Olufunke Oshonaike: Why women need each other

The only woman with seven Olympic table tennis appearances explains why she wants to support other women after her long career.

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Olufunke Oshonaike, Nigeria's and Africa's table tennis pioneer, waved goodbye to the Olympic Games last summer in Tokyo after seven appearances.

But the evergreen 46-year-old plays on, recently competing in the qualifying rounds for World Table Tennis' inaugural Grand Smash event in Singapore, as she hopes to continue to inspire young players, especially women.

"It's just for me to be there and encourage them," she explained to Olympics.com at Tokyo 2020 as she winds down her playing career. "I really want more women to join me."

The importance of women was a constant theme during the interview with the veteran, who has been through difficult periods of her life to fight her way to the top of the sport on her continent.

"[Women] are strong and we are stronger together," Oshonaike added.

Olufunke Oshonaike on lifting up other women

Oshonaike is clearly passionate about the topic, with her life experiences shaping how she views the role and position of women.

"We are very hard on ourselves sometimes," she said, before becoming emphatic and forceful in her statements. "I am shocked when I see women not lifting women up. Most of the time I see women bringing women down, I get shocked – we need each other!

"I don't see men doing that to each other, especially where I come from! That's why I keep telling them, no matter what, it is your life. Live it the way you want.

"Don't wait for anybody to give you happiness – it has to start from you. If you have it, nobody can take it away from you."

When put to her she could pursue a career in motivational speaking, the Nigerian laughed before explaining.

"I love to talk, especially to women because [of] everything I went through in life," Oshonaike said. "It is just part of me; it is experience. I have been there. If I told you my story, you would be shocked."

That story includes nearly being stabbed as a young teenager for winning a tournament over a more popular rival; surviving abuse as a university student just breaking into the national team; losing her fiancé to a shooting in Nigeria while she was alone in Hamburg, where she had moved to play; and overcoming depression in the lead up to last summer's Tokyo 2020 Games.

"That's why when I see women going through whatever little thing, I want to tell them 'You are stronger than what you think about yourself'," Oshonaike added.

"Women are very strong, but we allow people to pull us down. If we are united together, we're going to rule the world. That's just a fact – we are strong and we are stronger together."

Leading the next generation to the top

While Oshonaike has no intention of competing at Paris 2024, and becoming the first table tennis player to appear at eight Olympic Games, she is not ready to retire just yet.

At the same time, she hopes to continue to help the next generation of African players - and African women - reach the top level of the sport.

"It's really hard in table tennis. We only have the Asian [nations] as champions. And few Europeans, not to talk of Africans," she acknowledged.

"So for me, if we cannot get medals, I think we should fight to go to more Olympics. I really want more women to join me."

And, she was clear to add, this extended outside of the sporting arena too.

"I'll be encouraging every woman that – no matter what you're going through in life – if you're focused, if you're determined, if you're disciplined, if you're dedicated, your dream can always come true like my dream – and even much, much, more."

Olufunke Oshonaike's future

"Funke", as she is also known, says that she would like to be at Paris 2024, albeit not in a playing capacity, as she continues to help grow the sport of table tennis in Africa.

"I'm going to continue being there, with this [table tennis] family," she said. "Whatever they want from me, if it is the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) or the African Table Tennis Federation.

"Whatsoever anybody wants from me concerning sport - to lift people up, to help them, to work with them, I am ready at any time.

"I would love to give back what sport, table tennis especially, has given me."


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