In the 1970s and ‘80s, Nigeria was Africa’s undisputable table tennis king and also enjoyed a decent place on the world rankings. But the fortune in the sport has dipped to a shocking level in the last two decades. One of that era’s bright stars, Dr. Toyin Okenla-Ojeaga, speaks with KUNLE ADEWALE on how the sport could be revived
Whoever thought sports, beauty and academic excellence are strange bedfellows has probably not met Okenla-Ojeaga, a former female table tennis champion.
“I started playing table tennis at a very young age. I started at home playing on a soak away, tutored by my brother. I never realized how good I was until I followed him to Mobolaji Sports Centre, Rowe Park There, I saw a lot of people playing and asked if I could play. They were mostly boys at that time and one of them gave me his paddle and I played with it and I guess I impressed many to the extent that coaches that were present at the sports centre started asking for my name. That was how I came to playing table tennis,” she recalled.
It’s usually not a rosy tale at the outset for young girls seeking to pursue a career in sports, but Okenla-Ojeaga could not recall facing any hurdle.
“At that time there were a lot of young boys and girls playing the game and I was just playing table tennis for the fun of it. I was not playing to become a champion, but at some point it got very serious. I cannot recall any challenges I experienced,” she said.
Though it’s been a long time ago, but she still cannot forget the her first tournament.
“My very first tournament was in 1979 at the Asoju Oba. I placed third in the ladies’ singles.”
Despite the fact she lost in the final of the Elephant Cement Table Tennis Championship, the competition to date remains memorable for her: “My most memorable game was in the Elephant Cement Table Tennis Championship held in Ogun State. I made it to the final of the girls’ singles but lost to Ganiyat Agoro in a very tough and competitive game.”
As part of her effort to revamp the game of table tennis in Nigeria, United States-based Okenla-Ojeaga has started a secondary school table tennis championship which made its debut last year. “One of my main objectives is to give back to the society because I know what table tennis and sports generally have done for me. When I was growing up I used to be very shy and sports helped me to overcome that. It increased my self esteem and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I believe that if you have a very high self esteem you will not be afraid to do anything. So, sports helped me to be focused on my dreams and achieve those dreams,” she said.
Asked how the best could be brought out of Nigerian table tennis players, the elegant lady said: “Nigeria’s sports have declined a whole lot. During my time we used to have a lot of sponsors and tournaments to compete in. Without tournaments you cannot find out how good a player is.
“Back then, we used to participate in a lot of tournaments like Asoju Oba, which is still the only one of the lot that is still on. There were also the Bournvita Open, Omo Open to mention a few, but now there is none of those tournaments again, which is very unfortunate. I’m therefore appealing to private organizations to come to the rescue of table tennis and sports as a whole in order to get the best out of our youths and get them off the streets.”
Okenla-Ojeaga was recently named the ambassador for the Pastor E.A. Adeboye U-20 Championship and she hopes to bring her experience to bear.
“Being named the ambassador of the championship, I would be telling the youths about my experience and hope it would encourage them. Also, it’s important for the participants to be able to combine sports with education; it is very vital. Without education, sports is nothing,” Okenla-Ojeaga, a practising nurse in the United States emphasised.
On whether any of her children has take to the game that brought her national fame and fortune, she said: “Unfortunately, not at the national level as I did; they play for their schools. They also play basketball for their schools. I also have a son who plays American football at the moment for his school but not at the state or federal level at the moment.”
Late coach Stephen Williams may not have been a household name in Nigerian table tennis circles, but it was from him that Okenla-Ojeaga gained the skill that nurtured her career.
“He was then Bendel State’s national table tennis coach. He really helped in improving my game.” And one name she would not forget in a hurry is Kuburat Owolabi - the player who gave her the greatest opposition during her playing days.
But she had to deal with a familiar obstacle: the usual scepticism of parents with regards to allowing their children pursue their sporting passion.
“My parents objected to my participating in sports and I had to assure them I would not allow that to affect my education in any way. It was largely the reason why I made up my mind to accept the scholarship offer that Bendel State gave to me so I could combine my education with sports,” Ojeaga, who presently has a contract with US Department of Justice and Marshals, said.
Running three other businesses aside from a private clinic, flying back home to Nigeria at the shortest notice and running a family is definitely not a walk in the park.
“I have businesses that have stabilized and also my contract with the department of justice is a very good contract because whenever I tell them I have an obligation to fulfil they find somebody to cover for me while I’m away. As for my business I have people that are running it for me while I’m not there.
“Much of the things I do are based online and I can monitor my businesses online to know if they are doing it right even while I’m in Nigeria. So, it’s not been very difficult. However, combining the whole thing with managing a home has been a little bit challenging but thank God I have a spouse that is very understanding so he fills in for me where necessary,” she said.
At the London Olympic Games in London Nigeria presented a team of largely old players who have been representing the country over the years. It was not surprising they barely made any mark in the preliminaries.
“At that point it was very disheartening to see the decline of Nigerian table tennis players. During our time Atanda Musa and one or two players were well positioned in the world and we held the African championship record and we were also well placed in the Commonwealth Games. Now, it’s a different story, and I hope that one day with my involvement and Pastor Adeboye coming up to sponsor competitions, and if the private sector hopefully sponsor a few championship, we will discover hidden talents. The game can return to its glory days and Nigeria can probably produce a world champion in the nearest future. After all, the Chinese are not superhuman.”
In years to come, the former ping pong prodigy would like Nigerians to remember her for the role she played in reviving the game.
“If my contribution to the community can encourage one or two people, I think I have met my goal,” she concluded.