Toriola, unsung hero, gets seventh heaven Olympics

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African table tennis star and the continent’s most decorated player, Segun Toriola, has become synonymous with the number seven. From 1991 to date, Toriola has appeared in seven African Games, while he will also be attending his seventh Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, after a hard-fought qualification in Khartoum, Sudan.
Globally, Toriola is respected and revered by players and officials as he has, on several occasions, emerged the saving grace for Nigeria to win medals in major table tennis competitions.
With the star player, history will, indeed, be made by Nigeria at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil. Table tennis will put the country on the world and continental maps when Toriola makes his seventh appearance in the Olympic Games, being the first African to achieve such a feat.
In the history of sports in Nigeria, Toriola remains one of the most successful athletes who have won series of laurels for Nigeria at both continental and Commonwealth levels. His records as the most decorated athlete in Africa is unequalled, while his commitment to the business of sports in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised.
Talking about medals won by individuals, Toriola got more of it for Nigeria than any athlete in any other sport. He has won more than 20 gold medals for Nigeria at continental level while at Commonwealth Games, he has medals to his credit. With the feat in Sudan, he now rubs shoulders with some of the world’s sports legends.
When he joined the league of athletes listed among the seventh heaven in table tennis, the feat was celebrated across the globe by the current and former stars in the game.
Everything about Toriola is now a reference point for the other athletes. He is believed to be humble, passionate, disciplined and dedicated to the ping pong game and these attributes have served to have his name etched in the annals of sports history in Africa.
But, sadly, inspite of the several accolades that greeted his qualification for his seventh consecutive Olympic Games, the African table tennis legend has yet to be conferred with any national recognition.
It is an irony that a nation that has conferred national honours on football players, who won cadet competitions, has not deemed it fit to recognise the efforts of an athlete who has served his fatherland in more than three decades, wining a bagful of international medals.
The 41-year-old is therefore not happy, saying despite all his efforts to put Nigeria on the global map, there has not been any national recognition for his efforts.
Saddened by his own situation, Toriola says, “It is sad that my country has not deemed it fit to recognise my efforts. I know that if I had been a Briton, I should have been conferred with a national honour by the Queen of England. I think this is not too good for the country as this might discourage upcoming athletes. But I always take solace in the fact that the country gave me the platform to enter into the annals of history.”
Notwithstanding the unfair treatment meted out to this master of the ping pong game by the Nigerian nation, Toriola remains a role model for athletes in Africa, as his comportment as well as commitment to the Nigeria project cannot be questioned.
In his three decades of service to Nigeria, Toriola has never been involved in any controversy or scandal, as his patriotism overrides every other thing. On countless occasions, he has spent his hard-earned resources to represent Nigeria in major competitions, while plying his trade in Italy, Belgium and France, which has become his second home.
His unassuming disposition towards wearing the colours of Nigeria has endeared him to the hearts of many across the globe.
Recalling how his journey to stardom at the Olympic Games began, the African table tennis king says, “I could still recollect my first appearance at the Olympic games in Barcelona 1992, where I was the youngest member of the Nigeria table tennis team that had greats like Atanda Musa and Yomi Bankole. I qualified for the doubles event while Musa and Bankole played in the singles. In those days, the qualification system for the Olympics was a bit harder and I managed to make the cut for Africa. It was a moment I will never forget, particularly playing at the biggest stage alongside some of my idols in the sport.”
For Toriola, qualifying for the Olympics is the dream and the peak in the career of every athlete.
As the first African athlete to make it to the Olympics seven consecutive times, the former African and Commonwealth champion says playing at seven Olympics is a dream come true because he never envisaged achieving such a feat in his career when he made his debut at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games in Spain.
He describes the Olympics as the biggest platform for athletes to showcase their talents to the whole world.
“I am so surprised when I hear people ask about what I have won at the Olympics. But they must realise that going to the Olympics never comes on a platter of gold, as one has to qualify to be at the Olympics. Some of the world’s successful athletes never compete at the Olympics. So for me, playing at the Olympics for the seventh time was not something I envisaged when I went to my first Olympics. But what kept the dream ignited in me was the fact that I wanted to emulate some of my idols in the sport. I used to look up to Atanda Musa and Yomi Bankole because they were the legends of the game. Apart from playing along with them in major competitions, they were great players that most of us wanted to emulate, as I used to sleep with their pictures while I follow them across the world. So, for me, I wanted to be like these great stars, and this was what spurred me on in the sport,” Toriola says.
The former African champion therefore believes nothing would be impossible at the Rio Olympics, as every participant has an equal chance to make it to the podium, based on the new playing format being applied by the ITTF.SPOUSE Q“I believe that we have a chance to do something better in Rio because every country has the chance to make it to the podium. If countries like England can claimed bronze at the World Championship, nothing stops us from doing more in Brazil. In Rio, I want to make my country proud and we can do well with the present form of Aruna Quadri, who has established himself as one of the world’s most respected table tennis players,” he says.
For him, playing at the Olympic Games is reserved for the best, noting, “People should also realise that Olympics is for the best in the world. Nigeria should realise that any athlete that makes it to the Olympics should be commended, as not many great athletes feature at the Olympics.”
The erstwhile African table tennis king believes that, in spite of his travails, his achievements in the game should serve as an inspiration for the upcoming players to aim high in life.
He, however, discloses that Rio 2016 may be his last international duty for Nigeria, having committed more than three decades of his life to serving his fatherland through table tennis.
“I must confess that I want young players to see my achievements in sports as an inspiration for them to aim for the top in their sports. I still want to be around table tennis so that I can help the younger players but Rio will surely be my last Olympic Games,” Toriola says.