Appearing at seven consecutive Olympic Games stands Nigerian table tennis star, Segun Toriola, apart as one of the country’s all-time sports personalities.
Ranking as easily the best Nigerian table tennis player since 1995 has also stood him in good stead as an individual to reckon with.
His rating as an African player of note since 1995, particularly since 1998 when he became the continent’s number one player, has also placed him firmly on a remarkable platform.
Without any doubt, Toriola, 42 on September 18 last year, is one of the world’s best tennis table players of all time.
He won four African Singles titles in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006, a Commonwealth singles title in 2002 as well as a Commonwealth doubles and singles bronze medal in 2006.
The Kwara State-born athlete, who had played in several countries abroad as a professional, also stroked to four All Africa Games singles titles in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007, in addition to doubles gold medal in 1999.
Despite the ping pong sport now consistently dominated by youngsters across the world, Toriola’s consistency has proved formidable. He climbed back unto Africa’s number one spot in 2009 after surrendering the title to Egyptian Eli Saleh Ahmed in 2008.
His lack of good footwork that dogged his triumphs of many years notwithstanding, Toriola’s excellent topspin and an unusual style of forehand play have made the difference at critical times.
Toriola, as expected, led Nigeria’s medal chase at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi but failed to deliver a medal in what could be classified as one of the country’s worst outings in international table tennis events.
The foregoing suggests a reality check for Nigeria. “It simply means that we have to go beyond grassroots development as is currently done. It is high time the discovered players were exposed to international competitions and modern facilities that we lack in Nigeria.
Otherwise we would face decline in the sport,” respected table tennis journalist, Olalekan Okusan, told me.
According to Okusan, the blame for table tennis decline in Nigeria has gone beyond the administrators’ perceived negligence.
“Even the sponsors are guilty. They often insisted that they would prefer the appearance of old players in their competitions, apparently to attract the crowd. But in the end, the essence of talent discovery would have been defeated,” Okusan said.
Toriola, who pleaded for fairness, however said the so-called oldies would gladly leave the scene for the young talents.
“Interestingly, the young lads have not given us enough competition to surrender the stage to them,” the multiple medal and award winner remarked.
Toriola has made what he calls a right claim to a national honour, sequel to his feats on the table, which has seen him become the only African athlete to feature in seven Olympic Games.
But he has looked on as the honour gets slow in coming, even as he watches frustratingly as football players and track and field athletes received honours after bringing home laurels from various competitions.
Luckily, Toriola’s legend is not lost to other countries in Africa. Recognition came from Nairobi in December last year when he was invited by the Kenya Table Tennis Association (KTTA) to guide hundreds of kids at a clinic organised to discover table tennis talents.
“My presence in Nairobi gave the young boys and girls hope and boosted their morale and the event gave me immense pride,” Toriola said of the Nairobi clinic where he brought his wealth of experience to bear on the East African country’s youngsters.
Despite the Kenyan experience which he described as memorable, however, giving up on the honour from Nigeria is not in Toriola’s calculation.
“There can be no honour that will surpass the one that I am accorded by my country. Besides, I believe the honour from my country is honour well deserved and it will come someday,” he said.
Okusan insisted that Toriola’s national recognition is a time that has come and should not be delayed further.
“Segun has distinguished himself to the effect that his journey to the top of his career was without blemish, even as he remains one of the most revered athletes around the world,” the table tennis journalist declared, stressing: “The onus is on the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports to recommend this exceptional athlete for the national honour that he eminently deserves.”
Incredibly, Toriola is not thinking retirement from active table tennis. In fact, he seeks to break his own record with an appearance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games when he would be 45 years of age.
Currently playing and coaching in Belgium, the legend looks forward to participating in his eighth consecutive Olympics with fervour. “I am in top shape and I believe nothing can stop me if I remain in this condition,” he told me, with a boyish smile on his face.
“Segun has increasingly defied the effects of aging and I won’t be surprised to see him compete in Tokyo,” Okusan, who has followed Toriola’s entire career with keen interest, also said.
How amazing it would be, seeing a 45-year-old table tennis player competing for honours at the Tokyo 2020 and even more so that the player is Nigerian.