn’t bitter about the way things have played out. His only wish when he relives that night eight years ago would be to hear his country’s anthem playing as his team stands on the gold medal podium.
Still, he should be receiving a nice consolation prize soon enough.
“To win the gold is good,” Monye said. “I would have lived with silver. But gold is perfect. I couldn’t have wished for anything better.”