by Olalekan Okusan, ITTF-Africa Press Officer
Despite challenges and disappointments, the 45 year old remains committed to the land of his birth. Toriola’s latest efforts to secure more glory for Nigeria by setting a new record as the first table tennis player and African athlete to compete in eight Olympic Games was halted at the recent African Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Tunis.
Notably the Ogun State born athlete was inducted into the seven club at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games alongside Jörgen Persson, Zoran Primorac and Jean-Michel Saive.
“For me competing at the Olympic Games has been a big experience and I’m very happy because it is not easy to compete at the Olympics for 32 years. I always loved to be part of the Olympics because it is a special event and it is a tournament where you compete and your spirit lifts you as though you are a legend.
The experience at the Games Village is something you would not want to forget in a hurry because at the Village you will meet other top athletes from across the globe, particularly those regarded as super stars like you.
The Olympics for me is a very special event, competing for 32 years is like winning a jackpot. My first Olympic Games was like a surprise to me, even to everybody in the Nigeria team because I was the youngest in the team and nobody believed I was going to qualify.
Since my debut at Barcelona in 1992, I was always determined and eager to go back every four years. The feeling I had during my first outing at the Olympic Games has always inspired me to be determined to go back again and again. Every time I finished an Olympic Games, I usually redoubled my efforts and continue to work harder so that I could go back again. Going to the Olympic Games requires hard work.” Segun Toriola
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
It was at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games when Toriola made a significant impact. He reached the last 32 of the men’s singles event.
He beat David Zhuang of the United States (8-11, 11-8, 2-11, 11-6, 9-11, 11-7, 11-8), before overcoming Portugal’s João Monteiro (5-11, 11-7, 11-7, 5-11, 11-9, 9-11, 11-7) and Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, the former world no.1 ( 11-8, 11-7, 8-11, 9-11, 11-3, 12-10) to reach the third round. It was at that stage he experienced a close defeat at the hands of Korea Republic’s Oh Sangeun (12-14, 15-13, 11-6, 11-5, 9-11, 9-11, 11-7).
“There have been a lot of memorable moments for me at the Olympics, because for me the Olympics is special. In Beijing in 2008 I can say for me it was different because I played very well; the whole world was surprised I could play the way I played. So I think the Beijing Olympics is a little special for me in terms of playing; the rest there is no difference.” Segun Toriola
No national honours
However, Toriola has no national honours in his collection but he is unfazed by the situation.
“Well I don’t regret sacrificing my time playing for Nigeria because I’m a Nigerian; I love to be a Nigerian and I’m proud playing for Nigeria. I know there is a lot of disappointment going on in Nigeria but I am used to it. Disappointments should be expected by every Nigerian athlete.
I think they (athletes) should not get upset because Nigeria has a way of disappointing its athletes. So for me I’m not regretting because I choose to play for Nigeria till the end of my career. If I didn’t want to choose Nigeria, I would have changed my nationality a very long time ago.
I’m not bothered that I have not been given a national honour by Nigeria. Although it is not good for Nigerian athletes but for me I am not surprised. Nigeria doesn’t know the value of its athletes. It is very sad that nobody in Nigeria honours me or our past athletes who have won a lot of medals for the country.
For me, my own case is even special, because I’m the longest serving athlete in Nigeria that played so long and won several medals for Nigeria, more than any athlete. It’s sad to hear that I have not been honoured by my country but most of the time, I don’t think about it.” Segun Toriola
Retirement from national team
Phlegmatic regarding Nigeria but not qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is a wrench
“I’m going to miss a lot not participating in Tokyo. I am going to miss my friends from other countries. I am going to miss the Olympic Games a lot because if any athlete who passes through the Olympics, he or she would not want to miss the next one because if he misses the next one then he or she is going to miss a lot.” Segun Toriola
Tokyo now out of the question but is Paris 2024 Olympic Games, possible?
“No I’m already done with Olympics and also for the national team of Nigeria. I have already told the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation when I played at Rio 2016 that after that I will try to qualify again for Tokyo but that if I qualify or not, I will quit.
Later this year I’m going to call a world press conference to announce my retirement from the national team. However, when I stop playing for national team, I am still going to continue my professional career. Also I will still continue to be around the players because for me, moving away from the national team is going to affect some players and that has been the problem we have in Nigeria which prevented us from improving in table tennis.
I’m thinking of coaching but for me my first priority is if I want to be a coach, I have to be around Nigeria because the players need coaches and someone that can help them a lot.
So for me I just want to be around Nigeria and that is my priority, now I have to plough something back. If table tennis is not improving in Nigeria it will affect me too because ex-players are going to ask me what is going on in Nigeria table tennis. People respect Nigeria in table tennis all over the world, so I am going to stay around Nigeria even if I’m going to coach any other country.
If I am given the opportunity to coach Nigeria, first of all I have to first look at the players in terms of their quality coupled with the problems they are facing. I also need to talk with them as well as with the federation because if you are a coach and you cannot make your decisions but allow your Federation makes decisions for you then your work is not going to show.
Then after that I will start working with them. I need to teach them (athletes) not only on the table but mentally also because people believe you have to only train athletes on the table alone but that’ is not so as you need to give them advice, as well as the secrets of staying long in the game.
The secret first of all is working hard and training regularly. You need to train, make some sacrifices in your lifestyle because some athletes want to live two lifestyles, which is not possible. Sports lifestyle is different from social lifestyle. You need to have a good plan for your lifestyle. What really helped me is that my age is not in my brain, what I have in my brain is that I am just 20 years old and that really helped me a lot and motivated me. As an athlete you don’t always think about your age because it is just a number but when you believe you are still young then your brain will motivate you to practice more.
I’m very happy with what I have achieved in the sport and I must praise my father for that because he wanted me to play table tennis. I remember when I was young I didn’t have the opportunity to play with other children but I had my own table at home made by my father. This afforded me the chance to play regularly at home before moving out.” Segun Toriola