Seven is the number of athletes who have appeared at seven Olympic Games or more, the outright record holder being Canadian show jumper Ian Millar, who made ten appearances between Munich 1972 and London 2012. Figuring large among the group of evergreen performers with seven Games to their name is legendary sprinter Merlene Ottey, while this most select club is about to welcome a new member in Nigerian table tennis player Segun Toriola, who booked his place at Rio 2016 in February.
Toriola was only 18 when he made his Olympic debut at Barcelona 1992, teaming up in the doubles with Oluyomi Bankole. The Nigerian pair scored a solitary win in the group phase, over Cuba’s Ruben Arado and Santiago Roque. After further first-round exits in both the singles and the doubles at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, Toriola reached the third round of the singles at Athens 2004.
In Beijing four years later, he produced the best performance of his lengthy Olympic career to date, scoring back-to-back wins over former world No1s David Zhuang of the USA and Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, and then taking the Republic of Korea’s Oh Sangeun to a seventh set. Appearing at London 2012 at the age of 37, Toriola went out in the second round to Sweden’s five-time world champion Jörgen Persson.
Born in Illorin, the capital of the western Nigerian state of Kwara, Toriola became Africa’s undisputed No1 on the back of his unreadable forehand drive, topspin game and speed across the ground. A four-time continental champion between 1998 and 2006, he has also won four African Games titles, a Commonwealth Games gold medal – at Manchester 2002 – and a string of men’s doubles, mixed doubles and team titles.
Welcome to the club
On 18 February this year, the venerable Toriola chalked up another notable achievement, booking a ticket to Rio 2016 with an 11-7, 12-10, 11-9, 11-6 victory over Togo’s Mawussi Agbetoglo at the African qualification event in Khartoum (SUD).
In doing so, he joined fellow table tennis legends Saive, Persson and Croatia’s Zoran Primorac as a seven-time Olympian.
“This is simply an amazing achievement,” said the Swede of his Nigerian colleague. “He is a talented player and deserves all the accolades he gets. I am very happy to welcome him into the ‘7 Club’.”
“I am very excited about this achievement,” said the 41-year-old Toriola. “I never thought I could be playing a seventh Olympic Games in my career.
“I am honoured that I made history as the first African to achieve this feat. It was a little difficult for me because I played under a lot of pressure, I was the favourite for this tournament, and I had to be cautious in my games, as most of the players wanted to beat me. I ensured I was not too confident in all my matches and played them carefully.”
Contemplating his return to the Olympic stage at Rio, the Nigerian veteran said: “I am glad that I made it and I hope now to focus on the preparation for Rio, which is very vital for me.”