In an exclusive interview with Completesportsnigeria.com’s SAB OSUJI in Congo Brazzaville, Nigeria Table Tennis star, Segun Toriola reveals that the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil will be his seventh Olympic Games participation and last in his tennis career, and that the ongoing 11th All Africa Games will be his last outing in the African sports showpiece. Excerpts…
Segun Toriola, nice meeting you here at the Congo 2015 All Africa Games.
Thank you very much. We are here to win for our country, Nigeria.
Tell us your ambition, I mean your target at the tennis event of the All Africa Games here in Congo.
It’s been very good, and I believe everybody knows that we are here to win medals for Nigeria because we want to make Nigerians proud. That’s why we are all here, all athletes, all the sports and I believe we’re here to try and do our best because all the other countries are prepared for the Games and not here to just see how beautiful Congo is or to see the size or colour of the people here. They are here to compete and to win, so are really prepared. But I have the confidence that our athletes, not just the tennis players alone, are here to make Nigeria proud.
Nigeria have over the years dominated African tennis. Do you see this continuing here in Congo?
It can still happen but nothing is guaranteed. We’ve been dominating table tennis on the African continent for decades, even before I started playing table tennis. But this time the challenges are getting tougher because the Egyptians and Congo have raised their games seriously. Congo who are hosting this 11th All Africa Games have gone as far as China to recruit Chinese players because the COJA rules as regards eligibility and participation in the All Africa Games permits that. But all the same we are not unaware of that, we are prepared even though we know too that it won’t be as easy as one would expect because the Congolese and Egyptians are there. However, the good news is that we are going to surprise everybody because we know the Chinese that Congo hired and even the Egyptians are not unbeatable. I strongly believe that the war in table tennis here is a straight one between Nigeria, Egypt and Congo. This is because these are the only two countries we know we’re going to battle with for the seven gold medals avilable in table tennis event. In the last All Africa Games in Mozambique, we won four gold medals, but this time it won’t be easy for us to win all the gold medals like we used to do. All the same, our target is to try to win as many gold medals as possible.
Are you saying Nigerians should not expect as many gold medals from table tennis as was the case in the past?
What I’m saying is, for sure we are going to win gold medals in table tennis. But what I don’t want Nigerians to do is overstretching expectation that we must win all the gold medals. If we do that, it means we’re putting undue pressure on ourselves. What we are trying to do is winning the gold medals one after the other, and possibly all the seven gold medals. We can do it, for sure, but we don’t want to put ourselves under unnecessary pressure. I’m saying this out of my personal experience. We don’t want to go out there bearing the burden or load of winning all the gold medals by fire by force which is not good for us because that will put us under undue pressure. If we enter the Games with pressure, it will be catastophic for us. It’s not that we don’t have the ambition of winning all the medals. It’s just that we want to avoid all avoidable mistakes because the other countries like Egypt and Congo are strong and are here also for the gold medals.
Toriola, it’s clear you are a Table Tennis veteran of big sporting meets like All Africa Games, Commonwealth Games and even Olympic Games…
Yes, you are right. If I could calculate properly, this is my seveth participation in the All Africa Games and if I go to next year’s Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, that also will be my seventh Olympic Games appearance.
That’s wonderful. Now tell me, what can you say is the difference between the previous Games and this Congo 2015 edition?
Firstly, I must say that a lot of foreigners are involved in this edition in terms of the athletes. This is because everybody wants to win and the COJA new rules allow that. And of course, this has made the Games more challenging unlike in the past. You can see that countries like Congo have poached athletes from as far as France, Cameroon, Tunisia and all of that. Honestly, its getting more interesting and difficult as well because most of the countries have gone abroad to recruit athletes to compete for them to win gold medals. This is quite unlike in the past All African Games. It never happened that way, but then it brings out the best from every athletes and here lies the beauty of the Games. Previously, Egyptians will present Egyptian athletes, Congolese will file out Congolese athletes and all of that. This is the major difference. It’s really fun, I must say, especially for top players like us. It makes you work harder to brace up for the challenges rather than sit back and relax. For me, the Commonwealth Games is still stronger but then the All Africa Games is bridging the gap.
So in which previous editions of the All Africa Games did you participate?
Well, this is my seventh. I was there in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and this one here in Congo.
That’s very wonderful. But how many gold medals have you won altogether?
Well, a lot, I can’t really give a correct figure right now. There are too many of them. I have been winning gold medals since 1995. Sometimes it could be about four or more gold medals in one edition, but sincerely speaking, I cannot give out a correct figure now. Since 20 years now, I’ve been winning the singles and doubles till now. I have a lot of passion for tennis and that’s why I came to represent Nigeria at this event here in Congo. But truly, this is going to be my last participation in the All Africa Games.
This Congo 2015 going to be your last participation in the All Africa Games?
Yes, as a player, this is surely my last in the All Africa Games.
But you can still come in as a coach?
Yes, why not? For me I need to give something back. When I stop playing for Nigeria, what I would love to do is to groom younger ones. Some of our former ex-plyers in tennis don’t come around any more, they stay outside the country though it’s not their fault anyway. Even though they still visit home, but the past Nigeria Table Tennis Federation did’t invite them to give something back to the sport by helping to groom young ones. It is very important that as a champion, when you retire you should still come around and help groom young ones because personally, I don’t want the sport to die.
Are you also retiring from the Olympic Games because I know the next Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, is just around the corner?
Well I have featured in six Olympic Games. This All Africa Games in Congo is also a qualifying ground for the next Olympics. So I’m trying to help Nigeria qualify and if we do, I will be there to make it seven Olympic Games participation too and then, it’s also goodbye to Olympic Games. So that’s also my mission here in Congo. It’s not just to come and help to win gold medals, but also to help pick the ticket for the 2016 Olympic Games for Nigeria too. I just hope I can help make the team qualify so I can also play my seventh Olympic Games which is one of the greatest sports events in the world.
And after that Segun Toriola will say goodbye to Olympic Games as well?
Yes, as this will be my last All Africa Games, so also will 2016 Olympics by my last if we qualify, and I hope we will qualify.
Finally Segun, what can you say about the facilities here in Congo for the All Africa Games?
Yeah, the facilities here are very nice. I don’t know about other sports but for table tennis, I have seen the venues, they are of good standard. But we have some short shortfalls in the area of feeding. From my experience, I never seen where athletes are fed outside of the Games Village. Even the Commonwealth, Olympic and All African Games, I’ve never seen such happen. For athletes to go to the stadium morning, afternoon and night to eat is not the best. There is also the problem of transportation fom the Games Village to venues and all of that. Aside that, every other thing is in place, excellent facilities, stadia and all of that.
It has been nice speaking with you Segun.
You are welcome.