SEARCH 2000 Games

Sunday, October 2, 2000

Can't help but love this guy

  SYDNEY -- The highest of compliments was paid to Canadian wrestler Daniel Igali on Saturday night at the media village farewell party.

 Two lumbering hacks, inspired by the gold-medal winning performance of Igali earlier in the day and fuelled by a couple of gallons of Victoria Bitter, locked arms, exchanged hard looks and then sent each other crashing through a table of food and drink.

 For two weeks, the media moaned about the sub-par performance of Canadian athletes, taking great delight in such witticisms as Malar-ia and the chant, "We're No.4!" But Igali's victory ... well, that inspired the boys to action.

 At the media village, Igali rules, and not just because he won Canada's third and final gold medal. It's because he won it under such tremendous pressure and in such dramatic fashion. The book on Canadian athletes is that they're supposed to pull the old ostrich routine when the heat is on, especially if they're the odds-on favourite for the gold (row, row, paddle, paddle). Not Igali. Three times heading into the gold-medal match against Arsen Gitinov, the Surrey, B.C., wrestler won in overtime. Better yet, he won the gold in a real sport. Not one of those IOC made-for-TV scams, like trampoline and synchronized diving. Freestyle wrestling was practised by the ancient Greeks (and probably a few younger Greeks as well).

 Everybody down here in Sydney loves Daniel, except, maybe for that hokey dance he did around the Canadian flag after his win. But if you think that was a put-on, you don't know young Mr. Igali. And let's face it, prior to these Games, who knew this kid?

 Igali, 26, has a love of country that is rare among second- and third-generation Canadians.

 "I'm really proud and it's not just because I'm talking to the media that I say that," Igali said. "I actually tell everyone when I go home, when I write letters, that I couldn't have wished to be in a better country."

 Igali grew up in Eniwari, Nigeria, the sixth of 21 children. His dad was an accountant. His mother was pregnant a lot. Eniwari is not known as Silicon Valley South and there were few opportunities for young people to improve their position in life.

 "Three meals a day were tough to come by," he said. "My parents did everything they could, but you had only two meals, so you had to choose. And I always went with the afternoon one (because) if you had it in the morning, you would go hungry all afternoon."

 Igali saw a chance to be happy and grabbed it, claiming refugee status after the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games.

 Now he is totally in love with all things Maple Leaf, the freedom, the bounty, the people. Winning the gold medal was his way of giving something back. And the tears he shed during the playing of O Canada were hardly reptilian.

 In fact, the last thing he wanted to do on the medal podium was to break down and cry.

 "I know my friends (back home) will go 'Oh, what a wimp,' " Igali said, with a laugh. "But I couldn't control it. You have to release the emotions because you get pent up, you suffocate from it. And I just had to (let go). This is a moment I've waited for all my life and when it finally came ...

 "Back home in Nigeria, you don't cry when you're happy," he said. "It's something I picked up here. We watched the 1992 Olympics and when they were crying we would say, 'What are they doing, did anybody bite them or something?'

 "But look at me now, I'm crying. I've picked up a lot of good stuff here and I'm proud of it and very glad. But my friends will definitely give me a big hassle.

 "That's how it is for me," Igali said. "I've realized all my goals. On the podium, it was like a million memories (in my mind). I'm recounting six years in a few seconds. It's everything that has happened to me in my long journey."