LAGOS – Funke Oshonaike is no spring chicken. Indeed, the household tennis name who started playing competitive table tennis in the 1980s turns 44-years old in a month’s time and yet shows very little of her age – physically and ability-wise – as she easily still is one of Nigeria’s best players and can pass for a woman half her age.
Her incredible longevity on the table tennis table is perhaps better illustrated by the fact that she regularly competes against and could still face Egyptian Dina Meshref at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Nigeria which served off today in Lagos, decades after playing Meshref’s mother who is long retired.
Oshonaike says rather than being made to feel old by the fact that she has competed against two generations of Meshrefs, the knowledge that she can still play at a very high level and hold her own against much younger opponents makes her happy and she hopes many women will be motivated by her performances to pursue their dreams regardless of their circumstances.
“It is true I played against her [Dina Meshref’s] mother and I’m actually happy that at my age I can still be playing very, very good but I don’t see it like that I played her mother, I’m going to be playing her, that’s it going to affect me,” Oshonaike told busybuddiesng.com at the Molade Okoya-Thomas Indoor Sports Hall venue of the Nigeria Open.
“It doesn’t affect me in any way because what I’m doing right now is to enjoy myself, to play good table tennis, to see that I am motivating all the younger women that in any situation they can still be what they want to be. Even married, unmarried, with children whatever they are going through even with age they can still be what they want to be,” the 2007 All African Games gold medallist said.
While she may feel empowered by her longevity and continued competitiveness, many in Nigeria do not share that same outlook and the issue of her age and continued relevance have become a stick to beat the six-time Olympian with.
Comments – often vile and totally devoid of any consideration of her proven ability as one of Nigeria’s best players – urging her to retire are rife especially during tournaments in Nigeria where she enters to compete. A well-worn justification many make for those calls is an unfounded assertion that her continued presence somehow stymies the growth and development of younger players.
Such reasoning leaves the Germany-based athlete perplexed and exasperated.
“Because where we live in Nigeria, people want to live your life for you which I don’t really like,” she says in response to those that would like to see the back of her. “Because I don’t really understand why a lot of people are really negative because I’ve been listening that ‘she’s old, she’s this, she’s that’ it’s my life! They should allow me to live my life, I love what I’m doing.”
She feels instead of being criticised for still being a much better player than many younger players in a sport she still feels very passionate about, her story should instead serve to inspire and be seen as proof that that age is indeed a number.
“I want to encourage people, they should see it like parents at home that have a girl with this talent that God has given me that I’m still good at 45. I’m still fit, I even look better than a lot of players, if I have to run, a lot of 20, 30-year-old girls cannot actually run faster than me, I train harder than all of them.
“To me it’s a very special talent and they should be very, very proud of me as a Nigerian not asking me when I’m going to retire, it should be my thing when I’m going to retire, if I decide to retire by 50, by 45 or 46, it’s just enjoying the game of table tennis.
To buttress her point, she brings up the example of Ni Xia Lian who at 56-years old is still very much active and ranked at 46 in the world – a higher position than Africa’s highest-ranked female 25-year old Dina Meshref. It is something Oshonaike, who still harbours hope of making a record-breaking seventh appearance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, hopes will give many Nigerians food for thought.
“I have a woman [Ni Xia Lian] in Luxembourg that is about 55-years old, none of us in Africa can actually defeat her, she’s very good. So, what is wrong with us that we can’t even support our own? That mentality I think Nigerians should take it out of their heads.”