Two decades after he took up table tennis on the streets of Oyo, in south-western Nigeria, Quadri Aruna became the first African to reach an Olympic quarterfinal. Here he reveals how he beat players “far better” than him at Rio 2016, recalls his early battles to succeed against all odds and stresses the significant debt he owes his talented wife.
You made history at Rio 2016, what is the aim for the Tokyo 2020 Games?
Like every athlete, I want to do better than I have done before. I want better results in Tokyo. I am always thinking about it. That’s why I am playing in more and more tournaments: it’s preparation for difficult matches in Tokyo.
Two years on, how do you reflect on Rio 2016 and all that you achieved?
I actually had no confidence against Chuang Chih-Yuan [Chinese Taipei’s four-time world tour champion, whom Aruna faced in the third round] because earlier in January that year I lost in Germany in the first round 4-0 to him. So in Rio I was like, “I have lost before, now I have nothing left to lose, he is a much better player than me.” So, I said to myself, “Just give your best, play and enjoy.” Then I was able to win the first two sets and the match was a different spirit entirely.
Against Timo Boll [Germany’s three-time Olympic medal winner, whom Aruna played in the fourth round] I was feeling the same way. I was aware the whole world was watching. But before Timo was able to understand my game, I was already 3-0 and it was really too late for him to come back.
I stepped up my game and played without pressure because I knew all the players in the Olympic Games are very, very good.
Did you feel like all of Nigeria was watching, particularly when you started winning?
I was aware the whole world was watching, not just Nigeria and Africa.
My performance in Rio really made table tennis much more popular in Nigeria. Whenever I am in the airport now so many officials recognise me now and on the streets, not just where I came from, so many people wave.
Do a lot of people follow and play table tennis in Nigeria?
It is really popular in the street. Even if you don’t have a standard table you can find something to improve your play. If you don’t have the equipment you can use other materials to play as long as the ball is going across, to the other side of the table.
The problem has been getting financial support to take people to the next level.
How did you start out in the sport?
I learned initially to play on the streets. I first picked up a bat when I was seven years old. On the street, you had to pay some money to get the chance to play and then when you won, you got the chance to continue until someone was able to beat you. It was good for my match skills.
It was just for fun but after about three years of practice I realised I could really hit the table tennis ball. Then I was really lucky there was a table tennis centre near my house and a man took me directly into the hall and I was able to start practising.
How did you progress from there to the world stage?
After a few years I went to my first tournament, in Lagos, and I won. That made me realise I had potential.
At the beginning my parents were not supportive, they wanted me to focus on my education but, after that tournament in Lagos, they had no choice but to give me a free hand. There was some coverage of me in the media afterwards.
Just you and Egypt’s Omar Assar represent Africa in the world’s current top 50. Are you confident more young African players will break through?
More priority needs to be given to table tennis. Governments need to put people who want to work in sport in the right positions.
I am supporting so many players, about six juniors. When I was young no one was able to support me, even with equipment, but these days I am able to help them, to give them equipment and let them play for free.Getty Images
What is the best advice you have passed on to those young wannabe stars?
I always tell them that I have achieved what I have through hard work, self-confidence and that they can always do it, nothing is impossible.
For the ones who are getting support, I tell them I did not get this support, so they are going to be much better than me.
You and your wife Ganiyat have three children – are they future Olympians?
Our kids play sometimes, but they are very young. You can’t tell yet whether they are really interested. The oldest one [five years old] is always interested in learning though.
My wife was a very good player. Now she doesn’t play professionally. She plays for pleasure, but she is a very good training partner and sometimes she beats me.
I am very thankful to her, she is always looking after the kids when I am not at home, which is one of the reasons she is not playing professionally any more.
Finally, Chinese players won all four gold medals on offer at Rio 2016, just as they did in 2008 and 2012. How do you beat them?
Sometimes you just have to pray for a very good draw – everyone wants to avoid them.
They just have a better knowledge of the sport than [players from] every other country, from their history and their culture.
I have never beaten any player in the Chinese national team, but I have won several times against some Chinese who are nationalised for other countries.