Staging the 2020 African Singles and Mixed Doubles Olympic Qualification Tournament early in February of 2020 before the pandemic was a victory in itself! The tournament, held in Tunisia, was the last window for African Table Tennis players to book a seat on the flight to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which was then postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Nigerian trio of Funke Oshonaike, Olajide Omotayo and Offiong Edem were among the Top 8 players who qualified from the tournament, while Aruna Quadri – the continent’s highest ranked player – will complete the Nigerian Table Tennis party to the Games in Tokyo through another qualification route.
How they qualified
- Olufunke Oshonaike
Having participated in the last six editions, Funke Oshonaike will make history when she dons the green and white colors of Nigeria for a record seventh time at the Games and becomes the first woman to join the International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) ‘Club 7’ of players to have competed seven times at the Olympic Games.
She will also be the first ever Nigerian and African woman (across all sports) to compete at seven Olympic Games, following in the footsteps of compatriot and doubles partner Segun Toriola who became the first African (male or female) to comepete at seven Olympic Games, a feat he achieved at Rio 2016!
Nearly a year ago inside the Multipurpose Arena in Rades, Oshonaike was to battle Sarah Hanffou of Cameroun, her friend and business partner, whom she hadn’t defeated in their last two meetings, in the second group match of the second group phase.
Despite having done most of the work by winning all four of her previous group games, nothing was certain, which made getting the job done against the Cameroonian very vital to her chance at an Olympic slot. The events which followed saw Oshonaike grabbing the first game by a close margin 12-10, which set the ball rolling to a 4-1 victory and consequently an Olympic women’s singles ticket.
Funke Oshonaike has QUALIFIED for the @Tokyo2020 Olympics.
She becomes the first African Woman in any sport to qualify for SEVEN Olympic Games.
— Making of Champions (@MakingOfChamps) February 28, 2020
After the win, the mother of two couldn’t hold back the tears and had to be pacified by her fellow teammates. Barely two months before the qualification tournament, Oshonaike was just recovering from a health scare amidst other personal issues, so achieving this feat was special.
“I’m the happiest woman in the world today, I still can’t believe it, it feels as if I’m still dreaming,” she said in the post-match interview. “I started training in January because of my health. I trained very hard, so I am just the happiest woman to have qualified. I am able to tell everyone not to give up no matter the situation. Follow your dream, put God first in everything, and you will surely make it”, she added.
2. Offiong Edem
The Tokyo Games will be Offiong Edem’s fourth outing at the Olympics and just like everyone else on this list, a ticket to Tokyo is at the top of her career goals. The major focus for Edem though will be to improve on her preliminary stage finish in her previous three appearances – Athens 2004, London 2012 and Rio 2016.
The former National Champion easily won all six matches at the Olympics Games qualification tournament in Tunisia, recording a 4-0 score line in five of those matches while being stretched to a tough 4-3 win over Tunisian rising star Garci Fadwa in the sixth match. Despite taking a 2-0 lead, Offiong was held to a 3-3 scoreline by the home favourite before snatching the win, much to the chagrin of the loud home crowd.
“I’m super excited, this is incredible, I don’t know what to say. After the African Games, I didn’t rest. I started working hard for the Olympic qualifiers; I was always at the gym almost every day in order to keep fit. I changed so many things, it wasn’t easy but I’m happy I made it”, Edem said in the post-match interview.
3. Aruna Quadri
Currently ranked 21st in the world and the highest placed African player on the ITTF ranking, Aruna Quadri is arguably the highest achieving and most popular African player in the world in the last decade.
Aruna Quadri has been ruled out of action for 3 weeks due to a hamstring injury incurred during the Olympics qualifiers in Tunisia and has thereby withdrawn from the ongoing Qatar Open. pic.twitter.com/nemHeKaki3
— Making of Champions (@MakingOfChamps) March 4, 2020
Unlike his counterparts, Quadri missed out on an Olympic Games slot after bowing to a thigh injury at the last hurdle in the qualifiers in Tunisia. And with the cancelation of all events in 2020 due to the pandemic, the African Champion was unable to compete for the available slots at the ITTF World Singles Qualification Tournament scheduled to hold in Doha, but will now play at same event scheduled to hold in March of 2021.
However, it is certain that Quadri will qualify for a third appearance at the Olympic Games through his placement on the ITTF ranking.
Quadri made waves in Rio five years ago after becoming the first ever African player to make the quarter finals of the Table Tennis singles event, defeating German legend and three-time Olympic Medallist Timo Boll to cause one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game at the Olympics to become the continent’s most successful player at the Games!
Quadri, who now plays for TTC RhönSprudel Fulda-Maberzell in the German league, is scheduled to play at the first official events of the World Table Tennis (WTT) in Qatar holding March 3 to 13. Olajide Omotayo, Nurudeen Hassan and youngster Mati Taiwo will join the 2016 Olympic Games quarterfinalist at the tournament.
4. Olajide Omotayo
The new face in the team is Olajide Omotayo, the reigning African Games Champion who seemingly came of age after winning the men’s Singles at the 2019 African Games in Rabat, beating former champion and teammate Aruna Quadri in the process.
Omotayo’s route to the ticket wasn’t straightforward; it was padded with some of the fast rising stars on the continent such as the current West African champion Oba Oba Kizito and Tunisia’s Ben Yahia Kerem, both of whom he defeated respectively in keenly contested matches. He went on to win four other matches without trouble, dropping only two games in total; such was his dominance in Tunisia.
"4 years ago, i wrote ''Tokyo2020'' on my WhatsApp status and it has been like that since then. my dream was to make it to this Olympics and now it's a reality, i just want to thank God for everything" – Olajide Omotayo pic.twitter.com/3JxoglZdHu
— Making of Champions (@MakingOfChamps) March 3, 2020
“I feel on top of the world”, Omotayo said after securing his slot to the Olympics. “The Olympics is the biggest sport event on the planet and I’ll be attending one, so you can imagine how I’m feeling” he said.
Omotayo will be hoping for a fresh start to the year, having spent most of 2020 competitively inactive and in lockdown in Italy. He will get to test his mettle against top players in the world at the World Table Tennis Contender in Qatar in March, where he’s been invited to compete.
The obvious absence of seven-time Olympian Segun Toriola and Bode Abiodun in the team will be felt at the Games. Nigeria was beaten to the lone ticket in the team event and mixed doubles by its old rival, Egypt, at the 2019 African Games in Rabat and at the 2020 qualifiers in Tunisia respectively. The team’s focus will be on just the Men’s and Women’s Singles at the Olympic Games.