The muscle-bulging Etim Patrick ‘Ironbar’ Bassey was attempting the 67.5 kg in Men’s Weightlifting Lightweight at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles when he felt a pain in his leg. A torn muscle meant his Olympic Games journey was over.
It was a cruel blow to the then 29-year-old who was regarded as one of the best weightlifters and a huge medal favourite ahead of the 1984 Olympic Games.
Popularly known as Ironbar, his first competition as a weightlifter was at the 1981 Lagos Sports Festival where he won a Gold Medal. That same year, he competed at the National Festival Sports in Benin City where he also won a Gold Medal.
Still, in 1981, he participated in his third competition, the African Weightlifting Championships in Port Saeed, Egypt and won three Gold Medals.
IronBar’s status as a weightlifter was growing and after winning a Bronze Medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, all eyes were on him.
He had the world at his shoulders, but that torn muscle brought him back to earth.
The familiar face at Addo-Badore Road in Ajah
It was on a very sunny February morning in Ajah, Lagos where I first met Ironbar. Regulars at the popular Addo-Badore Road in Ajah know him as he is regularly seen directing traffic and filling up any potholes on the road.
A colleague had told me about a man ‘who had won medals for Nigeria in weightlifting but now does menial jobs along that road for survival.’ A very familiar story, tales of former athletes who have brought glory to the Nigerian flag now living in penury.
It always makes a good story, so we set out to Ajah to meet Ironbar.
After questioning a host of people along the Addo-Badore Road, we were directed to a vulcanizer who quizzed us on the reason we were looking for him.
Satisfied with our response, he sent someone to call Ironbar and a few minutes later, he emerged, his huge frame still unswerving but with a tint of grey.
We introduced ourselves and stated why we were there to see him.
“I can’t do it today, I’m not feeling too well,” he said when we made it clear it was going to be a video interview.
We scheduled for the next day; “Come around 11: am, I would be on break from the road by then, I come early in the morning and go on break around 11.am.”
Along the Addo-Badore Road, Ironbar is seen daily from Market Bus Stop to the end of the road in Badore, filling potholes, directing traffic and generally keeping maintenance of the road.
The next day about 11: am we arrived at the road to watch him work in his green reflective jacket and boots.
“Basically, welcome to Ado road one of the most popular roads because of one man. Ado road there is no alternative road, what I do is what they call voluntary service, country service, serving your country and severing humanity,” Ironbar told Pulse Sports after we had settled down for an interview.
“What I do is if there are potholes, I fix it, during the raining season if the gutter is blocked because of debris, I will go inside the gutter and clear it so you can have the flow of the water.
“There are always Tipper on this road, if the tipper goes down, I try to direct traffic.
“No agency, no government pays me. it's strictly volunteering, it's only when they appreciate and I have been doing this since 2015.”
Born in Cross River State, IronBar who is from Efik was just a baby when he moved to Lagos with his parents.
He grew up in Lagos and started weightlifting at the National Stadium in Surulere.
“I was small but I was beating my mates even as a young boy,” he said.
“I was full of energy, I said ‘okay, I don’t want to join a bad gang, so let me direct this energy to positive’. That is why I joined weightlifting.
“I went to National Stadium after I started lifting weights in my neighbourhood.
He took to the sports and in no time he was selected to represent Lagos State and then Nigeria.
Injury brings a promising career to an end
All hopes of a medal at the 1984 Olympic Games were crushed because of the injury he sustained. A scholarship to play American Football for a university was also cancelled.
“I returned from the 1984 Olympic Games with the injury. I could have won at least bronze medal at the Olympics,” he said.
“I was offered a scholarship to play American football, it's not soccer. I wanted a scholarship at the University of Southern California.
“I was supposed to resume school after the Olympics, but I sustained the injury. If I didn't sustain the injury I could have been playing American Football.
“Due to the injury, they withdrew the scholarship, so I came back to Nigeria and I was abandoned.”
Despite sustaining the injury while representing Nigeria, Ironbar was abandoned by the Nigerian Wrestling Federation and the Federal Government.
After months of pleading for support to fund corrective surgery on his injury, he was left using his life savings.
“I didn’t want to be handicapped so I used the money I saved from endorsement. When you represent Nigeria, I got an endorsement by Adidas,” he explained.
“I was saving money, so I used my life savings, to go back to America to take care of my injury.
“I spent roughly $25, 000 dollars which the government was supposed to take care of for me. I didn't go there to represent myself, I went there to represent my country.”
Things got worse for Ironbar after the surgery, as he had no money left to invest in a business. His career ended because of an injury and then abandoned by the country he represented, he used his only money for surgery.
“That is why I was broke. If I didn't use my money to take care of my injury, the sky would have been my limit because there is a lot of business I would have gone it,” he said.
“It’s not that the government did not know, they knew.”
Life after surgery was tough, with a three-month visa, he stayed back in America because he needed to go under the knife again.
With no money afterwards, he took up several jobs and charted a new course in his life.
“In America, I was working at a gym, Golds Gym, as a personal trainer. I was also working at a nightclub as a bodyguard. In America, there is no problem, if you can work, it’s okay,” he said.
Although he was unable to continue as a weightlifter, life continued for Ironbar as he married an American woman in 1989 with whom he has two daughters Maine, born January 1990 and Nkoyo born March 1991.
The world he had gradually rebuilt crashed again when his wife sought a divorce, ending his eligibility for a Green Card.
“I came back to Nigeria in 2004. Remember I went with three months visa because of my injury and I was supposed to get Green Card, but the wife I married, withdrew the petition," he said.
“Then they said, ‘since your wife withdrew the petition, you have to come back as have overstayed your three-month visa, you have to go back to your country’, that is why I came back in 2004.
“My wife wanted to be with somebody else and I said no ‘problem, it’s your choice’ but we already had two daughters.
“I had to come back to re-apply, my first born, my daughter is in the United States Navy. If I want to go back right now, she will be the one to file in for me.
“I have not decided to go back, but if I want to go back, all I have to do is to tell her, then she will start the process. I talk to them every time.”
Life in Nigeria
Back in Nigeria, Ironbar picked up the pieces again in Lagos and took a job as a bouncer at a club in Victoria Island.
He left the job a couple of months later and managed a slew of menial jobs until 2014 when he voluntarily took up maintenance duties of the Addo-Badore Road in Ajah.
Commuters and frequent users of the road know IronBar but only a few are aware of his sporting heroics.
“I saw it on one day and I was shocked, I never knew he represented Nigeria before,” a trader known as Mulad told Pulse Sports.
A hairdresser who simply introduced herself as Aisha described Ironbar as a gracious man who is always willing to help.
“The first time I saw him, sorry to say but I thought he was mad, but after a while, I began to see know him better,” Aisha who has a hair salon along Addo Road told Pulse Sports.
“Always smiling and greeting people, I wish the government can help him and give him a job.”
On a regular day, IronBar hits the road as early as 4 am helping and is seen all through the day directing traffic and helping to maintain the road.
“Anything you can do to help him, please do, tell his story, let the whole world know that a man who should be treated as a hero in this country, is on Addo Road directing traffic and living from hand to mouth,” a bar owner along that road told Pulse Sports.
In October 2017, a Facebook user made a post about him which went viral making it to a host of blogs.
It increased the awareness around the former Nigerian athlete.
“The Facebook thing, it was all over the world, I have people coming to visit me from America,” Ironbar said.
“Last time, people sent me money $1000 but scammers got it. People are using my name to dupe people.
“If they want to give me something, I have an account number, or they can send somebody to come to Ado road so that the gift or the money will not fall into the wrong hand.
“Right now I need shelter. Where I stay is not what to write home about, but its life, I have to move on, one day the help will come, I try to be patient.
“It is not that the government does not know, they know, they think after the Facebook post that everything will die down.
“So now I’m on the road, people appreciate, what I do, it's a service. People give me something when they realise that nobody pays me.”
Since that Facebook post, no one from the government and the Nigeria Wrestling Federation have reached out to him but Ironbar is still looking for another opportunity to serve.
The 62-year-old believes he still has the knowledge and the capacity to serve as a coach to young Nigerian weightlifters.
“I have been there, I have done that, I know the secrets of weightlifting. All I have to do is just attend what they call coaching course,” he said.
“After you go through your coaching course, you get your certificate and then you can coach.
“Weightlifting in our prime is still the same with just little change. If the federation cannot help themselves, I can come and help them.”
All efforts to reach an official of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation on this issues have all been futile.
Despite his tough journey so far, IronBar continues to have a sense of service which also prompted him to his voluntary maintenance duties on Addo-Badore Road.
It was the sight of an elderly woman walking instead of entering a bus because of traffic that drove him to take up the maintenance duties long that road.
“When I came back I was working in Club Tower as a bouncer, I was working,” he explained to why he took up the voluntary job on Addo-Badore Road.
“It was an old lady that brought about this volunteer work. There was a lady, she was walking, she walked from Ajah to the second turning, then I asked ‘mother what happened?’ she said ‘my son I have money but I can’t get transport because of the holdup’ so that is the reason I work. I said okay ‘let me see what the problem is’. It was just a pothole, people were just looking the other way waiting for the Government, but where is the government?.”
The case of Ironbar is a constant occurrence in Nigerian sports with a dime a dozen tales of former prolific athletes, from Wilson Oruma to Femi Opabunmi who have been abandoned in mendicity.
Ace Nigerian sports journalist Colin Udoh although not referring to IronBar’s case believes it is the fault of both parties, the government and the athletes.
“Some of these athletes take much of the blame, when you are representing your country, you get paid,” Udoh who is Head of Digital (West Africa) for Kwese Sport told Pulse Sports.
“What you are supposed to do is invest and manage your money properly, not squander it and later complain that you have been abandoned.”
“People always say the athletes have served the country, but they don’t serve the countries as much as soldiers who fight and die in the course of fighting for the country.
“These soldiers are paid stipends compare to the kind of money these athletes make.”
The case of Ironbar, however, cannot be likened to several athletes in that he got injured while representing his country and was abandoned afterwards.
He, however, feels no resentment towards Nigeria, rather an undying love for the country that cruelly abandoned him when he needed them the most.
“It’s my country, I don’t have any other country, I still have a Nigerian passport, it is the love I have been serving the country for a long time,” he said.
“The only thing I got from Nigeria is a handshake from after winning Bronze Medal at the Commonwealth Games.”
“One day there is going to be a change, I’m not the first athlete they have abandoned like that neither was I the last, but I’m still here, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. It’s only God that can stop me, I’m not going to go away.”