In a week when Nigeria failed to win any medal at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London, England, there was another sports event that showed great promise. The Seamaster ITTF Challenge Nigeria Open 2017 left one with no doubt that an otherwise small sport could create such a spectacle in an environment like this.
Table tennis has always been a crowd puller in Nigerian cities, with its speed of service and eye-catching rallies creating dramatic games. When I was a teenager, there were boards on almost every street corner in Akure as we tried to replicate the game play like our national heroes, Atanda Musa and Bose Kaffo. On those neighbourhood boards, as the ‘egg’ ping-ponged across the table, we dreamt of playing like the masters one day, to achieve rallies that would leave audiences with mouths agape. We placed bets on matches and held our own championships, winner takes all.
Perhaps it is one of the reasons that Ondo State continues to be one of the top places for table tennis talent in Nigeria, following closely behind the Lagos talent pool.
Table Tennis is a game of speed, precision and grace. This past week, we were treated to some of the best players in the sport. One hundred and forty-two players from 22 countries participated in the Nigeria Open at the Molade Okoya Thomas Hall, Teslim Balogun Stadium. One of the only tournaments to bring players in the top 100 to Nigeria, the Nigeria Open had star names like Aruna Quadri who has a cult-like following in Surulere; Egypt’s Omar Assar who has made Lagos a veritable home ground; Dina Meshref who won her first singles title at the third time of asking; the ageless Funke Oshonaike who fired criticism at Nigerian administrators, and Bode Abiodun, whose victory over Quadri has set up a new rivalry in Nigerian table tennis, among many others.
Even as Assar romped to a third title on Sunday, with the best Nigerian performances being semi-final places in the men’s singles and women’s doubles, the atmosphere inside the 2000-capacity hall, where there was no standing room, made it clear that table tennis is a sport with lots of passionate supporters. The ability of the organisers to pull off a successful tournament shows that there is a lot of potentials for Nigerian table tennis to grow and become a main stay in the ecosystem.
Having spent most of the last five years dedicated to specialist football writing, I did not have the time to enjoy other sports. But I was informed that the crowd at the table tennis championship is regular as fans turn up to be entertained. And I did confirm it during the past week through three visits to the arena. Despite being week days, Thursday and Friday had sizable crowds that paid to get into the hall. And on Saturday, I saw several families in attendance. One man came with his wife and two sons. Another man who has a board at home told me he brought his young son in order to inculcate in the lad an early interest in the sport. They stayed throughout the day despite the return of the English Premier League on TV. Their knowledge of the sport and the players were also very high, much better than mine.
There was also the commercial activity around the event. There were vendors all around selling different types of food to fans. One young lady said she was happy with the turnout on Saturday where she hoped to triple her sales. A lady who sold snacks and carbonated drinks was glad to be able to make a higher profit. The apparel seller from Joola, one of the sponsors, made a brisk sale of shirts and other merchandise. Unfortunately, he only accepted cash while I wanted to pay by card even as I observed that the sales points could use a facelift.
There is enough room for belief that this sport could become a bigger draw in future and move to a larger venue, if the organisers continue to invest in it to fill the appetite for thrilling tennis. We do not always have to wait for football, other sports can thrive in their own way once they find their areas of strength and market it appropriately.
I was also encouraged by the appointment of interns for the media department during the tournament. The idea is to build a legacy by bringing in young people with an interest in sport who will become future torch bearers. I would like to see this replicated in many other departments of the tournament to consciously create a pool of sports managers with practical experience. It is something that I would also encourage other sport events planners to do, give opportunities to young people to assist in managing events whether as unpaid volunteers or with a token fee. This way, we will invest in our country’s young and give them opportunities to find their feet in the industry.
Even though Nigeria failed to win a title, the fact that our table tennis players were able to compete against some of the best players from around the world has helped to see a gap that needs to be constantly filled. We need events like this to happen with greater frequency to give them regular practice.