Life is currently not rosy for Olympian Etim Bassey, a former weightlifter, who represented Nigeria at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, reports Idris Adesina.
Every tricycle rider and road user plying the Addo-Badore road, knows a middle-aged man, who constantly appears on the road with a shovel – from the Market Bus Stop to the end of the road in Badore – filling potholes, directing traffic and packing sand from the drainage beside the road to give way to a free flow of water along the road.
The ‘man’ is former Nigeria weightlifter and Olympian, Etim ‘Iron Bar’ Bassey.
Clad in a green reflective jacket, black trousers, black rain boots, and a woven wool cap, Bassey told our correspondent his life journey.
Born on December 25, 1965 in Cross Rivers State, Bassey grew up in the Lafiaji area of Lagos after his parents relocated from his hometown when he was very young. He fell in love with weightlifting after seeing some youths in his area lifting the bar bells.
“It was love at first sight because I felt I could do it. From Lafiaji, I would come to the National Stadium in Surulere and that was where I learnt weightlifting better,” Bassey told our correspondent during the week.
He represented Lagos at the National Sports Festival in 1982 in the old Bendel State from where he was invited to the national team after winning gold.
But the man, who represented Nigeria at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles at the age of 18, has grappled with living like a destitute for close to five years in the Ajah area of Lagos State since he returned abruptly to the country from the USA.
Along with Bartholomew Oluoma, who finished fifth in the Super-heavyweight category, Bassey snatched 155kg for Nigeria but could not finish as he tore a muscle in his leg during his attempt at 180kg in the clean and jerk.
The injury ended his weightlifting career after he was neglected by the country and his fast descent down to his current level began. Before the 1984 Olympics, Bassey had won a bronze medal for Nigeria in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.
Seated in front of a shop close to Akins Bus Stop along the Addo-Badore road, Bassey who is known by his nickname ‘Iron Bar’ in the area, told our correspondent about the injury.
“It was like a dream because I didn’t believe that I could get injured in such a manner. I had failed at 160kg after I snatched 155kg to finish fifth on the table. I was hoping to make up for it in the clean and jerk. I wanted an Olympic medal badly to boost my career,” an emotional Bassey told our correspondent.
“I usually lifted a total of 380kg to 400kg in training and I was determined to do something close to that in Los Angeles. But it was not to be. I had lifted the weight and was about to get up from the squat when I felt a sharp pain in my leg. I dropped the weight and couldn’t continue.”
On return to the country, a scan revealed he had torn a couple of muscles in his right leg and needed an expensive surgery to be able to walk again.
At this point, Bassey was left alone to bear the burden of nursing the injury.
He said, “My leg was in cast when I returned from Los Angeles. The scan revealed that I needed a surgery to be done as soon as possible or else I might not walk again. The federation then failed to talk about it again but fortunately, I had some money from my sponsorship from Adidas.
“I was determined to walk again because I couldn’t imagine myself being paralysed. The surgery was not done in Nigeria and it took all my savings. In September 1985, I returned to Los Angeles for the surgery and it was successful.”
Bassey was granted a three-month visa in 1985 to enable him to recuperate from his injury after the surgery but fate had another plan for him.
His visa expired and he was doing some menial jobs to keep himself together before he met an American lady, who later became his wife. The marriage was blessed with two female children.
“The visa granted me was for three months but I overstayed after it expired. It was a tough time because I had to avoid trouble while trying to find my feet again. Fortunately I met a lady who later became my wife,” he said.
“We got married in 1989 and we had two daughters – Maine and Nkoyo. Maine was born in 1990 while Nkoyo was born in 1991.”
Fate struck again as he was on the verge of completing his documentation to obtain his US citizenship. His wife refused to assent to some of his documents and he was denied the Green Card.
The 51-year-old said, “Everything was going fine for me until late in 2003 when I was about to complete documentation for me to be able to obtain my American citizenship. My wife refused to sign and in the aftermath, we got separated and I was left in the cold again.
“All through this, my daughters were not in the know – till date. They are doing fine and I still speak to them. One of them is in the US Navy. In the aftermath of the problem, I returned to Nigeria in 2004.”
He added, “I could not go back to my hometown because I had left there since I was very young. Lagos was the place I was very familiar with. All along while I was in the US, I never left sports. I kept training to keep fit but I avoided strenuous weights to avoid a recurrence of my injury.
“I picked up a job as a bouncer at a club in Victoria Island after I returned in 2004 but I couldn’t cope with it for a long time, so I left after some months.”
Currently, Bassey has no job and lives from hand to mouth from the proceeds of menial jobs he does. He works as a labourer at construction sites and does the odd plumbing job to feed himself. It was learnt that he also works as a security man for a plaza, which pays him a pittance.
Bassey refused to tell our correspondent about where he lived but according to residents around the area, who spoke with our correspondent, he has no definite place to lay his head – he is homeless.
“I have known him for close to two years in this area now. He sleeps anywhere he finds. I have often seen him at a shed close to the sand mining site on this road. At times he sleeps in some buildings at Oke Ira but he is always on this road, repairing the potholes and clearing the gutters,” a resident, Emeka Oriakwu, said.
Bassey began his ‘humanitarian work’ on the Addo-Badore road in 2014. As early as 5am – sometimes earlier – he could be seen on the road with his shovel packing stones and sand into the pot holes.
He said he was moved to begin the work after his encounter with an old woman, who suffered as a result of the endless traffic on the road.
He said, “Nobody knew me until I began this humanitarian work on this road. I resolved to start doing it because I was moved by the plight of the road users.
“One hot afternoon, I was coming from the Ajah Bus Stop and I was left with only N100. The traffic was very heavy and the tricycles were charging quite exorbitant prices. The traffic was caused by a big pothole at one of the junctions – the drivers were avoiding it and as such they slowed down which in turn caused the traffic to build up.
“At the Pop and Sales junction, I saw an old woman who was sweating with her load. I asked her why she was trekking and she said she couldn’t afford the price. I helped her with her load and after that day, I decided to fix the portion of the road to ease the stress of the people using it.”
From the little motorists throw at him, Bassey buys stones, which he uses to fill the potholes.
“I started by using sand to fill the holes but they easily get washed away by the rain. So I had to start buying the stones, which are more durable, with my money. When I approached the sellers for some stones to use for the work, they refused. I told them the work is voluntary but they insist that I have to pay for the stones. I pay between N3,000 and N4,000 to get the stones. At times, I pack stones from construction sites to fill the holes,” he said.
“It took up to a year before people started recognising my efforts but that didn’t stop me. Some of the drivers greet when they pass by while others give me some money. But the money isn’t the main goal of this work; the sight of free-flowing traffic every day is enough fulfilment for me.”
The work he does is attested to by the traffic policemen on the road.
One of them, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bassey had helped to ease their work load.
“If you witness the traffic on this road once, you will never pray to see it again. It had proved problematic until about two years ago when Iron Bar began this work he is doing,” the policeman said.
“It is really sad to know that he does it without any remuneration and for that long period of time. We are two traffic wardens on this road but when the traffic becomes tough as early as 6am, I will be at a junction while Iron Bar mans the second junction and we direct the traffic till it eases.
“We never knew he was an ex-athlete because he hardly talks about himself. He is always around smiling at everyone and once in a while, the road users give him some money for his efforts.”
The residents hope that help will come his way soonest to ease his sufferings but Bassey said he had given up hope on any help from the government.
A shop owner at Akins Bus Stop, Tope Solaja, said, “This man is selfless and perseverant. I never knew he was such an important person since he began this road work more than two years ago. People used to think he is mentally ill but we now know better. He starts work here as early as 3am sometimes – especially when the rains have washed away the pothole fillings overnight. He deserves to be employed by the government because he has done even more than a government employee would do.”
But Bassey said, “I am not expecting any help from the government because I know that I am not the first ex-athlete who would be abandoned at his point of need. A government that could abandon me with an injury I sustained while representing them. Would they now remember I am here? If the help comes, fine but I am not really expecting anything from the government