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Invictus Games: Nigeria's athletes battle with trauma

September 14, 2023

Nigeria made its debut at the recent Invictus Games. Dismissed by critics as a cynical, expensive spectacle, the event is a chance for participants suffering from physical and psychological trauma to exchange ideas.

Peacemaker Azuegbulam holds the Nigerian flag and waves
A winning start: Peacemaker Azuegbulam won gold in power liftingImage: Getty Images for Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023

Dressed in green outfits, Peacemaker Azuegbulam and some Nigerian teammates made their way through the crowd at the Invictus Games. A mixture of chattering school groups, soldiers and yellow-clad volunteers populated the area between the athletics stadium and the large arena in Düsseldorf. The mood is relaxed as, time after time, the Africans stopped for either a selfie or just a short conversation with participants from other nations.

"It's exciting to be here. It's a nice experience," Azuegbulam told DW. The day before, the 27-year-old had won the first gold medal for his country in powerlifting.

Like Israel and Colombia, Nigeria is taking part in the sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women for the first time. A total of 21 countries are represented in the 2023 edition in Düsseldorf, Germany. Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, launched the event nine years ago.

"We are delighted that these new nations are taking part," he said at the opening ceremony, adding that he was paying particular attention to Nigeria because his wife, Meghan, has Nigerian roots.

Harrison Amuzie competing at the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf
Harrison Amuzie made his debut with the shot put in DüsseldorfImage: Jens Krepela/DW

Injury, trauma and doubt

Azuegbulam, on the other hand, appeared reserved and thoughtful.

"It's not easy," he said, describing his situation. In 2020, as a soldier, he was hit by heavy anti-aircraft ammunition during fighting in northern Nigeria and lost his left leg.

"After that, I asked myself what I was living for. Some friends turned their backs on me. It was tough to come to terms with that."

Teammate Harrison Amuzie, who competes in shot put, table tennis, sitting volleyball and archery, reported something similar. 

"My injury was the absolute low point for me. I felt completely useless," he told DW.

Amuzie was severely injured in his shoulder and thigh in an attack on his unit in 2019, and has since been getting around with a walking stick. "The shame of having to move around on crutches all the time and being unable to do things you used to be able to do was traumatic."

Both said sport has helped them find their way back to life physically and mentally.

"I have trauma. Many thoughts occupy my mind. Sometimes I feel weak," said Azuegbulam.

His participation in the Invictus Games encourages him, though.

Too much effort for a noble goal?

Critics have been vocal about the enormous amount of money spent on the Games and the comparatively small number of participants (500). Germany's Defense Ministry alone has provided around €40 million (about $43 million), with further funding from large arms companies such as sponsors Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

"By trivializing the consequences, the Invictus Games also trivializes war," said Didem Aydurmus from Germany's socialist Left Party. "Instead, it would be better to invest more money in disabled sports and rehabilitation programs for people with trauma."

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius sees the participation of German athletes differently.

"What the men and women of this country have done for us is not for nothing and must be appreciated accordingly," he said.

'Everyone here has made sacrifices for their country'

Such conversations are a long way removed from Amuzie. Under the booming bass in the athletics stadium, he picked up a 7.26 kilogram (16 pound) iron ball for a practice throw, about to compete in the shot put final. There were 22 competitors from countries like Poland, Georgia, the United States and Ukraine.

For Amuzie, though, the competition was only one part of the Games. The biggest positive was something else.

"The Invictus Games are a place where we can come together and exchange ideas. Everyone here has made sacrifices for their country. We share our ups and downs," Amuzie said, adding that people have networked and want to stay in touch.

Meanwhile, gold medalist Azuegbulam is making memories in Düsseldorf and sharing them on his Instagram account. "I'm happy about my medal," he said. "But I also want to inspire other soldiers who have also been injured. We all still have games to play and competitions to compete in."

This article was originally written in German.


Jens Krepela
Jens Krepela Editor, reporter and author
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