by Olalekan Okusan
Olajide Omotayo’s journey to prominence began in 2008 at Alexandria, Egypt when the Nigerian made his first international outing at the African Junior and Cadet Championships. At the next edition of the continental showpiece, Omotayo was there again in Congo Brazzaville 2009.
He made an impact at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Casablanca, Morocco; his senior outing became a reality in 2017 at the World Championships in Düsseldorf, Germany where he edged out Romania’s Cristian Pletea (11-4, 5-11, 11-8, 12-10, 12-10); Pletea was rated 171 on the men’s world rankings, Omotayo was listed at no.566. It was a big upset.
Failing to gain a place in the 2015 African Games team almost caused Omotayo to end his table tennis career; however, he decided to move to the United States for greener pastures but after watching his compatriot – Quadri Aruna stun the world to become the first African to make it to the quarter-final stage at the Olympic Games, Omotayo decided to have a change of heart to return to his first love – table tennis.
From 2016, he worked hard in his club in Italy and he was able to make the team to the 2019 edition in Rabat, Morocco. He etched his name in annals of Africa history when he overcame the odds to win the men’s singles title on his debut at the African Games.
At the quarter-final stage, Omotayo faced former champions. He beat Ahmed Saleh of Egypt, the no.2 seed (11-7, 10-12, 10-12, 11-6, 11-7, 7-11, 11-6) to set up a semi-final clash against the most successful player ever at the African Games and compatriot – Segun Toriola.
Omotayo did the impossible when he ended the hopes of the four times champion, Toriola, the no.4 seed (13-11, 11-9, 16-11, 8-11, 12-14, 12-10). In the final he confronted Quadri Aruna. He won in six games (13-11, 11-9, 16-14, 8-11, 12-14, 12-10).
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The final between Omotayo and Aruna was the sixth time that Nigerians had faced each other in an African Games men’s singles final. Previously, in 1978 Atanda Musa played Kasali Lasisi; then in 1987 he confronted Yomi Bankole before in 1991 opposing Sule Olaleye. Later, in 1995 in Harare Segun Toriola met Monday Merotohun before in 2007 in Algiers facing Monday Merotohun.
Omotayo described the feat in Rabat as a boost to his starting career.
“The feat helped me realise that I have what it takes to be whatever I choose and dream to be. Even after the African Games I still sometimes find it to be an unbelievable feat because nobody saw it coming. Winning the men’s single title shows that we the upcoming new generations in Africa are working hard and I’m sure the big guys in Africa are proud of our rapid improvement. The feat brought good memories which I will forever cherish in my life.
The hard days really paid off and it did at the biggest stage in Africa. My sincere gratitude goes to the Italian Table Tennis Federation for letting me practice at their centre. I have moved to the Belgian Table Tennis Federation centre now and I want to say a big thanks to them also. Everyone who has been supportive, my team mates, federation and the coaching crew for giving me the privilege to showcase my talent.” Olajide Omotayo