The year 2015 was a good one for Nigerian table tennis.
There was also a teenage phenom by the name of Olajide Omotayo, who is the latest product from Nigeria's conveyer belt of table tennis talent.
He had made a name for himself after playing professionally for just two years.
The Lagos native was just a match away from his big break - making the Nigerian team for the African Games. But he failed.
Omotayo sunk from disappointment to ‘deep depression’ and lacked the strength to keep going. The episode almost prematurely ended the then 20-year-old's career.
“It’s like life was trying to pull me down. I allowed this to get into my head. I was depressed,” Olajide Omotayo in an interview with Olympic Channel.
But he found new motivation in the goal of playing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“Qualifying for the Olympics is a dream come true. I am very proud of myself. I didn't stop believing in myself. I kept on. Having this positive mindset that I can be the best that I can be, and all I need to do is work hard,” he said.
Now, the prodigy is being labelled the ‘Prince of Nigerian table tennis’, and will certainly entertain crowds with impressive backhand flicks.
The longest time without playing table tennis
Two months have passed since Omotayo last picked up a table tennis paddle, which is the longest he's ever been away from the sport. A real struggle for someone who chooses to ‘play even on Christmas day’.
Omotayo has been in total lock down due to coronavirus pandemic in Italy, where he plays for ASD Genova.
He has had to get creative to keep his skills sharp from within his house, and even tried using one of his medals as a bat!
It's now strange to think that just five years ago he yearned for a new life away from the table.
The early years
Omotayo grew up watching his siblings playing table tennis.
His first effort was at the family's dining table against his sister, with a broomstick serving as the net.
The youngster was thrilled when the then Nigerian junior champion Lanre Jegede encouraged him to join a local club in their tough Shomolu neighbourhood.
“When I finished school, I gave everything to table tennis. The funny thing is that all my siblings stopped playing. But I told myself, for me a good life is here with table tennis."- Olajide Omotayo to Olympic Channel.
‘I was depressed and wanted to start a new life’
“I was not born with a silver spoon. I had humble beginnings. I was born and brought up in downtown," he revealed to Olympic Channel.
"So many things happened around me. Riots, living around criminals. So, when I got the opportunity that could shape my life, I used it well," he recalled of his neighbourhood in Lagos, an area plagued by overcrowding and poor housing.
Shomolu is a tough suburb that has produced some of the best table tennis players in Nigeria, including Olufunke Oshonaike.
Omotayo became extremely handy on the table.
At the age of 13 he was already a rising star, and was rewarded with his debut at the 2008 African Juniors in Egypt. Captaincy of the team followed at the 2013 World Junior Championships, where he was one of the top-ranking African players.
By 20, he was ready to make the step up to the senior ranks.
But then he lost a crucial qualifying game for the 2015 African Games trials.
“I didn’t qualify to be in the team because of a match that I was leading 2-0 in and was the favourite for. I don't know what happened," the 24-year-old said in an interview from Genova.
“Sometimes sports turn upside down. No African Games and everything else went down. I couldn't go back to Europe because my club in Italy couldn’t secure sponsorship."
Inspired to return by an Olympic moment
It took an Olympic moment to inspire him back to the game.
‘I watched the match that qualified him, and it was so good. Aruna won it,”
“He beat Timo Boll [three-time Olympic medal winner]. I was so happy - it was like I was the one who got to the quarter-final. I was like 'if Aruna can do it, I can also do it if I put in the work'.”
Aruna, the two-time Olympian resurrected renewed inspiration in Omotayo who realised he still had plenty of good years ahead of him. He moved back to Europe and set himself huge targets. He found a great coach in Michael Oyebode.
“I was then ranked 632 in the world. I said to myself, ‘I want to start playing more professional tournaments and I want to be top 200 in the world in two years’.”
The comeback and return to form
Barely a year after his return he qualified for the African Championships and was part of Nigeria’s team that took the men’s team silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
The best was yet to come.
At the 2019 African Games in Morocco, he shocked his idol Aruna, his biggest victory to date.
“What happened in Rabat was a result of all the hard work I have been putting in, all the tournaments I have attended,” he said of the game of his life that boosted his break into the top 100 in the world rankings.
“An ordinary player can’t just win a title like that. I won against Ahmed Saleh from Egypt, one of the best players from Africa in the quarters. Then I played with the legend himself Segun Toriola, the seven-time Olympian and I won that match. I said to myself, ‘Wow, what is happening in Morocco? I think something good is going to happen here’.
“ I will never forget that moment in my life. It was so emotional for me, so many people didn't see this coming. I wasn’t even thinking that if I won the match, I will be the African Games champion. It was just about putting the ball on the table, winning as many points as possible. I told myself, ‘I will give it my all. I don't care if I'm going to faint right here in this court’.” - Olajide Omotayo on winning African Games title.
'Qualifying for the Olympics is a dream come true’
Omotayo was playing some good table tennis before his 2020 plans were turned upside down by Covid-19.
He qualified for the Olympics in February in Tunisia.
Like many athletes, he was disappointed after the Olympic postponement but the motivation to play remains.
The isolation time has been a time for reflection.
“ I just flashed back. Everything that happened in my life happened so fast. Four years ago, I was watching Aruna in Rio and now I have qualified for the Olympics. You can’t imagine all these feelings. What if I had quit playing table tennis? Look at what I have now achieved! It's emotional.”
“I now have self-confidence and belief that I can be whatever I want. If you want anything in this life, you must fight for it. Nobody owes you anything. Nobody. Everything you want in your life; you have to fight for it. If anyone gives you something or does something positive, hold that person in high esteem.”
'Prince' Olajide Omotayo looks up to 'King Aruna'
The reigning African Games champion remains humble in the face of his achievements, firmly grounded in his values.
“So many people keep saying things like you are the future of table tennis, but I don't let all of this get to me.
“I know I can only make them happy if I put in the work. If I don't put in the work, it’s never going to happen. Now is the time to double up my hustle.”
“Everybody keeps saying, ‘you are now the prince of table tennis in Nigeria. But the king is Aruna.’ This makes me happy, because Aruna has nurtured me and here we are together at the top level. But he is the big, big boss. Aruna has changed the [African] sport.
The fast-rising sensation believes training with some of the best players has influenced him a lot and helped him set his mind to overcome the lows of sport.
“I have Aruna and Segun as my teammates. I’m closer to Aruna. If you have a top player, a role model as a good friend, you have everything already,” he reckoned.
“If I have any issues, I have any problems with my technique or whenever I lose, I talk, to Aruna. He is better than me in every aspect. I have had him in my corner every time advising me, 'You have to attend tournaments, even if you lose a hundred times don’t worry. One match can change your life. One breakthrough can change your life'.”
Plotting Africa's future
The offensive player also credits his Italian coach Luciano Esposito for the great progress in the technical aspects of his game.
Esposito ‘taught him the backhand flick’.
“Many players in Africa can’t play this [backhand flip]. And when I play very well, they are shocked and don't know how to return. Like against Aruna on that lucky day [the African Games final] I was able to play so many good backhand flicks.”
The fast-rising sensation is excited with the level of players Africa has produced in table tennis, but he feels they are held back by the structures and lack of exposures.
“If we can have facilities like what they have in Asia, Europe, I am confident that we can be better than them because we have the physicality. Africans are really, very strong when it comes to sport.”
"Africa has great talents look at Omar Assar, Quadri Aruna, Segun Toriola, Ahmed Saleh, Atanda Musa big guys in the game. We have what it takes, but we need to invest in the game. Invest in playing halls, leagues, tournament and coaches. In Nigeria, you find 40 players in the hall and only one coach."