BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Running sports commentaries on electronic media – either radio or television or even any digital platform has not been the same, not just in Nigeria, but Africa generally since 7 August 1990 when Ernest Okonkwo died.
It is 30 years today since the man who is easily the best sports commentator ever died. Undoubtedly he was the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T) in running sports commentaries.
The younger generation may not easily know his worth as they probably heard stories about him and may never have heard any of his commentaries before.
He is better appreciated by sports followers who are 50 years and above. His era brought out the golden generations of sports commentators from the country.
They include the pioneer, Ishola Folorunsho, Eddie Fadairo, Sebastian Ofurum, Kelvin Ejiofor , Tolu Fatoyinbo and Yinka Craig, among others.
The voice of Ernest Okonkwo can only be heard by those privileged to have made recordings while the legend was alive.
Incidentally, www.sportsvillagesquare.com gathered that even the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) where Okonkwo worked for 30 years cannot lay hold on most of the graphic commentaries that he ran while he was alive.
Aspiring commentators therefore have no ready-made material to fall back to for inspiration. The same applies to the works of other great commentators such as Ishola Folorunsho, Sebastian Ofurum, Kevin Ejiofor and Tolu Fatoyinbo among others.
That is yet another indication of poor documentation that has been the bane of development in Nigerian sports and other spheres of the country’s national life.
To later generation of sports followers in Nigeria, the name of Okonkwo may ring no bell. But to the older ones, Ernest Okonkwo represented the best in the running of sports commentaries on radio.
He was a master of descriptive language. Like Chief Segun Odegbami once remarked about the late sports commentator, Okonkwo was always conjuring words easily, effortlessly and aptly like a magician with his bag of tricks.
In the 1970s through 1980s, despite the preponderance of world class musicians across the globe, some sports addict considered Ernest Okonkwo’s commentaries more melodious to listen to than the best of music.
His voice was sweet to listen to and his brains were ever alert on issues he articulately commented on. His thoughts were organized and were often leading his listeners to logical conclusions.
The ways he articulated opinions on issues can make a university professor envious. Smart at arraigning similarly sounding words to make melodious logic. A case in point was a radio programme in which he was trying to figure out a possible remote cause of attacks on Nigeria’s Flying Eagles in a World Cup qualifying match in Ethiopia in 1997.
The violent reception of the Nigerian team was traced to an opinionated report in a Nigerian newspaper, which painted the Ethiopian side that earlier visited Nigeria as famished. Hear Okonkwo: “Our sports writers must learn not to incite out of excitement.”
Even his voice was melodious to listen to. His brains were ever alert and he seemed too informed on
So obsessed were some of his addicted followers that his radio commentaries were often recorded on tapes and played back, in place of music. There were lots for one to learn from his power of recall and tiebacks.
An influential sports commentator, Ernest Okonkwo was a wordsmith. His captivating football commentaries were made of simple, but fluent English.
Expert at coining words and new expressions, football commentary listeners on Radio Nigeria will remember his nicknaming of footballers like Segun Odegbami as ‘Mathematical’, Adokiye Amiesimaka as ‘Chief Justice’, Yisa Sofoluwe as ‘Dean of Defence’, Sylvanus Okpala as ‘Quick Silver’ or other expressions like “Christian Chukwu taking an ‘Intercontinental Ballistic Missile’ type of “banana shot”.
Such was the colour he added to football commentaries that spectators on football fields carried their radio sets glued to their ears even as they watched the matches.
Television viewers often switched off the audio volume of their sets preferring Ernest Okonkwo’s graphic description of proceedings on radio.
Often recalled is the rhythm of description of proceedings in an Enugu Rangers versus Raccah Rovers’ duel in the 1980s.
Hear him: “He beats Christian Chukwu; he beats Christian Madu; he beats Christian Nwokocha…he beats three Christians in a row! Who is this man? Oh! It is Shefiu Mohammed sending a diagonal pass to Baba Otu Mohammed”.
Recall his commentary of the proceedings of a Nigeria versus Tunisia World Cup qualifier in Lagos on July 6, 1985: “Okey Isima, with a short pass to Sylvanus Okpala. They both play in Portugal. They can communicate in Igbo; they can communicate in English; they can communicate in Portuguese and they ‘ve just communicated with the ball!”
Such was the power of his description and coinage of expressions that former national team left winger, Adokiye Amiesimaka was quoted in a publication as calling for the naming of the media tribune of the Abuja National Stadium after Ernest Okonkwo.
So much that one can easily conclude that the demise of Ernest Okonkwo on August 7, 1990 marked the death of apt sports radio commentary in Nigeria.
It was the end of a journey he began in 1957 when he joined the then Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), which he served for 33 years.
Okonkwo joined what is today Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria as programme assistant before being trained at Australian Broadcasting Commission between 1964 and 1965.
The man from Nando in Anambra-East Local Government Area of Anambra State was later made the Head of outside Broadcasts at the corporation.