Commonwealth and All African Games champion and seven times Olympian, Segun Toriola explains why table tennis has stagnated in Nigeria and what needed to be done to fast track development of the sport. The 19th National Sports Festival singles champion spoke with ABDULRAHEEM AODU.
How many National Sports Festivals have you participated in?
This is my fourth festival. I started from Kwara 85, then, I think, I participated in Lagos 89, then I was also present in Gateway Festival in Ogun state in 2006 then this current 2018 edition in FCT.
How did you see the competition in this 2018 Festival?
The competition this year is low, it is not as high as it should be. This year’s Festival is not really the way it should be. Festival is about participation bringing athletes from all over the country to come and participate, funfair and performance. I’m not happy because some states did not participate because of financial reasons. National Sports Festival is like the Olympic Games or the All African Games or the Commonwealth Games.
Though it is good that the festival is taking place this year after six years’ break, but it’s not what I expected. I expect that it will be a boom with lots of athletes and coaches from all the states following the long break but it is not. Some states came with few athletes when festival is supposed to be the opportunity for athletes from across the country to come together in a friendly atmosphere have fun enjoy sports and make friends.
Have you seen talents with potential to make Nigeria great in this festival?
Nigeria sports is going down gradually. Before, the National Sports Festival used to be an avenue to discover lots of new talents in all sports but with this festival, there is no way as many athletes can be discovered as expected.
How do you mean?
National Sports Festival is a means of discovering new talents, the Federal Ministry of Sports needs athletes to represent Nigeria in international competitions, but I have seen only few potential athletes that can be very good player at the next Nigerian Championships due to low number of athletes and none participation of some states.
There are national junior table tennis players who are doing well. Some players from FCT some also from Rivers state they are here to prove their mettle and to win medals. Aruna Quadri was supposed to be here to play for Rivers state but the arrangement was not properly made, so, he won’t be coming.
Looking at both the male and female table tennis, which category would you say has more potential in Nigeria?
There is more potential in the male game than that of the females. The male table tennis players are improving more and faster than the female players.
What would you say is the challenge of Nigerian table tennis?
The major challenges facing table tennis in Nigeria are poor funding, inadequate training and competitions to graduate junior players to senior category and inadequate equipments especially for the junior athletes who cannot afford to buy their equipment themselves. The Nigerian Table Tennis Federation is trying to improve the game by improving the athletes, but the state associations are not doing enough. The various state associations need to do more to develop the game the way they used to do when we were completely up. The state sports councils now are not active, only few of them are active.
What is the solution to the challenges faced by table tennis in Nigeria?
We have to act fast. The Nigeria Table Tennis Federation needs funds to organise local trainings, national and international championships. It has to first start from home. The talents is already there but they need to be trained and nurtured to bring out their full potentials. The players doesn’t stay in the same cities, they stay in different states across the country. There needs to be a programme that would bring them together periodically, as is done abroad, for them to train together and compete against each other to bring the best out of them. They would improve better by being brought together to face each other than by training in their various states where they are best and have no peer. In Asia and Europe, the talented players are brought together from young age and trained together so that they can improve. Then there is also need to buy equipments for them, table tennis racquet is quite expensive, and no junior player can buy it. A standard table tennis board is worth over a million naira and they cannot train without a table. The sports councils used to give us racquets but now players have to use their money to buy equipment.
You have benefited so much from table tennis what are you giving back to the game?
I’m giving a lot back to the game of table tennis. I’m organising trainings in parts of the country and giving equipment to the players and coaches to motivate them and boost their performances. When i fully retire from the game of table tennis, I have plans to do more. If my plan is successfull the way I’m looking at it, it would be very good for Nigerian table tennis because I want to bring the system in Europe, Asia to Nigeria to benefit Nigerian athletes. I want to bring back what I learn there.
When do you plan to retire?
Everybody is aware of my plan to retire. I’m waiting for the next Olympics, if I qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, then I would retire after what could be my eighth Olympics.