At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Quadri Aruna finally met his Chinese master opponent, Ma Long, in the quarterfinals of the men’s singles table tennis tournament.
With his fast forehand power, the Nigerian virtuoso had conquered three top players to reach the quarter-finals of the men’s singles table tennis event, the first time for an African at the Olympics.
He beat Taiwan’s fifth seed Chuang Chih-yuan 4-0 and German star Timo Boll 4-2 in one of the biggest surprises in table tennis history. But Long was too much to deal with and Aruna lost in four straight sets to the future gold medalist.
Nigerian Quadri Aruna (left) congratulates China’s Ma Long (right) after his Olympic quarter-final in 2016
The experience taught him a valuable lesson: to reach the podium, he had to work harder.
It has been five years since, and Aruna has been planning his return to the Tokyo Olympics. After his first season in the German Table Tennis Bundesliga in which he won 15 of his 25 matches, he is the highest ranked African (22) in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).
“I was very happy to play in the Bundesliga, one of the best leagues in Europe,” Aruna told DW. “I think the Bundesliga experience will make a difference for me at the Olympics.”
In Oyo, a rustic and historically rich Yoruba town in western Nigeria where Aruna grew up, children began by drawing lines on concrete floors to create a courtyard. They used broken asbestos or flat wood for tennis racquets. Money raised from shopping was used to buy ping-pong balls. Across town, you can hear a thousand bullets hitting the concrete.
Quadri Aruna playing a Bundesliga table tennis match in October 2020
The simplicity of table tennis rivaled the popularity of football in Aruna’s heart. His family wanted him to focus on school, and his father would wait with a cane outside their house when he returned from playing.
As his talent on concrete floors emerged, he received an invitation to a table tennis hall run by famous city coach Oluwole Abolarin.
“Luckily he saw me on the street and he took me into the room. I think he realized some kind of talent in me,” Aruna said.
He has since become the poster child of table tennis in Nigeria, and his fame is equal to that of the country’s most prominent footballers.
In 2017, Aruna became the first African to win an ITTF title outside the continent by beating Japanese veteran Kaii Yoshida to win the ITTF Challenge Polish Open in Czestochowa. The same year, he won the ITTF Africa Cup against his Egyptian rival Omar Assar.
Quadri Aruna (left) won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games
He was a Commonwealth Games silver medalist on Australia’s Gold Coast in April 2018 and followed that feat by winning the ITTF Challenge Nigeria Open in Lagos – a title he successfully defended in 2019.
When he plays in Lagos the crowd is loud. Fans drum and chant his name inside the Okoya Thomas Hall at Teslim Balogun Stadium. Here he is at home and at one with the crowd.
Nigeria has been represented in every table tennis event since it became an Olympic sport in 1988. Atanda Musa, Bose Kaffo, Monday Merotohun and Segun Toriola have competed in the Games. But Aruna, who was recently named captain of the Nigerian team, is the best hope for a table tennis medal at the Olympics.
“It will be a joy for us as a country and for the African continent if Aruna wins a medal at the Olympics,” said Ishaku Tikon, president of the Nigerian Table Tennis Federation.
“The Olympics are not child’s play. It is serious business and our goal is to win a medal.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed Aruna’s dynamism. He practices two and a half hours a day in Lisbon, Portugal, where he lives with his family.
Quadri Aruna in ITTF final in Zhengzhou, China
Unlike the last Olympic Games in Rio, where Nigerian athletes struggled to secure funding, he says the government has been very supportive.
“I played two tournaments in China, I played in Doha, and I also had a camp at the tennis club in Saarbrücken (Germany). the best preparation I’ve had before a major tournament, ”he said.
Getting a medal in Tokyo means he has to face Chinese domination at the top of the sport. The Chinese have won gold in five of the last six tournaments.
“Table tennis is the number one sport in China. They invest a lot of money in this sport and they have the best coaches who understand the game. But I think it is possible to create a surprise in Tokyo. My goal is winning a medal, and hopefully I am lucky, ”Aruna said.