End of the Road at Rio 2016?


Fans at the recently concluded ITTF Premier Lotto Nigeria open table tennis championship in Lagos were disappointed that no Nigerian qualified for the final of the competition, a situation that led to calls from some quarters for the services of a foreign coach for the nation’s players. In this piece Kunle Adewale writes about national team player, Olufunke Oshonaike’s of a foreign coach

Germany-based Funke Oshonaike, a five-time Olympian and was optimistic after the draws for the ITTF Lotto Nigeria Open that she had all it takes to cart away the biggest prize of the competition considering her form and the kind of training she has had. But it was not to be. She was knocked out in the semifinal to the disappointment of the crowd at the Molade Okoya Sports Centre of the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos.

“These people (foreign players) are just coming here every year to take away our money (prize money) and our players could not just do anything. Our last hope had just been dashed,” a fan who could not hide his disappointment said as he watched Oshonaike bow to the superior play of her Portuguese opponent.

Questions were then raised about the quality of training new players get and why no players has been able to dethrone Oshonaike over the years, so much so she would be in Rio for her sixth Olympics.

Oshonaike feels that with the number of ex-internationals around, Nigeria does not need the services of a foreign coach.

“We have some very good coaches in the country that could hold on to their own anywhere, calling for the service of a foreign coach who does not understand our culture, mentality and nature would be a wrong move at this time,” the Olympian said.

The player is indeed hoping to coach the table tennis national team after her career which she admitted has at its twilight, should the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation consider her as a coach.

“I would gladly accept the offer to coach the country if it would mean adding quality to Nigerian table tennis.  After all, I’m over 40 years with lots of experience in the game during my long stay abroad. I understand those areas many Nigerian players are lacking which have in most cases prevented them from rising to the world stage in the game,” she noted.

Oshonaike also lamented the lack of enough competitions to keep players busy. A situation she said was killing the sport.

“Things were not the way it used to be when I started the game as a schoolgirl. Then, there were lots of competitions to participate in, which kept us busy and also improved our skills. But not so any more, which is very unfortunate and its really taking its toll on the upcoming players. It’s the main reason table tennis in Nigeria is going down every now and then.

“I’ll therefore suggest that the federation should aggressively seek sponsors to save the sport from sinking further. But unfortunately, the economy is not buoyant as most corporate organisations that would have come to the rescue of the game are struggling to keep afloat. But maybe some wealthy individuals should just come and save table tennis and help young potential players fulfill their dreams,” she noted

The other area Oshonaike wants the federation to pay attention to is grassroots table tennis not because she began her career from there, but due to the burgeoning potentials at that level for the good of the country.

Oshonaike explained that if the grassroots coaches played their role by discovering and harnessing these young talents, they could be integrated into the national table tennis team where they would be under the tutelage of national coaches.

She noted: “We have a lot of problems with grassroots table tennis because the grassroots coaches are not doing enough to bring young players for professional coaching.

“For instance, when I started playing table tennis, there was the cadet, junior and senior. Then, if you are in the cadet level and they observed that you played very well, you would be moved to the junior team and consequently, if you performed well, you would be moved to the senior team. Therefore, a player should begin from grassroots before playing at the national level. The coaches at the grassroots have to do their jobs before the coaches at the national level can come in.”

For every glorious career, there is always a starting point. Oshonaike’s foray into table tennis began in elementary school on the streets of Shomolu, a bustling suburb of Lagos. While in Shomolu, Oshonaike started developing her potential which she described as a “talent from God” using a makeshift table and soak away slabs to play the game with her elder brother.

From there, the ship sailed to her secondary school, where she represented the school at competitions, earning her awards and recognition. This opportunity did not only launch her into limelight, but set her apart as a rare talent with promises and potential.

“I started playing table tennis at the age of 12, during my primary school days in Shomolu and I was driven by the belief that it was a God-given talent  and the role my elder brother played was also an inspiration. We had a small makeshift table to play with before somebody in my street bought a table tennis board and from there a coach discovered me. Then I started representing my school, the state and the country. At the state level, I won several awards and was also recognised by the state.

“The journey has been wonderful and I have no regret whatsoever. Table tennis has taken me everywhere and given me everything I have achieved today. Though, there have been some challenges, but that is life; nothing good comes easy. There have been good and bad times in my career, but I try to move on despite these ups and downs. One of the saddest moments in my career was during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2011, when I was dropped from the team. Despite that, I did not lose faith in the team and the country; today I still represent the country.

“Table tennis is something I have the passion for; so much so that over 40 years I am still playing. Sometimes, the situation of the country tends to weigh me down. I think probably it is because of my German lifestyle. Over there, things are quite different. But I realise that this is Nigeria and we have a way of doing things. I am hopeful that one day things will change,” Oshonaike said.

The All Africa Games in Congo, Oshonaike again booked a ticket to represent Nigeria at the Brazil 2016 Olympic Games slated for Rio, which will be her sixth appearance, something she attributed to hard work. “Hard work does not kill but would rather help one to do things effortlessly where others are struggling,” she pointed out.

She admitted that Rio would be her last Olympics after which she intends to take to coaching.

The 2003 All Africa Games would however remain special to the Sports Club Poppenbuttel III player. “It was just some few months after I gave birth to my first child and I therefore had to take the baby to camp and ironically, the games turned out to be my best ever, after winning four gold medals to emerge Nigeria’s best athlete in the competition,” she recalled.

Oshonaike was indeed full of praise for the President of Nigeria Table Tennis Federation, Enitan Oshodi, for the wonderful work he is doing to move the sports to greater height, while admitting that it was because of the support of Oshodi and the board that she is still in the sport despite her age.

She added that the federation had provided a lot of facilities for the development of the sport and this gesture is really laudable.  She explained that the facilities have helped players to train better. Though the only thing they are lacking, according to Oshonaike, is money, on the whole, they are doing excellently well.