Until we tell the stories of our athletes, they will always belong to the also-ran.
Stories are the marks on the face which define a people, says the old man in Achebe’s Anthills of Savannah. To identify the features of their national character, Sierra Leoneans need to hear the stories about the abilities, traits, and values of their heroic figures. Marathon runner Ibrahim Baba Suma-Keita, aka Apollo and arguably Sierra Leone’s greatest athlete, belongs to that group of exceptional Sierra Leoneans. He died unexpectedly on July 18, 2020.
I do not recall meeting Apollo or seeing him run, but, like many Sierra Leoneans, I knew the nickname. Curious to learn more about him, I sped to the Google Oracle, hoping to read that, like Gilgamesh the Mesopotamian King, Apollo was two-thirds god and one-third human; that he emerged from his mother’s womb with wings and a small bag containing ogiri (fermented sesame seeds) and cayenne pepper; and that both assisted in his early training as he traipsed the ridges of Mount Bintumani. Then at ten, as his guardian angel had told his mother, the wings fell off, but by then, he had developed the lung capacity which made him a great long-distance runner. I also yearned to see a photograph of Apollo breasting a finishing tape, his hands raised in triumph, or his shoulders draped with the Sierra Leonean flag. I ached for the triumph-over-adversity story. I wanted to be transported into the world of legends and demi-gods with admirable qualities—and ones displayed by a Sierra Leonean too. I needed to jettison the selfish, corrupt, and tribalistic tropes that cling stubbornly to narratives about the country and its people. Alas, the Google Oracle only revealed that he was born on April 20, 1947, participated in the 1978 Commonwealth Games, placed 46 (time 2:41:20) in the marathon of the 1980 Summer Olympics, and 95 (time 3:04:00) in the 1988 games, in which he led the Sierra Leone contingent as the flagbearer. No stories about the man. No myths about his athleticism. Merely footnotes that he also-participated.
Fortunately, a 2020 Zoom-based memorial featuring government officials and household sports names from Sierra Leone fed my imagination and need for information. Apollo, some said, encouraged, inspired, but disciplined them. He welcomed into his training circle all athletes, regardless of age, gender, ethnic origin, and ability. He practiced inclusiveness before it became a political buzzword.
For warm-ups, his trainees first ran up and down the 23 stands of the national stadium and capped that off with an all-out 400-meter sprint. Only after would he teach specific techniques, such as high-knee lifts and arm swings. He even coached athletes in events that were not part of his marathon specialty. He worked for the common good before the Ubuntu principle, “I am because we are,” became fashionable.
Several speakers noted his humility, describing how he ate “cookery” (local food served in makeshift restaurants) with them. Others recalled ongoing conflict between him and the Ministry of Sports, with a few expressing their surprise at learning that he was never an official national coach. Nonetheless, they said, he set aside his feud with government bureaucrats to turn them, his protégés, into national and international athletes, helping with their development and challenges on and off the field. He responded to the whole person. Sometimes explicitly but always implicitly, speakers affirmed that they are because he was. From the four-hour-long memorial, Apollo emerged as a consummate professional and parental figure who dedicated himself to improving the lives of those around him.
However, a legend without an extraordinary or quirky trait is like a saint without a miracle. Apollo’s marathon to becoming a mythic figure perhaps begins with an anecdote about his love of ogiri and cayenne pepper. He spiced his food with both ingredients at roadside eateries and in the cafeterias of international track meets, and he encouraged his trainees to do the same. In a future article, I will investigate the performance-enhancing benefits of ogiri. For now, let us focus on Capsaicin, the main ingredient in pepper. Some scientific studies claim that “acute capsaicin supplementation improves 1,500-m running time.”* Is it possible that Apollo fed himself and his athletes cayenne pepper prior to their events because he understood, consciously or not, it would speed up their metabolism? He clearly was an athlete and, literally, a pɛpɛ dᴐkta. Surely, that is material, if not ingredient, for a legendary tale?
The Zoom meeting told the story of Apollo’s quest for greatness for himself, his fellow athletes, and trainees. It revealed his selflessness and tenacity. The session molded foundational building blocks for constructing a history of sports in Sierra Leone. I felt proud to identify as part of his country and to know the man beyond scraps of Google(d) facts. Remedying this (mis)representation must be a priority for all Sierra Leoneans. The country needs a hall of fame, virtual or brick and mortar, to celebrate the achievements of its exceptional sports personalities because their shared stories etch the marks on the face of our national character.
Pede Hollist is a Sierra Leonean-born professor of English and fiction writer at The University of Tampa, Fl. USA. He is an avid sports fan.
*“Acute Capsaicin Supplementation Improves 1,500-m Running Time-Trial Performance and Rate of Perceived Exertion in Physically Active Adults.” de Freitas, Marcelo Conrado1; Cholewa, Jason M.2; Gobbo, Luis A.1; de Oliveira, João V.N.S.3; Lira, Fabio S.3; Rossi, Fabrício E.4Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2018 – Volume 32 – Issue 2 – p 572-577