Nigerian polo player Neku Atawodi is excited about the future of polo in Africa and its ability to bring people together from all walks of life
Polo is fast becoming a popular sport for millennial women in Nigeria, and they are a common sight at the upscale Lagos Polo Club.
What was once an elite sport is now more accessible.olo is fast becoming a popular sport for millennial women in Nigeria, and they are a common sight at the upscale Lagos Polo Club.
It’s a far cry from the sport’s early years that completely banned women such as American polo pioneer Sue Sally Hale from playing in the 1950s.
Hale’s response was to disguise herself as a man by tucking her ash-colored hair under a helmet, flattening her breasts with tape and wearing loose-fitting men’s shirts and a moustache for nearly 20 years. She finally dispensed with the ruse in 1972 when the US Polo Association bowed to pressure and admitted her to its ranks. Her story reverberated all over the world and to Nigeria’s Benue State, where a young lady named Neku Atawodi was duly inspired to take up the sport.
Known popularly as Nigeria’s ‘polo queen’ and one of the few black women in the sport internationally, Atawodi is an equestrian for life.
“I grew up in Kaduna and that is a very polo town. They are very influenced by horse-riding and durbars and so Kaduna had an affinity towards polo but also, my uncle lived next door and he had horses in his backyard. I remember watching polo events and falling in love with them when I was in junior secondary school. I loved everything from the horses to the players. I started riding with everyone,” she says.
With the riders maneuvering the magnificent horses under the mellow Nigerian sun, hooves kicking up dust, she fell in love with the ‘sport of kings’.
After taking a break from polo, during which time she got married, had a child and became the country director of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) training tech entrepreneurs, Atawodi returned to the sport in August for the United Kingdom’s first-ever Africa-dedicated polo event, the Lux Afrique Polo Day that celebrated the sport and the best of pan-African history and culture.
The event brought together leading polo players from across Africa to champion the rapidly-growing sport and provide a platform for young and emerging African talent to showcase their skills. For Atawodi, it was time to get back to the basics.
“It is really intense. After having a child, it is a lot of things you need to get back to like the gym and working on flexibility and endurance and then a lot of riding. I have to work a lot on my hand-to-eye coordination. I play a lot of tennis as well as do a lot of cardio,” says Atawodi.
Despite several infrastructural challenges playing the sport in Nigeria, including a lack of well-developed training programs encouraging people to enter the sport as well as limited fields to play on, Atawodi is excited about the future of the sport and its ability to bring people from all walks of life together.
“We are at a time where Africa is telling its own stories in so many different industries. So for it to also now come in things like polo, with different parts of Africa coming together to play the sport and showcase skills, is amazing. It fosters great strength and African unity and I am really looking forward to it,” says the African queen of the ‘sport of kings’.