by Olalekan Okusan, ITTF-African Press Officer
Last year an outsider, against the odds, Omotayo won the men’s singles title at the 2019 African Games in Morocco; it was a major surprise.
Prior to the 2015 African Games in Congo Brazzaville, Omotayo had moved to Europe to pursue a professional career in the Italian League, when was called up to the Nigeria national camp in readiness for the multi-sport event.
Alas, in the qualification tournament, the then 20 year old finished in sixth place and thus just missed out on selection for the five man team. Omotayo explained to the Olympic channel.
“I didn’t qualify to be in the team for 2015 African Games. In the deciding match to pick the final five, I was leading 2-0 in the encounter and was considered the favourite to win the tie. I do not know what happened, I lost the match. It was the worst moment of my life as a player, I made up my mind to quit table tennis.” Olajide Omotayo
The disappointment put Omotayo into ‘deep depression’; he lacked the strength to keep going. The event prematurely ended his table tennis career.
Moved to United States
He took consolation by moving to the United States where he wanted to start a new life outside table tennis.
“It was like life was trying to pull me down and I allowed this to get into my head to get me depressed,” Olajide Omotayo
On arriving in America, Omotayo wanted to further his education but his passion for table tennis could not be quenched. He continued to take part in competitions across the United States. It took an heroic performance by his compatriot, Quadri Aruna, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to inspire Omotayo back to the game.
The win by the Nigerian in the round of 16 re-ignited the flame.
“I watched the match that allowed him to qualify for the quarter-finals at the Rio Olympic Games. It was so good that Aruna won against one of the world’s best players. He beat Timo Boll. I was so happy, it was like I was the one who got to the quarter-final. If Aruna can do it, I said I can also do it if I put in the work.” Olajide Omotayo
The result, Omotayo decided to end his American dream and return to Europe; he found a great coach in Ital -based Nigerian Michael Oyebode.
“I was then ranked 632 in the world. I said to myself, I want to start playing in more professional tournaments and I want to be in the top 200 in the world in two years.” Olajide Omotayo
Less than a year after his return, Omotayo worked his way back to the Nigeria national team and was part of the team to the 2017 African Championships in Morocco. Also, he was a member of the silver medal winning Nigeria men’s team at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
One year later at the 2019 African Games in Morocco, beat Quadri Aruna to win the men’s singles title.
“What happened in Rabat was a result of all the hard work I had been putting and all the tournaments I had attended. I won against Ahmed Saleh from Egypt, one of the best players from Africa in the quarters; then I played the legend himself Segun Toriola, the seven times Olympian and I won that match. I said to myself, wow, what is happening in Morocco? I think something good is going to happen here.” Olajide Omotayo.
Still basking in the euphoria of what happened in Morocco in 2019, Omotayo took his Olympic Games dream to Tunisia at the African Olympic Qualifying Tournament, it was there he sealed Tokyo place.
“Everything that happened in my life happened so fast. Four years ago, I was watching Quadri Aruna in Rio and now I have qualified for the Olympics. You can’t imagine all these feelings. What if I had quit playing table tennis? Look at what I have now achieved! It’s emotional. I now have self-confidence and belief that I can be whatever I want. If you want anything in this life, you must fight for it. Nobody owes you anything, nobody. Everything you want in your life; you have to fight for it. If anyone gives you something or does something positive, hold that person in high esteem.” Olajide Omotayo.
However, Omotayo never allows his achievement to go to his head as he remains humble and firmly grounded in his values.
“So many people keep saying things like you are the future of table tennis but I don’t let all of this get to me. I know I can only make them happy if I put in the work. If I don’t put in the work, it’s never going to happen. Now is the time to double up my hustle. Everybody keeps saying, you are now the prince of table tennis in Nigeria but the king is Aruna; this makes me happy, because Aruna has nurtured me and here we are together at the top level. He is the big, big boss. Aruna has changed the sport.” Olajide Omotayo
The fast rising sensation believes training with some of the best players has influenced him a lot and helped him set his mind to overcome the lows of sport; meanwhile, for Omotayo, the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been a blessing in disguise.
“Unfortunately since the lockdown globally, my apartment is not big enough to have a table tennis board at home so I have not been playing for more than a month now. I tend to watch videos of myself and I have been trying to come up with a game plan by trying to figure out the what are the things that I’m doing so well and the things am not getting right. I believe the postponement of the Olympic Games will afford me the chance to train more and be ready for the Games. Also my target at Tokyo is to go there and play at my best because I know if I play at my best, good results will eventually show up. Also, one of the advantages of this whole postponement is that I have one more year to prepare and get better.”
Most determined; could the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games prove yet another stepping stone.