Feature: How Gus Nketia's escaped from Games Village to New Zealand in 1990

Author: stuff.co.nz/sport
Gus Nketia and his family
Gus Nketia and his family

The rapid emergence of teenage star Edward Osei-Nketia on the sprinting scene has unearthed a long-forgotten incident in New Zealand athletics history, when his father Gus Nketia and fellow Ghanaian athlete Laud Codjoe escaped their team to stay on in Auckland after the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Dana Johannsen tells the story of the pair's break for freedom, and the whānau who helped them start a new life in New Zealand.

Rob Bradshaw saw a duffel bag fly over the wire perimeter fence, followed by two figures in the dawn light. It was only then he knew for certain the athlete heist was on.

Bradshaw, parked up on Merton Rd in Glen Innes on the north eastern boundary of the Auckland Commonwealth Games village, away from the security checkpoints, didn't have much of a plan about what would happen next. His only intent was to "just get these boys out of there".

The south Auckland social worker had borrowed his brother's work van for the mission, spending the wee hours of the morning clearing out the paint pails from the back and blacking out the windows in preparation. 

In the back were two unlikely accomplices - Crown's children, Helen and Phil, then aged just 10 and 12, who were perched on the floor of the stripped out cargo van, fidgety and bored. And soon, bewildered.

The sliding door of the van opened and Bradshaw urgently shepherded in two young African men with smiles on their faces and fear in their eyes.

"There's no going back now, boys," Bradshaw said to Gus Nketia and Laud Codjoe as the van sped its way through the streets of east Auckland towards the great unknown.  

It was only ever meant to be a bluff.

Codjoe was certain the management of the Ghanaian athletics team would be the ones to blink first when he threatened to not return home after the Games.

He and his young track and field teammate had approached team officials with a plan. They'd made some good friends in Auckland during the event, and the opportunity had presented itself for them to stay on and continue to race in New Zealand.

Codjoe, the older and more outspoken of the pair, led the negotiations. He proposed that they stay in New Zealand, where they had access to better facilities and would be able to concentrate on their training, and return to compete for Ghana internationally.

Back in Ghana, their future in the sport was tenuous. If they wanted to be eligible to train as part of the national team, they would have had to get a job with the military police or armed forces.

This way would be win-win, Codjoe argued. They could compete regularly on the New Zealand domestic scene, learn new training techniques, and gain knowledge and experience they could pass on to the next generation of athletes coming through in Ghana.

Team management thought otherwise.

"What we got from our team management was total ignoring of the facts. They were not prepared to listen and give us this opportunity, which would have been beneficial for later," Codjoe recalls.

"So I said 'well, if this is your stance, I'm not going back'.

"When I told them that I wasn't going back, I was just bluffing. It was just a bluff to see if they changed their mind, but they didn't, so here we are."

Here we are. A generation on, and Athletics New Zealand is preparing to usher in the most exciting sprinting talent the country has seen in, well, about 29 years.  

Last month Nketia's son, Edward Osei-Nketia, raced for New Zealand for the first time at the Oceania Track and Field Championships in Townsville. The talented teen - a gigantic 1.90, 95kg bundle of raw power - took out the 100m title in Townsville to earn himself a spot at the world championships in Doha in September.

It was arguably the most highly anticipated international debut from a New Zealand athlete. Earlier this year, while still just 17, Osei-Nketia won both the New Zealand and Australian national 100m titles, sparking a frenzied talent grab from both sides of the Tasman. In the end, Osei-Nketia, who was born in Auckland and moved to Australia at the age of 10, opted to follow in his father's footsteps and wear the silver fern.

And it all stems back to Codjoe's act of brinkmanship.

The decision to make good on the threat was not an easy one, particularly for Nketia. 

At just 19 and fresh out of high school - not much older than his son is now, Nketia found himself on the other side of the world forced to make a life-altering decision without being able to consult family back home.   

"It was a very difficult decision," Nketia says.

"I was leaving family behind and coming to an unknown place. I mean people were nice, everywhere we went we were welcomed there, but it was still difficult as at that time we didn't have anyone. We didn't really have a plan."

Codjoe, while only 21 himself, had a broader outlook on life. 

He'd developed a distrust of the Ghanaian sporting establishment at a young age, and that cynicism had continued to fester.

Codjoe doesn't like to talk ill of his homeland ("I don't want to say bad things, it was just the way it was"), but to demonstrate what he was up against in Ghana, he tells the story of his first experience in a representative team.

He had been inspired to get into athletics by one of the senior boys at his high school in Winneba, on the Gulf of Guinea coast. He was in awe of the older boy's speed and athletic prowess but, in truth, what he admired the most was his tracksuit. He can still remember the senior schoolboy returning from a national training camp wearing a brand new blue tracksuit with a red, gold and green stripe down the side.

"I wrote it on my chalkboard that I am going to wear one of those things before I finish school," says Codjoe, who now lives in Sydney with his wife Tess and their two children.

"I got selected into the team in my final year. The sad part is, we didn't get our uniform because a corrupt official took the whole lot – all our training gear, the tracksuits, shoes, everything – and hid them at his house."

This was the Ghana he did not want to return to.

"I was only bluffing to begin with but then I thought 'no, we have to do this' because if we don't, then we go back home and that would have been the end. It would have been the end of our athletics career.

"I knew [Nketia] was a bit caught between his family and wanting to stay. I said to him 'I am not going to decide for you, if you want to stay, we stay. If you want to go, good luck, but I am definitely not going back'."

Nketia, too, eventually decided he was not going back. 

So, on the morning of February 3, 1990 - just hours before the Ghanaian contingent was due to depart Auckland, the pair snuck out of the village and ran for their new lives.

The plan, so far as there was one, was to stay on the move. The Ghana team was due to fly out at 8.30 that Sunday morning, so they figured the best option was to drive around Auckland until they knew the plane was in the air. A moving target would be harder to find.

Helen Crown, seated on the floor of the van alongside her brother, remembers straining in the dim light to get a proper look at the two men who had just launched themselves into the vehicle. As a young child she was fascinated by their darkskin and the unusual way they spoke. 

"I was only 10 and I don't think I had ever met an African person before, so I was just captivated by these guys," she says.  

She was also, she says on reflection, strangely unquestioning about the whole escapade.

"Dad always did crazy stuff to be honest. We just thought it was another one of his weird adventures," laughs Helen, who describes her father as a crusader for the underdog.

"I was mostly concerned about how long we were going to be in the van for, because it seemed like such a long time and it was really uncomfortable."

Helen would later learn that Bradshaw, her older cousin, had met Nketia and Codjoe when the Ghana team were put up at the Weymouth children's home after arriving in Auckland early. With the Games village not yet officially open, and no alternative arrangements in place, New Zealand officials had to scramble to find the team emergency accommodation.

A social worker at the Weymouth home, Bradshaw took an immediate liking to the pair and soon took them under his wing, helping with their preparation for the Games and ensuring they got to their training venues. Bradshaw came to learn a lot about Codjoe and Nketia's plight back home during these missions across Auckland in his little white Ford laser. 

To cut a long story short (as Bradshaw tends to say before launching into a very long story involving unexpected plot twists and, often, big name supporting characters like John Walker, Sonny Bill Williams or Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers), it wasn't long before he found himself offering to help them stay on in New Zealand. He agreed to accompany the pair when they met with the management of the Ghanaian team to put forward their case, telling officials he was prepared to sponsor the young athletes. 

"I looked after social welfare kids, so it wasn't a problem at all. I was happy to help out. But these guys [team management] weren't having a bar of it, eh. They weren't messing around. I think they confiscated [Codjoe and Nketia's] passports right then and there. That was a real eye-opener," says Bradshaw, who, as a top basketball and rugby league player, was well-connected in the Auckland sporting community.

Given the Ghana team officials were aware of Bradshaw's friendship with the athletes, it was decided it was best for Nketia and Codjoe to hide out at Crown's Glenfield home. 

There was nothing illegal in what Nketia and Codjoe were doing, as far as New Zealand agencies were concerned, anyway. All Commonwealth Games athletes were granted three-month visitors' visas upon entry into the country, meaning the pair had every right to remain here. But the fear was they would be found and returned to team officials to avoid any embarrassing diplomatic incidents. 

"These boys were scared, man. Real scared. They were hiding out underneath the house," Bradshaw says, repeating it again with staccato effect. "Underneath. The. House."

Not wanting to leave Nketia and Codjoe alone, the next day Crown, then a station manager at Radio Aotearoa – New Zealand's first Māori-owned radio station, brought his new house guests into work with him at the Papatoetoe studio.

They were ushered into the number two studio as Jay Laga'aia and Temuera Morrison, who hosted the morning programme prior to their respective acting careers taking off, wrapped up their show.

Then, from the booth next door, Liane Clarke (later of Fair Go fame) read the news bulletin. The top item hit a little too close to home.

"She begins reading out a story talking about these two guys who had absconded from the Commonwealth Games village and she is looking directly at us through the glass with her eyes as wide as saucers," Crown chuckles.

"We were a little bit silly because we hadn't thought it through all the way. It was a couple of days later before we thought 'gee, what have we got ourselves into?'."

The tensest moment came about two weeks in, when Bradshaw received a phone call from immigration officials, informing him Nketia and Codjoe needed to report to Auckland Airport. Codjoe thought for sure the jig was up.

"I was like 'oh man, this is not very good'. We didn't want to get Rob in any trouble, so we had to go. He came and got us, and we drove to the airport," recalls Codjoe.

At the airport they were led to a small office, where a customs officer was seated behind a desk. The officer produced two brown envelopes and asked Codjoe and Nketia the same two questions: "Do you want to go home?" and "Do you intend on staying in New Zealand?"; to which he received the same two responses: "No" and "Yes". 

He then slid the envelopes across the desk to the nervous pair. Inside were their passports and return tickets home. Their travel documents had been handed in at the airport by Ghanaian team management when the last of the officials flew out following fruitless attempts to retrieve the missing athletes.

"The man said to us: 'You are free to stay here until your visa expires. Once your visa expires, then you are committing an offence. Until then you are free to go anywhere you want in New Zealand'," says Codjoe.

"Then they said to Rob, we are following them on the radio and the TV and good luck to them, but make sure if you want to do something, do it before the three months [is up]."

Bradshaw and Crown were already working on it. They'd engaged a lawyer to help navigate the immigration process, with Crown footing the bill for a lot of the early legal costs. Although Nketia and Codjoe had only been in the country a matter of weeks, Crown says they had already become a much-loved part of the whānau. He was "totally committed" to ensuring they could stay.

"I was a single parent at that time, so it was tough for a while," says Crown.

"I probably underestimated how tender they were starting anew in a strange country confronted by such a different cultural environment."

 This revealed itself in small, everyday ways.  

Like the time Helen walked into the bathroom to find Nketia and Codjoe washing their clothes in the basin ("I was like what are you doing? You know there's a whole laundry over here?"). Or their curious obsession with the frozen food section at the local Four Square on Chartwell Ave. The store manager could never figure out why the young African men who accompanied the Crowns on their trips to the shop always made a beeline to the freezer section. Finally, he gave in and asked. It turned out they had never seen frozen chickens before.

It was eye-opening for Helen and brother Phil to learn how Nketia and Codjoe's childhood had differed so greatly from their own.

"We learned a lot about their lives back home. Some of the stories they shared with us were quite alarming and quite hard to get your head around."

Phil, who was living with his father fulltime during this period, developed a particularly strong bond with Nketia and Codjoe. Despite the difference in age, Helen says her brother seemed to connect with them on a deeper level. They shared an offbeat musical interest in Lou Reed, and the call would often go out in the house to "Take a walk on the wild side".

Becoming part of the Crown whānau also meant learning about their whakapapa. Nketia and Codjoe spent some time in Crown's hometown of Te Kuiti, where his ancestral roots can be traced back to the first chiefs in the area.

There, the two new Kiwis were introduced to rugby at the town's imaginatively named Rugby Park, and drank their first beer in the hallowed Waitete Rugby clubrooms.

"We joked that they were starting to get fat because they were hanging out with us Māoris eating fish and chips and boil-up and stuff," says Helen.

"When we first saw them after they got back from Te Kuiti, I remember joking with them 'it's like you're fat, but you still have abs on top of your pot belly. How does that work?'."

In truth, the weight gain was more a side effect of inertia.

Things had slowed down for Codjoe and Nketia as the months ticked by following their daring escape. There was little they could do but wait for their residency application to grind its way through the various bureaucratic machinations.

Helen could sense a restlessness in them both. Codjoe spoke regularly of his absolute determination to make something of himself. Nketia, who was more quiet and reserved, played his cards closer to his chest, but you could see in him a quiet burning desire. They were anxious to start their new lives. Yet, for the time being, they were stuck in the in-between. They could not move forward, they could not go back.

Slowly, their pathway to independence was illuminated. They were granted an extension on their visas. Bradshaw managed to set the pair up with a job as storemen at the Lydiard shoe factory. And they moved into a flatin Blockhouse Bay with other athletes. 

The big breakthrough came when Athletics New Zealand agreed to help with Nketia and Codjoe's immigration bid. Sir Graeme Avery – then the president of North Harbour Bays Athletics club – lobbied the upper levels of government on the pair's behalf and in late 1991 Codjoe and Nketia were granted residency on humanitarian grounds. 

While athletics officials eventually came to the party and helped the pair get permanent residency, Codjoe says they would not be where they are were it not for their "Māori family".   

"I call [Bradshaw and Crown] our brothers because they helped us get to where we are today. They didn't even know what we were talking about when we first brought it up. We put them in a very uncomfortable position, they were in a tight corner," says Codjoe.

"They were our saviours."

Linford Christie could see it. 

Even in 1990, Christie, who knew a thing or two about going fast, had recognised Nketia's potential.  

The Commonwealth Games brought some genuine world class stars to Auckland, and Christie, Great Britain's most decorated sprinter, was undoubtedly one of the biggest names to grace the track at Mount Smart Stadium. 

The personable Bradshaw was not one to miss an opportunity to rub shoulders with the greats. When he saw Christie, who went on to win gold in the 100m in Auckland, in the warm-up area, Bradshaw breezed up and said hello. 

He asked Christie what he thought of the two young Ghanaian athletes that Bradshaw had become heavily invested in.

"He said to me, '[Codjoe] is a very good sprinter and long-jumper, but the young guy [Nketia], he's going to be real fast'," Bradshaw says.

Four years later at the next Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, Nketia lined up in the 100m final alongside the British superstar, who by then had added Olympic gold medallist to his resume.

Nketia had gone from relative unknown to medal contender after setting a blistering time of 10.11 seconds in the heats, slashing .30 seconds off his own New Zealand record. The powerful sprinter had held the national record since 1992, inching it down by hundredths of a second at a time. His performance in the heats of the Commonwealth Games represented a staggering improvement of around three metres.

Nketia's coach, Kerry Hill, would describe it as a "Beamonesque moment" – referencing US long-jumper Bob Beamon's world record leap at the 1968 Olympic Games, in which he improved the previous mark from 27ft to 29ft – completely bypassing the 28ft.

It was no one-off. In the quarterfinals Nketia recorded 10.13, before running 10.19 in the semifinals to secure his place in the final.

But the intense competition programme took its toll on Nketia, with a sciatic nerve injury he battled for much of his career flaring up during his semifinal run.

"I remember seeing the physio and he said I should not run the final because it would not be good for me, but I did because being in the final that was my goal, I wasn't going to let that go," Nketia says.

"I ran the final, I did not run 100 per cent, but I was pleased to be there. To hear my name called out in a Commonwealth Games final – it was a dream for me."

Watching on at home, Crown says seeing Nketia achieve on the world stage was highly emotional for his family. 

"When I watched him run for New Zealand for the first time and set the record in Canada, we cried. We just bawled, you know. It was a special moment," he says.

Nketia finished eighth and last in the final (later upgraded to seventh after a rival in the final was suspended for an anti-doping violation), in a time of 10.42 – well short of the pace he set in the earlier rounds. Nevertheless, the Victoria Games stands out as the highlight of his athletics career alongside competing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where he finished 29th out of 106 athletes in the 100m.

It was also an exciting time for athletics in New Zealand. Prominent athletics identity Dave Norris, Zealand's top jumps athlete through the late 1950s to 1970s, says Nketia and Codjoe spiced up the sprinting scene for a period of about six years.

"During that time when Gus and Laud were competing, New Zealand sprinting was at the highest it's ever been in terms of overall standard," says Norris.

"We actually had a men's relay team that got 13th one year in the world championships [1995]. That's unheard of for New Zealand. So it really provided a big boost for the sport."

But away from the track, things were not always as rosy for Nketia and Codjoe. While they had the freedom to pursue their career, there were still difficult trade-offs to be made.

Finding fulltime work that paid well proved tough, particularly when they were travelling up to six weeks a year for their sport. Codjoe had the added pressure of trying to combine work and athletics with his studies at Massey University.

Nketia, meanwhile, took up an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker and joiner. It was tough, physical work – hardly conducive with being a high performance athlete. 

"That was one disadvantage I had with my career. I had to work eight hours before I could train, and by the time you get to training you are exhausted. I couldn't do much, but I tried to do it. I did the best I could, but if I was given time to train and maybe just worked a few hours, I think that would have made a big difference," says Nketia.

Even while working a fulltime job, and with limited resources Nketia remains New Zealand's greatest sprinter. His national record still stands 25 years on. Of late, however, it is increasingly coming under threat. From none other than his son.

Codjoe was the first to make the move across the Tasman. 

He'd spent some time competing in Sydney in 2000 in one last bid to qualify for an Olympic Games. He didn't make the cut, but he decided his other dreams could still be realised in the lucky country. 

"I had to find money, you know, I had to find a good job. So that became my focus."

He returned home to Auckland and convinced his wife Tess they needed to be in Sydney. Codjoe went first, finding a job and a house. Four months later Tess, who was born in the Philippines, packed all their belongings into a container and joined him.

Nketia and wife Helena – a childhood friend in Ghana whom he reconnected with when he was competing in London in the mid-90s – settled in Red Beach, Whangaparaoa. There they had three children – sons Edward and Augustine Junior, and daughter Elizabeth. But in 2010, they too were lured across the ditch, with Nketia taking up a job at the printing presses for the Canberra Times.

Although based in different states, Nketia and Codjoe catch up regularly in the same setting where they first met on the other side of the world – at track and field meets. Both men coach their children in athletics. The exploits of the Osei-Nketia have been breathlessly reported, but Nketia's other son is an age-group champion 400m runner.

Codjoe's children – son Laud Junior (16), and daughter Kristin (10) – are also budding athletes, with Laud Jnr a state champion in long-jump. 

"Yes it is unfortunate that that happened," jokes Codjoe. 

"We couldn't break away from it, we're still in it."

In the 29 years since Nketia and Codjoe's bold dash for New Zealand, memories of events have faded, the timeline gets muddled, key people are forgotten. But there is one thing they both agree on – the ending.

Seeing the opportunities that are open to their children only reinforces that they made the right decision. 

Their impossible choice has given their children the luxury of choice.

"It was tough, but if it is your destiny, you will get there. If it is meant to happen, it will happen," says Codjoe

"If you go back and look at it, everything from day one sort of lines up, even before we came to the Commonwealth Games. It was all meant to happen this way.

"Now, the stage is set for our kids."