OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Wrestling

Chris Wood September 18 2000
OLYMPICS/SPECIAL

Wrestling

Chris Wood September 18 2000

As a teenager growing up in Nigeria, Daniel Igali decorated his bedroom wall with a poster of a Canadian athlete, Ben Johnson. Back then, before scandal struck, the sprinting sensation was a source of inspiration. Igali, an athlete at least as talented as his erstwhile hero, has achieved almost as much competitively as Johnson, but he has experienced none of the celebrity since moving to Canada. It could be the sport in which he competes: amateur wrestling has a low profile in Canada, especially compared with the 100-m sprint. Whatever the reason, when Igali won Canada's first-ever senior world championship in the sport last year, his achievement generated an underwhelming response. Not a single reporter—or anyone else—showed up to welcome him home to Vancouver from the 1999 worlds in Turkey. There was little more attention this spring, even when the Canadian Sports Awards named the 26-year-old wrestler the country’s amateur male athlete of the year.

But Igali may be about to change all that in the nine-metre circle painted on a sweaty mat in Sydney. Short, muscular, affable and articulate, Igali is by far the brightest medal hope on a Canadian Olympic wrestling squad of only four. Ranked next is Gia Sissaouri, 29, from Montreal: he won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and third at this spring’s Pan American Championships in his 58-kg class. But Igali is clearly at the top of his game. His victory over American Lincoln Mcllvray to win the world 69-kg title, he jokes, has made him “a marked man” in Sydney for competitors from half-a-dozen traditional wrestling powerhouses.

Igali is used to breaking with tradition. The only boy among five sisters by his schoolteacher mother, as well as 15 other half-sisters and brothers by his father’s other three wives (polygamy is legal in Nigeria), Daniel learned early how to compete. And to wrestle. The sport was a traditional pastime in the thatch-roofed village of Eniwari where he spent his childhood. Igali s introduction to international freestyle rules came in 1990, at age 16. His first tournament was the Nigerian championship: he won.

In 1994, he represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. By then, however, Igali had come to feel that his athletic and academic ambitions were endangered by Nigeria’s tumultuous politics. As the Games were ending, Igali made the difficult decision not to return home. He revealed his intention to the only Canadian he knew: the volunteer driver of the Commonwealth Games van that had shutded him around Victoria. Tom Murphy and his wife, Susan, took the young athlete in. “He was friendly, enthusiastic, quiet,” says Susan, “and focused. He had a goal: he wanted to wrestle for Canada, and win some medals.”

In 1997, Igali enrolled at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., studying criminology and training under coaches Dave McKay and Mike Jones. That same year, he won his first medal for Canada, at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Now, at last, other Canadians are beginning to take notice of the soft-spoken wrestling sensation. General Mills signed an agreement this year that has splashed Igali’s face on boxes of Cheerios. And while he now visits his family in Nigeria at least yearly, the Surrey resident says: “I see living here forever.” If the journey from Eniwari to Sydney, via Victoria and Surrey, seems implausible, to Igali it has a hidden logic. “I think God sort of plans something for you,” he says. If that plan includes Olympic gold, it should also bring Igali all the acclaim that has eluded him until now.