On the 2nd of August 1996, the entire nation of Nigeria celebrated when 26-year-old Chioma Ajunwa, made a majestic leap of 7.12m at the Olympics’ long jump final, earning Nigeria and West Africa its first gold medal after decades of competing at the Olympics. It was a significant achievement for the country, and female athletes; one that has been proudly talked about for years on end, and a feat that 36-year-old Nigerian cyclist, Glory Effiong, hopes to soon replicate in the sport of cycling.
July 1980, Officer Effiong and his wife welcomed their third child with joy. Although they were not first time parents, they were thrilled to have their first baby girl, Glory. Mrs. Effiong had three more children after Glory, two boys, and a daughter. Growing up, Glory was a bit of a tomboy; she played football, rode bikes, and often played around with her four brothers. At the age of six, Glory was brought to Lagos where she resided at the Ojo Cantonement with her father, a retired soldier, and three of her siblings.
Things were difficult financially, so she and her siblings would hawk goods to generate more income for the family. Glory sold plantain, yam, gari, groundnut, and other food, while she was in secondary school. She was in school from morning till noon, and on the streets from noon till evening. “While in school, I hawked for my mum. At some point, I had to trade just to buy a school bag for myself.” But after she was finished with secondary school, she began to hawk for herself. Soon after, she was operating a phone booth, and selling soft drinks on the side. Then in 2010, she got a job as a steward on the Island, and had to move from Volkswagen, where she lived with her siblings, to Ikoyi, so she could be close to her workplace.
In the last quarter of 2012, an increase in the number of motorcycle accidents and deaths led to a widespread ban on commercial motorcycles in Nigeria, including Lagos state. This made commuting difficult for many Lagosians, as motorcycles often helped mitigate transportation challenges in the traffic-laden city. The new policy forced residents like Glory Effiong, to devise an alternate means of transportation like bicycling, “I had to devise a means of going quickly to work, so I got a bicycle.”
While cycling from work one day, she met a friend who asked her if she was interesting in cycling. Glory had no idea what he was talking about, “What is cycling?” she asked him. He had to explain the sport to her, including the fact that female cyclists were few, had great chances at winning, and that cycling could giver her the opportunity to travel the world. Glory was sold on the idea, and six months later, she went to the Casino Yaba Sports Council to officially register as a cyclist.
Her training started almost immediately, and she resigned from her job speedily. Her employers’ plea for her to remain was futile; she needed more training time to become a professional athlete, besides, “[she] was tired of getting peanuts as salary.” Glory scaled through a trial process in the city of Port Harcourt, and entered her first cycling competition in 2013. She did not win, but just having the experience was valuable. 2014 was no different, a lot of training, few competitions, no wins. But that changed the following year, “I won my first competition on the first of May 2015.” It was a cycling competition organized by DHL and Voltic in Lagos state. Her prize was a certificate, a face cap, and an apron. Her second time at the top of the scoreboard, she emerged winner at the National Triathlon, with a medal and the sum of N 50,000. Later that year, Glory was the first runner up at the Lagos State Triathlon.
While winning an apron for a race might appear ridiculous, Glory was unbothered. She had larger goals, and bigger dreams, where she would get actual medals for her wins, not face caps and aprons. Still these prizes speak to the perception of cycling as an insignificant sport in Nigeria. Cycling is not popular in Nigeria at all”, says Glory, but that is putting it mildly. In Nigeria, the sport of cycling is simply ‘non-existent’. Last year, cyclists threatened to abandon the sport over neglect, and the dearth of competitions. But for Glory, the fact that she won these races, means her rigorous trainings is paying off. Glory trains three times a week – Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On her individual training days, she cycles up to 130 kilometers within Lagos state, and 200 kilometers outside the state. And in the event of a competition, she does shorter distances spread over five days of the week. “We try to hold at least 35 – 40km/hr. speed. If you cannot hold that kind of speed for at least 70/80km you cannot win any competition.”
However, these intense trainings come at a cost, “you have to spend a lot on your health – food and supplements. Cyclists have to eat a lot, and eat healthy, because riding is strength sapping and energy draining.” Another female cyclist, Ifeoma Aleke, echoes this fact, “cycling is not an easy sport; it takes a lot of strength to ride the bike over a long distance. Most people think that we derive fun engaging in cycling, but it takes more than the usual energy to engage in the sport.” With no job, and no form of support from the government, mid 2014, Glory ventured back into her job as a teenager, selling food to manage her expenses. Her route was along Ribadu, through Falomo, down to Victoria Island. But when we first meet, it is at her food stand at Monile Junction, Ikoyi, “I was just hawking past here one day when somebody called me at that junction. There were a lot of people. Once they tasted my stew, they said, “Wow! Your food is nice, come and be selling here,” that was how I go this place.”
Paying for the stand, as people within and around the neighborhood patronized her, was easy. She started making more food, and got a truck that to accommodate her increasing merchandise, “When I started I was selling with a basket, and could only make food with N 5,000, but now, by God’s Grace when I spend about N 15, 000 or N 17,000 to prepare food, I make a profit of N 6,000 at least. On how she juggles being a food vendor and cyclist? Glory says it is not easy, “on my training days I wake up at least by 4:00am or 4:30am, go for my morning prayers if I have to, return at 5:00 or 6:00 am, then I go for training. When I get back, I rest a while, then head out to the market to get food for the next day.” She only sells food on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On these days, she’s up by 2:00 am, and doesn’t finish cooking until about 4:00 or 5:00 am. Dishing the food into separate coolers, and setting up her truck takes another 30 – 45 minutes. Although, managing the business solely is a lot of work, Glory says she’s glad and grateful the business is moving beyond expectations.
But while Glory is praised and respected for being an entrepreneur, she has been ridiculed for her being a cyclist. “When I tell people I am a cyclist, they say I don’t know what I am doing, or that I have a problem with my brain for going into cycling as a female.” Glory says quite a number of people have tried to discourage her, including her family. “My mum was concerned that I had returned to sports, and at this age. She tried to discourage me because of my age and all. Even my siblings were against it, but I knew what I wanted and I had to forge ahead.” Glory’s challenge is not limited to being an athlete in a sport that is barely recognized- her age and gender further compound the issue. At 36, in Nigeria, many expect the average women to be married with children, not racing around town on a bicycle in the name of sport. And even the sport sector is not devoid of gender discrimination and stereotyping. According to Daniel Igali, chairman, Technical and Development Commission of the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC), the Nigerian government spends 15 times more money on football than it does on other sports, and more attention on male athletes than on females. These factors make it difficult for female athletes like Glory to succeed. Still, she strives to make it amidst these challenges, and despite the obstacles stacked against her.
“My dream is to be an Olympic gold medalist. I hope for several wins at the Olympic before I stop sports.”
The ultimate goal of every athlete is to compete at an international level; therefore it is no surprise that Glory has her eyes on the Olympic gold. However, international recognition can only be attained when athletes actually participate in international competitions. To participate in such competitions, athletes need to have made their marks locally. “You have to be a gold medalist locally before you can stand a chance of participating in the Olympics,” says Glory. Her coach had told her that since she has yet to compete and win at the national sports festival, she is not qualified for a trial for the Olympics. Cycling is like every other sport; athletes need competitions to thrive – no competition equals no exposure. And in Nigeria where football is the ‘only’ recognized sport, there are scarcely competitions to keep these athletes actively engaged or exposed. There is also a lack of funding, and sponsorship; if it’s not football, very few persons or companies will invest, not even the government. There are also infrastructural issues; smooth and safe roads are paramount in the sport of cycling. In 2005, what would have been the country’s biggest cycling event – Tour of Nigeria – was cancelled due to nationwide road repairs. The event was supposed to host cyclists from 10 African countries, and would have made a huge difference for the sport in terms inter cycling races and competitions amongst African countries, but it never happened.
A Lagos based cyclist, Gabriel Aluko, says now, cyclists are refusing to train as it seems a waste of time. But Glory is sticking to her routine. She is determined to make it, and hopes to compete at a global level even if no one wants to support her. “I must reach my goal, I must achieve. I see myself at the top, both as an athlete and a business woman. I will own restaurants, and become an employer of labor,” she says to me boldly and in faith.
Many Nigerian women athletes have proven themselves on the global stage; Chioma Ajunwa, Falilat Ogunkoya, Fatima Yusuf, Blessing Okagbare, to name a few. These women overcame countless challenges to make it to the top and now Glory Effiong has started down the long road towards success, with the hope that her name will be mentioned alongside Nigeria’s heroine athletes.