Nigerian table tennis legend Segun Toriola has hit out at State Sports Councils, accusing them “of killing sports in Nigeria”, and failing in their task of providing support and structure for talented athletes to have successful careers in Nigeria.
Toriola, announced his retirement from national team duty in February after falling short in his bid for a record-extending eighth Olympic appearance at the Africa Olympics Qualifying Tournament in Tunisia.
The 45-year-old who made his first appearance at the Olympics in 1992 and had never missed any edition before failing to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Games, believes the professional growth and development of young athletes especially table tennis players in Nigeria is being stifled by inept sports councils at the state level.
In an extraordinary career that saw him occupy the number one ranking in Africa for ten consecutive years between 1998 and 2008, Toriola won a total of 12 gold medals at the All-Africa Games and also clinched Bronze at the Commonwealth Singles Championship in 2006.
But looking back at the system that nurtured his talent and helped him and other notable legends go on to have remarkable careers, Toriola told busybuddiesng.com that nothing currently exists in the country comparable to development programmes that helped players like him emerge.
The France-based athlete points specifically to a dearth of professional and grassroots coaches, nonexistent support for table tennis players in the country and a lack of facilities and equipments as some of the core obstacles being faced by aspiring and established players in Nigeria.
And while he admits that Federal Ministry of Sports shares culpability, Toriola placed the bulk of the blame for these shortcomings at the door of the 37 states and FCT sports councils which he maintains are not fit for purpose.
Nigeria has a gilded table tennis heritage having produced legendary players like Atanda Musa, Toriola himself, Bose Kaffo and Funke Oshonaike among others who have wrought great exploits on the global scene.
While a Nigerian Aruna Quadri, 32, is currently one of the best players in the world and the top ranked player in Africa and 25-year-old Olajide Omotayo is the reigning African Games male singles champion, Toriola fears the country might struggle to maintain its proud tradition of producing exceptional players given the complete lack of viable development programmes at state level.
There’s currently plenty of buzz surrounding promising teenage talents Esther Oribamise, Azeez Solanke and Mati Taiwo but Toriola says the young players could struggle to fulfil their potentials if the situation remains the same.
“Well, we have a few of them [young players] that have really improved but I believe if they have support, there’s going to be a Nigerian Champion of tomorrow but right now the problem most young Nigerian players have is coaching, most of them don’t really have coaches most of them practice on their own and that’s the big problem we have,” Toriola told busybuddiesng.com.
The four-time African Games singles champion said he and other more established players have chimed in to support budding players but insists sports councils at the state level must wake up to their responsibilities and stop “killing sports in Nigeria”.
“During my time when I was young, we had coaches, we had support but right now they don’t have coaches or support especially the State Sports Councils are the worst, they are killing sports in Nigeria and that’s the truth.
“Most people always say it’s the Sports Ministry [killing sport in Nigeria] but it’s not the Sports Ministry whose job is to just to select players in Nigeria for tournaments.
“The Sports Ministry should do a little bit [more] but when I was young it was the State Sports Council that took care of athletes but right now, in most of the Sports Councils some do not have a coach or equipment for the young ones, so it is not easy for the young ones, it’s very tough for them.
“The [Nigeria Table Tennis] Federation is really trying to support and give them equipment and we the professional players, we also try to support them with equipment.”