When the 2012 London Olympic Games kicks off in July, Nigeria’s Segun Toriola will inscribe his name in the annals of the modern Olympics history as one of the few athletes that have made six appearances at the games. From Barcelona 1992, Toriola has participated in all the games while his excellent performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was also listed as one of the highs of the games. In Africa and among Commonwealth nations, Toriola has won virtually all the medals at stake while his records as continental champion are unrivalled. The France-based player told OLALEKAN OKUSAN in Dortmund, Germany that he would like to improve his performance at the London Olympics while he also gave an insight on why Nigerian players are yet to fulfil their potential in the game
TORIOLA’S achievement in table tennis is commendable. He made his debut in the table tennis event of the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992 and he has not missed any since making his debut. But Beijing Olympics would remain indelible for Toriola following his scintillating performance against the world’s best. For the first time in the history of the games, he became the first and only African to make it to the quarterfinal stage.
“Making it to the quarterfinal in Beijing was memorable because nobody ever expected an African athlete to make it to the last eight of the championship since table tennis was included in the Olympics in 1988. Olympics being the biggest sporting event in the world and the top for every athlete, I am still enjoying the gains of the feat till date because people now respect me wherever I play and this alone is something worth savouring,” Toriola said.
Again, Toriola secured his place at the 2012 London Olympic and he would also be making his six consecutive appearances to become one of the few athletes to have reached that milestone. “I am happy that I will be making my sixth outing in London but to be sincere it was not an easy, having had to go through a lot to make it once again. And I will cherish this achievement for long,” the erstwhile African champion admitted.
He narrated what he had to endure to make it to the Olympics. “In 2010, I copped an injury and when I was invited to the national team for the World Championship in Moscow, Russia, I told the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation (NTTF) that I was injured. For one year, I could not play and it was very frustrating for me to be out of the sports I have enjoyed doing for more than two decades. I was down but nobody cared to support me but I was sure I would be back.
“When I resume training after a year layoff, I was told to come for trials for the 2011 All Africa Games in Lagos and I had to come because most people were doubting whether I could still play. Although, I had not fully recovered from the injury but I used my experience to great effect and qualified for the event. I was also sure that my presence at the All Africa Games would inspire the entire team and that was what made fight for my place at the trials,” he said. For London Olympics, he said: “I am sure I can still do much more that what I did in Beijing in London because in table tennis there are lots of players that do well in major championship despite their low ranking in the world. Ranking does not win matches. Players get better ranking only because they earn points taking part in Pro Tours, which Nigerian players hardly feature due to lack of funds. But at the Olympics, you need your confidence and this is what matters most for me. I believe in my ability and I will do well in London because what I did in Beijing has opened lots of opportunities for many African players.”
Despite winning lots of laurels for the country, Toriola is never discouraged that the country he served had not deem it fit to honour him. “I am not surprised that my efforts have not been recognised by the sports authority in the country. Nigeria is a nation that gives football more attention than other sports because I know if I had been a footballer, I would have been recognised by now.
“That I had not been honoured would not discourage me from doing my best for the country because I am a professional and I must do my work. I understand the Nigerian system and I had to focus on my career and not to allow this to bother me because I know somebody will recognise me one day,” he added.
Even without incentives, Toriola’s commitment to national duty cannot be faulted and this came to fore at the ongoing World Team Championship in Dortmund, Germany. “Whenever I am in the colours of the national team I will always give my best because I cherish the colour and I want to make my country proud. Many people are hoping to represent the country but few are opportuned to fulfil the dream. Aside this, I don’t want to disappoint my fans who have lot of confidence in me. This alone will always inspire me to give my best because representing Nigeria is not an easy task especially when you are a champion, you will not want to let people down with your performance.”
On why the upcoming players fail to attain his feat in the game, he said: “In Nigeria, we lack quality coaching and support. These two things are very important for players to excel at any level. Most players in Nigeria train without coaches’ guidance and this will not allow them to improve. When I started playing, I got lots of support from the Ogun State Sports Council. Focus should not be on the National Sports Commission (NSC) alone because I always wonder what the states sports councils are doing.
“When I started playing the game, I got support from my sports council but I am surprise that most states pay little attention to their athletes these days. No states in Nigeria except Lagos pay attention to table tennis. Even when the National Sports Festival is about to hold, most states will organise camping but after the festival what happens to the athletes? The states will have to wait for another festival before organising another camp. Even most of them don’t have table tennis equipment and how do you want players to excel at world stage. These are the problems these younger players are faced with.”
Toriola rules out the engagement of foreign coach, saying there are lots of former players who can tinker the team. He stated; “I don’t think we need a foreign coach because we have lots of former players who are still playing and coaching outside the country.
“We have the likes of Titus Omotara, Sunday Eboh, Sule Olaleye, Michael Oyebode, Fatai Adeyemo, Thomas Ogunrinde, Bose Kaffo and even Funke Oshonaike. In our bases abroad, they expect us to play and also impart to younger players in the team. So, all these former players are available to help raise the game in the country and these are people that should be engaged to take charge of the national teams.’’