Izuchukwu Udegbunam is the Chief Executive Officer of Bunubunu Culture and Sporting Company Limited. The company manages both foreign and local marathoners including Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians and Nigerians who have done well in many marathon races in different countries of the world including the Lagos City Marathon and Okpekpe Marathon.
In this interview with Ifeanyi Eduzor, he speaks on the plan of his company to change the face of marathon in the country, the just concluded training of Nigerian marathoners by Kenyan athletes and many more.
Nigerians would like to know what Bunubunu is all about and how you came about the concept?
Bunubunu is all about sports, culture, entertainment, tourism and technology. It is an organisation that tends to study culture all over the World and also promote positive cultural endeavours of our people in Nigeria and Africa in general. It will interest you to know that all my life, I’ve been involved in cultural affairs, I have been very keen in understanding and playing around cultural events like in education, music and people’s way of life which really appeals to me. I also want to say that I play music and participated in a lot of cultural events in my home town and State. So, all my life, I have been playing around culture and how people live which for me involves everything like religion, sports, music, arts and entertainment.
Your company has been known for managing foreign marathoners, how did you come in contact with some of these athletes?
One impression I want to correct is that Bunubunu does not only manage foreign athletes but also Nigerian athletes. We started with local athletes before we graduated to managing foreign ones. We got involved with foreign athletes through local athletes we took to competitions in China, Dubai and other places.
It all started in 2013 and 2016 when we took some Nigerian elite athletes to compete in an international 10 km marathon in China. In that event, Adamu Shehu Muazu from Plateau State took first, followed by a Kenyan while another Nigerian, Yaya Sudi from Calabar, Cross River State took third. I felt so happy with their achievement because prior to that time, people have been saying that Kenyans, Ethiopians and Ugandans are better than us in long distance races.
After this we also took some Nigerians to other races where we saw Kenyans beat them by 3 or 4 minutes like in Mani Marathon in 2017 where Adamu Shehu Muazu took the seventh position and returned 4 minutes behind the person who beat him. Before then in 2013, Emmanuel Dieng returned 1 hr, 4mins, 18 seconds in Mani Marathon which is an elite time in half marathon. This achievement gave us in- roads to some Kenyan athletes whom we met in those races who confessed that they have never seen Nigerians performing well in long distance races and are surprised that they could chase them down the line and wanted to know how it happened and from there we started talking.
And because we believe in one Africa, after every competition, we relax with them, interact and make friends with them and that was how we succeeded in having some foreign athletes who needed our services and from there we started working with them.
Your athletes performed well at the Lagos City Marathon but failed to click at Okpekpe, what really happened?
Well, it is unfortunate that my foreign athletes did not click at Okpekpe because of certain factors. From our observation and analysis, we discovered that Okpekpe was more or less mountain race than road race. The finishing line has very sharp elevation that is very difficult for any athlete that did not prepare or understand the course very well to perform optimally. Even when I arrived the town, I was surprised with the terrain and I suggest, they should rename it Okpekpe Mountain race.
Having said this, I want to tell you that we didn’t lose completely because the first Nigerian to get to the finish line in both the male and female categories; Emmanuel Dieng and Deborah Pam are all Bunubunu athletes. Then you also have Ismail Sadio, Adamu Shehu Muazu and Gideon Tanker who gave a good account of themselves in the race. These are people that got their first international exposure through our company. So, I wouldn’t say that Bunubunu lost Okpekpe but it is just that our plan to take the first international position in that race did not work out well.
What is the relationship between your company and Athletics Federation of Nigeria?
We have a very good relationship. The last Secretary General of AFN was like a brother to me. He listened to us a lot. We pushed a lot of letters through him highlighting our observations in many marathons and how to move the sports forward in the country.
I also have a very cordial relationship with the Technical Director of AFN. He is my friend and brother and gave me appointments but unfortunately I’ve not been able to make it to Abuja. I have been communicating with him and expecting to see him to be able to expand our relationship towards uplifting our local athletes. It’s also important I commend former skipper of “Team Nigeria”, Yusuf Ali for his support all these years.
Like I said earlier, we have a robust relationship with AFN because at Bunubunu, we believe that Nigerian athletes have the capacity to give Ethiopians and Kenyans a run for their money down and the ability to win international marathons one day in future and that is what we are building on and we must do this in conjunction with Athletics Federation of Nigeria ( AFN).
Just last week, your foreign athletes from Kenya trained some elite Nigerian athletes in Jos on long distance races, how would you describe the training?
Well, that exercise is an extension of what we believe in our company that we have to compete favourably with the best in the World. From our experience and what we observed after taking Nigerian elite athletes to international competitions, we believe that with all hands on deck, coupled with government, corporate organisations and technical back up, our athletes can win some of the marathons because nobody can win everything..So, we believe we can do it and in the place where I come from, there is a common saying; that a black smith who does not know how to produce a gun should look at the tail of the kite. So, when you are having difficulties, in doing something , you have to look at the people who are getting it right. At Bunubunu, we want to leverage on our opportunity of managing international athletes from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia and bring Nigerians closer to them, learn from them, add to what we have, improve on it and be better off. So, that was what we did and our elite athletes learnt a lot from Joshua Kipkorir whom you know is the current Singapore Marathon champion and also current champion of Mumbai Marathon in India. He also took the second position in 2019 Lagos City Marathon. There was also, Ronny Kiboss who you know took the second position in the 2017 and 2018 Lagos City Marathon. These guys volunteered and told me they want to come and train our athletes . They also told me they understand that the altitude of Jos Plateau and Mambila is the same with their country and they want to train on that terrain and I said if Kenyan athletes can come and train here, why can’t our local athletes train with them. Then we contacted the national coach, Coach Stephen Nuhu who is like a father to all of us and he accepted and all our national marathoners were in that training and that is what we call spirit of Africa handshake and it worked well.
In all this, what type of support has your company gotten from government and corporate organizations?
Truth be told, we’ve gotten fairly good support from few corporate organizations. I’ m also aware that a lot of corporate organizations are observing what we’ re doing . At the level of government, I must be honest with you, we have not been encouraged with the response. The only encouragement we got was from the immediate past Minister of Youth and Sports, Barrister Solomon Dalung who responded to our letters and took time to attend our award nite at Cubana, Lagos early this year. Before, he left office, we were extending our hands of fellowship to him to present some of our programmes and documentaries to him but I believe he was very busy to receive us before he left office. We deeply need the contribution of government to succeed in what we’ re doing. We had an understanding with Plateau State Government in 2016 when we took Adamu Shehu Muazu who is a registered athlete of the state to China where he won gold but that relationship didn’t develop as we expected. So, I can conveniently say we don’t have good support from government but we are expecting that before long, things will change because we have a lot of archives and documentations of things we have observed since raking athletes out in 2013 which we want to share with government on the way forward for the country’s long distance races.
As somebody who have witnessed many marathons both in and outside Nigeria, what do you think the country is not doing well to make our athletes measure up in international marathon?
I know that any technical person that understands long distance races knows that we have the terrain and altitude to train and do well in marathon but our athletes are not properly motivated. And I tell you, one thing, everywhere we go, you see Kenyans and Ethiopians there. They come as students and residents in China, Europe and all continents of the world. These Kenyans train in their country and are camped for many months attending different championships. They also get employment, sponsorship and scholarship. This is a way of empowering their families and themselves economically. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case.
When you look at Kipkorir who took second in this year’s Access Bank Marathon, he won $40,000 and also won several other prizes and before the end of the year, you see him winning close to $150,000-200,000 which is big money. I m looking forward to such a time Nigeria will invest in their athletes like other countries are doing..
The irony of it all is that some of our athletes are registered with their State Sports Commissions but the payment is not encouraging nor do they get grants to train. So, what am saying is that we don’t have altitude problem because Plateau and Mambila are there but encouragement such as sponsoring them to exchange programmes in Kenya and Ethiopia where they will get more exposure is not there. Take the Okpekpe race for example, if we have had the opportunity to have camped our athletes in Edo State for few months to understand the terrain, we would have fared better.
There was a time you wanted to organise marathon in Anambra State, do you still have plans of doing that?
The truth is that I’ ve lived all my life in Lagos and I decided it was time I contribute my quota to the development of my state. In doing this, I discovered that Anambra State Government is serious in all sectors of human endeavour and development and they are interested in seeing the marathon happen.
Chairman of Anambra State Sports Commission, Chief Tony Oli is doing a lot of grassroots sports development in the state and we on our part, want to develop Anambra State 10 kilometer Heritage race which the government is giving good consideration. We’re still doing the paper work and very soon, you will see the marathon take place. It is going to be a different type of race that will have rich cultural content and attract runners from all over the world. Already Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, National Youth Council, Anambra State Chapter, and the State’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism have all shown interest to be part of the marathon.
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So, there is a lot of synergy building up to make the race not only a success but a model that can compare with the best marathons in the world.
In all these, what has been some of your major challenges?
The major challenge we’ ve been having is finance. You know that sports involves a lot of money and if it is not properly managed, it will not give the real and deserved value. For you to succeed in sports, you need a lot of funding, so, we need investment and want corporate organisations to look in our direction. I know they are doing a great job with football, basketball and some other sports but they need to do more for athletics and most especially marathon. I’ m saying this because once greater attention is paid to marathon, we can go places and even challenge the best in the world in long distance races.
And I want to tell you that if I have a company today that wants to sponsor sports, I will choose marathon because the online registration alone will create a lot of awareness about your company both locally and internationally.