How Nigerian paddler Quadri Aruna is reinventing table tennis for a whole continent

The 33-year-old father of three is making waves in his sport not only for himself but also, he hopes, for the generation that follows.

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

It’s not often you see a knee-slide celebration in table tennis but Nigeria's Quadri Aruna is doing things his own way, and it’s working for him.

The 33-year-old is currently at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games hoping to add to, and improve upon, his two silver and one bronze medal won from previous editions of the event, at Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018.

That won’t happen in the men's team event in which Nigeria were beaten 3-0 by England on Tuesday in the bronze-medal play-off, finishing in the dreaded fourth place.

"We are all disappointed but that is part of sport,” said Aruna afterwards. “You win or you lose. We gave everything but it was not meant to be.

“We had several chances and were unable to use them. We look forward to the next events.”

The next events to which he alludes are the men’s singles and doubles – he and partner Offiong Edem were eliminated from the mixed doubles event after opting out due to the packed schedule and a slight tweak in Aruna's hamstring – so he still has a chance to take some bling home for his three kids, who are no doubt already proud of their history-making dad.

Making waves

Aruna has competed for Nigeria at three Summer Olympics Games – London 2012, Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020 in 2021, the latter at which he was a flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.

Reaching the singles quarter-finals at Rio 2016 has been his best result so far.

Seeded 27, Aruna made waves in Brazil after beating fifth-ranked Chinese Taipei's paddler Chuang Chih-yuan who struggled to come to terms with Aruna’s unorthodox style of play, going down 4-0.

Aruna then overcame renowned German player Timo Boll 4-2, to reach the quarter-finals where he was beaten by the number one seed and eventual champion Ma Long of People’s Republic of China.

He was the only African competitor to reach the fourth round.

Aruna was hoping to improve his result in Japan, but instead was knocked out in the third round.

Nevertheless, Aruna continues putting the sport on the map on his home continent becoming the first player from Africa to be ranked in the world’s top 10. So does Aruna feel the pressure of his success and the hopes of his nation? Olympics.com asked him after he and men's doubles partner, Bode Abiodun, won their round of 32 match to make it through to the round of 16 on Saturday (6 August)?

"If you really don’t want to lose then it means you have to quit. So, for me, it’s one of these things where you can’t win all the time, nobody wins all the time, so I really feel no pressure. It’s only really important for me to give my absolute all, and when everyone watching is seeing that you’re giving everything, and even if it’s not working in your favour then it’s okay.

"For me, it is only important for me to be an ambassador and give my best and leave the rest and we will see."

Next generation for Africa

That ambassadorial role that Aruna talks about also includes inspiring, and helping, the next generation of paddlers after he struggled to play.

"I started on the street, and presently I have some chances to inspire the younger ones, to discover talent, because growing up it was very difficult. So now I am just trying as much as possible in my capacity not to make the younger ones go through the same stress, just inspire them, try to provide equipment for them, and once in a while do training camps for them and show them what they do in Europe because I’ve been in Europe for several years."

In October last year, the paddler's Aruna Sports Club and Academy hosted a maiden under-15 invitational championships, which took place in Lagos.

Thirty-two players made up of 16 boys and 16 girls played in the one-day tournament aimed at unearthing new talent, something that is important to the three-time Olympian.

“I believe that helping young players is another way to raise the profile of the sport and also assist the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation to identify talents at a tender age,” Aruna told The Eagle Online. “The tournament will have in attendance some of the members of the club who are eager to support table tennis in the country,” he said.

Four players who were not Lagos-based but Oyo State where Aruna is from, were sponsored by the Olympian for the tournament.

Street table tennis

Aruna's start was very different to how he hopes the next generation will progress. Just 100m from his house in Oyo, southwestern Nigeria, was a table tennis centre where the youngster first saw the sport. So Aruna and his friends drew table tennis lines on the floor, cut up some asbestos roofing for bats, and played on the street.

"A man (from the table tennis centre) was just passing by and he saw me and that was how it started," Aruna tells Olympics.com. "I was very lucky."

And the story behind that knee slide?

In 2019, Aruna beat 10-time Japanese champion Jun Mizutani to a second-ever Bulgaria Open semi-final having achieved the same feat in 2017.

The shock result not only prompted fists pumps and the propulsion across the floor but also an ecstatic response from the commentator.

“Quadri Aruna does it. Quadri Aruna lights up the stadium. Nigeria! Africa! Taking down one of the top players, a ten-time Japanese national champion. Quadri Aruna has got Bulgaria eating out of the palm of his hand right now. What a performance under pressure in game number seven. Simply spectacular, 13 to 11, the pride of Africa.”

Table tennis schedule

Thurs 4 August

4pm (BST) Mixed doubles round of 32

5.30pm (BST) Women’s singles round of 32

7pm (BST) Men’s doubles round of 32 - Quadri Aruna & Bode Abiodun (Nigeria) beat Sharpel Elia & Marios Yiangou (Cyprus) 3-0.

Fri 5 August

9.30am (BST)

Women’s singles round of 16

Men’s singles round of 16 - Quadri Aruna & Bode Abiodun (Nigeria) beat Yew En Koen Pang & Izaac Quek (Singapore) 3-2

Mixed doubles round of 16

Women’s doubles round of 32

12pm (BST)

Women’s doubles round of 32

4pm (BST)

Men’s singles round of 16 - Quadri Aruna (Nigeria) v Gavin Rumgay (Scotland)

Women’s singles quarter-finals

Mixed doubles quarter-finals

Women’s doubles round of 32

5pm (BST) Women’s doubles round of 32

Men's doubles quarter-finals - Quadri Aruna & Bode Abiodun (Nigeria) v Nicholas Lum & Finn Luu

Sat 6 August

9.30am (BST)

Men’s singles quarter-finals

Women’s singles semi-finals

Women’s doubles round of 16

Mixed doubles semi-finals

Men’s doubles semi-finals

4pm (BST) Women’s doubles quarter-finals

Sun 7 August

11.05am (BST) women’s singles finals

1.05pm (BST) Men’s doubles finals

4pm (BST)

Men’s singles semi-finals

Women’s doubles semi-finals

7pm Mixed doubles finals

Mon 8 August

9.30am (BST) Women’s doubles finals

11am (BST) Men’s singles finals

How to watch 2022 Commonwealth Games

UK: BBC TV, Radio, iPlayer

Canada: CBC Sports, CBC Sports app

Australia: Channel 7, 7Plus

New Zealand: Sky, TVNZ

India: Sony LIV

Further streaming details can be found on the Commonwealth Games website here.

You can follow all the action via our live update blog article on Olympics.com.

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