|Tunde Oyedoyin||Tuesday, December 10, 2002|
THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF A GREAT PERFORMER
Ask anyone who ever won gold at a major championship and they will sing an old pentecostal tune: ''It's not an easy road....'' to sum up their experience. Born and abandoned in England to foster parents, Kriss and his brother never had the luxury of growing up in a family and friendly atmosphere like most others. "I don't think I had any close bonding to my parents. My mother and father must have been away a lot when we lived in Nigeria and we were looked after by a number of different people. So when we went from foster home to foster home in England, it just seemed to us the way life was. We adjusted to each new place even though we might not have enjoyed it. That was the way things were, this was life, this was my experience," Kriss told his biographer, Ted Harrison.
But that was then, later in life, his experiences have been dramatic, tragic, inspiring, motivational and extraordinary, there are many chapters in his book of life. Even if he didn't complete a grand slam of all the gold medals available in athletics, a feat achieved only by very few like Linford Christie and Jonathan Edwards, a hatrick of gold medals at the Commonwealth, European and World championships-missing only the olympics — is worth shouting about for the next millenium,and Kriss has the three among his collections of medals.
The same infectious and popular smile that have appeared on countless occasions on television screens — both as a guest and also a celebrity broadcaster — was what he had on as he welcomed me into his new expansive office a couple of weeks ago. I was happy to receive the smile after 49 minutes rail travel from London Kings Cross to Filtwick station, followed by about five minutes on the road inside a big cab.
Born as Kezie Uchechukwu Duru Akabusi, his story began when as a baby boy, he was born to two Nigerian students, Kambi Duru Daniel Akabusi and his wife, Clara Akabusi (nee Adams) at 1.30a.m on friday November 28, 1958. Kambi was a student of accountancy and international law at the University College London, UCL and his young wife was a student nurse by then, both had met on their way to London while travelling on the sea from Nigeria in 1955. Clara was already on the ship and Kambi joined the boat when it stopped in Accra, Gold Coast, now Ghana. It's better heard from the horse's mouth.
Q: Why did you change your name?
Ans.: (laughs) I was brought up in a series of foster homes because my mother and father had gone back to Nigeria by now and there was a civil war in Nigeria and that civil war meant there was no contact between me and my parents and by the time I got to 16, I don't want to say I was ashamed of my African name, but I wanted to fit into the environment I was living in and when I went to Newcastle to join the army, I decided to make a new start and part of that new start was to have a new name. I spelt my name with a K because I didn't want to change my initials and I want to have some connections with my past. Kezie Akabusi was the connection to my past, but Kriss Akabusi is a connection with my future.
Q: How did you link up with your parents later?
Ans.: I think I would describe my relationship with my parents in the early part of my life as quite of a bit strange. My mother came to England in the mid 70s to find my brother and I, when she did, she was very keen that I went back to Nigeria and was very keen to make up for the lost time. I was very, very European, I really identified with my European heritage and I wanted to be English, I wanted to stay with my English friends and in fact, I did everything not to go to Nigeria. I was living in under social care and I was told there I didn't have to go Nigeria if I didn't want to. My mother was not very pleased with that, but my father was pretty indifferent about that, as he had not seen me for 16 years and it didn't matter to him.
By then, I think I had got to a stage where I said, it didn't matter what anybody else thought, what mattered was me and I wanted to make a new start, I didn't want to be linked with the children's home, I didn't want to be linked with all the negative stereotypes i'd created, I didn't want to be linked with Africa, I wanted to be me and I wanted to make my own mark in this world. I wanted to join the Army with a blank slate, I wanted to start free and make my way in the world and being Kriss Akabusi was part of that. But now, as I get older, I can identify people by the name they call me, people who call me Kriss Akabusi have only known me as a perfection of the former. However, those who know me as Kezie or Aki are people who have been connected with me before 1975, they must have known me when I lived at Enfield, a lot of soldiers also call me by that. If someone calls me any other name apart from Kriss, I know they must have known me in the past or have connections with the British Army. Although most folks know me as Kriss Akabusi, that's only a part of me.
Q: How many years did you spend in the Army?
Making a point
Q: How did you find yourself in Athletics?
Ans.: When I joined the Army, I met a guy there called Mackenzie, he was an Army athlete himself and he was the first person that identified my potentials-it came in a most outstanding way, Ian Mackenzie, a quarter miler, was the athletics officer during his time in the Army and he was out on the track one day in 1976 when Kriss decided to join. After running shoulder to shoulder for a while, Mackenzie decided to run off, his aim was to leave Kriss trailing behind, but this was never to be, Kriss ran ahead of him. This surprised Mackenzie and he asked Kriss: 'What do you think you're doing? I'm supposed to be the fastest round here." You have the potential to win the army championships, the rest is history. I received a lot of training, but most importantly, I had a lot of discipline. I grew up as a young man in a children's home and my energy was always in abundance, so what Mckenzie did was that he was able to channel it to athletics.
Q: When was your debut on the international arena?
Ans.: I got my first international appearance in 1983 at the inaugural World Championship in athletics, which took place in Helsinki, Finland, and the following year, I went to the olympics and that was where I won my first medal-he brought it out from his pocket — and I carry it with me everywhere I go.
Ans.: because it's my first one, this is the olympic silver, it was in the 4 x 400m relay, I was part of the team. It was such a great experience, one which will live with me for the rest of my life. Its the type of thing that makes me realise that 'anything is possible as long as you dream big and as long as you have your heart in it, its possible."
Q: But how did you achieve that, you started athletics in 1983 and you went on to win olympic silver the following year, how did you do it?
Ans.: Yeah, it was a big leap in terms of performance, but what that leap represents was the previous four years of hard work-slowly, surely and bit by bit. I took my athletics training very seriously in 1979 and kept the same momentum till 1984, that was a five year period, but my real greatest day didn't come until 10 years later. It takes a long time to have success.
Q: But four years seems like a short time
Ans.: Yes, it was, there are athletes who come on and get it quite quickly, but the short time represents many hours of work.
Q: How seriously did you take your training?
Ans.: I trained twice a day for six days a week. I had two hours in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening, while the remaining one day was used to recover and get me ready for the following week.
Q: Assuming you didn't get into athletics, would you have continued with the Army?
Ans.: joined the Army in 1975 for security reasons, before then, I was living in the children's home and needed to look after myself. I needed to have a guaranteed income, food and all that. Even though I became a career officer, but looking back, I would have preferred something else to do. I think the Army was going to be a stepping stone to something bigger and greater, the Army would have always been a springboard to something else.
Q: Did you take part in another Olympics?
Ans.: Yes, I went to three Olympics games. I was at Barcelona in 1992, where I got two bronze medals. I won the 400metres hurdle and also won the 400 metres relay. I was also at the Seoul Olympics, where I made it to the final, but didn't win any medal, that was a poor year.
Q: What was it like on the world scene?
Ans.: In 1991, I went to the World championships and came back with the gold medal, we beat the mighty Americans in Tokyo. It was a historic achievement for Great Britain, the Americans hadn't been beaten for 15 years and I was the anchor leg for that team, I carried the baton across the line when we made history.
Q: Do you still remember those in both teams?
Ans.: The Americans had a very strong quartet comprising of the Pan American champion, the Olympic champion — he was crowned Olympic champion the following year-the World champion and the World Indoor record holder-just crowned at that game — so, they had a strong quartet of runners. Our first leg was run by Roger Black-the silver medalist and British record holder-Edmond, John Regis, the European 200m record holder-it was an unusual step we took putting John Regis, but we required his speed to be in contact-and I was in the last leg, having won bronze at the event. So, we had four good athletes, very good and we were very unique.
We put our best man in the first leg because we recognised the Americans always ran it from the first leg and we wanted to be in contention from the beginning. We ran it superbly and we gave the Americans something to think about when I ran in the last leg with Antonio, who was just crowned as the world champion.
Q: Did you experience any racism out there?
Ans.: Athletics is like any other area of the society and somewhere down the line, you experience it too. There were a couple of times when racism was blocked out to me because there were too many black people in the sport. But generally, athletics is about performance and whether white or black, what matters most is when you get on the track, you know how to cross the line first, I did that on many occasions.
Q: When was your most memorable day on the track?
Ans.: (After taking a little breath) My most significant achievement was when I became the European champion in 1990. I broke the 22 year old British record set by David Henery and I was the first British athlete to run under 48 seconds. The most memorable occasion was the 4x400metres relay when I was part of the British team to beat the mighty Americans in 1991.
Q: How did you achieve the feat of breaking the European record, did you dream of it or did it just happen?
Ans.: Certainly, I dreamt of it, but I couldn't believe it had happened. It was the sort of thing you dream about, but when in reality, you see it come about, its a wonderful experience. I could remember that same day when I crossed the line, I knew i'd won and was relieved i'd won. The reason being that, I went into the championship as the Commonwealth champion and so there was some expectation on me to win. But what people expect and what you deliver are two different things, so I was very relieved to have crossed the line. But 10 seconds later, I managed to look up and see the scoreboard and I saw what everybody else was excited about, because on the scoreboard flashing out there was: 'New British Record, 47.92 seconds," that was then.
I actually went ballistic and I rushed up there and ran round the track like a mad man. A new source of energy surged through me, I was pumping my arms all over the place, I was really shouting on top of my voice, it was incredible to think because i've finally got a record i've always dreamt about having.
Q: When did you decide you needed to visit Nigeria and how was it?
I could see my energy, my vitality, the laughter, the exuberance and all the things that made me unique were found in there and I really, for the first time, knew this is where I belong. This is my heritage, this is my connection to my root and I began to go back every year. When my mother died in 1997, I knew I had to go again, it was as if she left to make space for me. It was then I started thinking of what to do to make a difference in the country. I asked myself: 'How can I really connect with this country and do something in the process?
Q: So, what are you into?
Ans.: started a Non governmental Organisation, NGO called, 'Rural Enterprise and Community Health,' REACH. When I get to a village, I discover that the people who live there are the old, the infirmed, women and the children. These deplete the general economy in the area because all the young men and women have gone to the cities to earn their living. What I intend doing is to sort of, regenerate the rural communities and I started with my own village. We'll develop a model which can then be replicated through the country. Ultimately, my goal is to help change the primary health care infrastructure.
In those villages, I always see young children dying of cholera, diarrhoea and other diseases that have been eradicated in the Western world because of the water that is available. I'll like to help in developing the primary health system, but my first priority is to help the women start simple basic cottage businesses like farming, sewing, etc.
Q: How did you get involved in motivational speaking?
Ans.: an athlete, when you're successful and winning medals, people ask for your opinions, how did you do it, what does it feel like, what were your experiences and things like that. I went there telling people what it was like, but I soon realised while telling those stories there's a link between what we do, what we experience in track and field as athletes, to what businessmen and women go through. I then came up with, Fit For Life, Fit For Sports, Fit For Business. I began to draw on some of my experiences and some of the stories i'd read before and I started to develop workshops and seminars for business men and women about 'Peak Performance" in the arena.
Q: When were you honoured with an MBE by the Queen?
Ans.: I became a Member of the British Empire, MBE, in 1992, back in 1991during the Queen's birthday, my name was on the honours list and this was in recognition of my contribution to athletics.
Q: What was it like?
Ans.: It was a lovely experience, the Queen was well briefed and we were made to feel we were very important. I'm sure the Queen has a lot of important things to do, but when she spoke with me, she was well ahead of what i'd done in athletics. She knew my history and she also knew about my working on television. She asked three or four very pertinent questions and I really felt very special to become a Member of the British Empire.
Q: I discovered you have a Masters degree, how did you get that, did you go back to school or what?
Ans.: When I was in athletics, I realised I couldn't do it 24/7, you've got to stimulate your mind somewhere else. So, I went to a University in America and studied Theology. The Master of Arts was an honorary degree, but I did two years in America, studying Philosophy in Theology.
Q: Considering that you were neglected and abandoned in London by your parents, what would you say to others in your situation?
Ans.: Parents should not abandon their children, i'm proud of who I am and my experience made me who I am. I think West Africans, and Nigerians in particular, have a habit in the past and some still have it now, they bring their children to England and think England is a great place, they abandon those children here and some 20 years later, you come looking for them and you are even surprised that they neither know you nor their culture.
What I'll say to children who have been abandoned like that is, go home and scratch around and try to uncover who you really are. You're like a wandering nomad in a desert, who has no link with anyone. You're like disorientated, so you need to go home and begin to dig deep into your foundation. I'm very British, I articulate like an English person, but my heart and soul is very African and until I went there, I couldn't understand some of my yearnings and actions that are rooted in the 'Africanness" that is in me.