ESPN spoke to Nigerian table tennis veteran Olufunke Oshonaike, who will be competing at her seventh Olympic Games come Tokyo, about her experiences across 25 years of five-ringed competition.
Now 45, Oshonaike was the country’s flag-bearer at the 2016 Games in Rio, and is the first African woman to qualify for seven Games, beating out Mozambiquan runner Maria Mutola for the record.
The African athlete with the most appearances is Oshonaike’s countryman and table tennis mentor Segun Toriola, with seven, so they will be level should she send her first serve down on July 24.
ESPN: You are the first African woman to qualify for seven Olympic Games. What was your immediate reaction when you realized you had done it?
OO: I was shocked. Then, I started crying. I couldn’t believe it, because I was going through lots of things at that time. I was physically ready, but I didn’t have much confidence.
I didn’t cry for my very first Olympic Games. I was young, I was just very, very happy that I had qualified. But this one is something I can’t describe.
For the first one, I was confident I was going to qualify and defeat the more experienced seniors. So, there was not so much pressure. But this one, it meant so much to me. I wanted it so bad and I achieved it.
Some people spend their entire lives training and trying to make it to just one Olympics and never do. But you made it to seven. What does it take?
You need to love what you’re doing. I love table tennis, it brought me out of poverty. But [I didn’t love it] because of what I was going to get from it, it is just this natural love. As an athlete, I’ve been so dedicated. I’ve been so determined.
And I remember growing up, I just wanted to defeat my seniors. There was nobody I would look at and think, ‘I will lose to them’. I was looking up to them to beat them.
I was very disciplined and I still am, because if I want something I just go for it. Even at my age right now, if you see me training, you’ll be shocked because I’m a go-getter.
So, if it takes me to run, to jog from morning till night to achieve my dream, I will do that. We don’t have that nowadays with the youth, lot of them are very lazy. They just want to have things easily, but you can’t have everything easily.
So, even to be a first-time Olympian, you have to train hard for it, because it is not what you’re going to do in Nigeria that will qualify you. For table tennis, we only have six slots for the whole of Africa. So you need to defeat everybody to get one of those six slots.
So, for the younger ones, they needed the three Ds; to be dedicated, to be determined, and to be very disciplined. Be focused. If you can have the three D’s you will achieve your dreams.
From your first Olympics to now, how would you say the Games have evolved?
A lot of things have changed. I think the biggest thing is safety. We have a lot of security protocols that keep changing with almost every cycle.
At my first Olympics, we were very free in Atlanta [in 1996]. Then as the years went, things like terrorism started. So that changed things.
Each sport has also seen a lot of changes in the rules. For instance, if we have to talk about Table Tennis, there has been a lot of rules changes [to slow the game down].
They changed the ball, they change the colour of the ball, they changed the size of the ball, they change the table tennis board and still, you cannot actually see the difference [in speed], because it’s still very fast.
But as athletes, we’ve been able to adapt. I expect even more changes in the organization in Tokyo now because it is like a special [version of the] Olympics.
We are all going to be in a bubble and I’m afraid to be in Tokyo.
How have those security protocols affected you as athletes?
I never liked it. In Athens , I remember the security guarding all of us. If you have to go outside, to come back in they will check you from head to toe.
In Atlanta it was not like that. We were all very free to go and come as we liked. But I can understand it because when there is much insecurity, or you’re hearing about something might happen, it may affect you mentally because you might be a little afraid to go to places that normally you will love to go to.
I can’t speak for others but that is the way it affected me. Apart from that, I still love the Games, I still love Games village, I still mix with other athletes. Let’s just see what is going happen now in Tokyo.
With COVID-19, there will be a lot of changes in the Village. How do you see that affecting the Games, and you?
The playbook they sent to me… we just go from the village to the playing center, to the competition center… then from competition center, you come back to the village.
For meals, you can go and eat, but you have to do it fast, and go back on a dedicated bus. You can’t go shopping.
There are a lot of things we are not allowed to do. They call it a bubble but it is like I’m going to be in a partial imprisonment. That just the way I’m seeing it right now, with what I have read so far in the playbook.
I’m scared that it is going to be like, ‘What is going on here?’ But at least it has not been cancelled. So, sometimes, I’m trying to look at the good side of it. But I think it is going to be the worst Olympics because of COVID.
You have all these superstar athletes, some with bodyguards outside. How do they manage inside the Games Village when they are in there without all of those trappings?
They’re normal. You can’t bring your bodyguard to the Village.
Sometimes, some of them are initially reluctant to come to the village but when they eventually come, they feel at home. We eat together, we talk together, they’re just normal.
No-one acts like they are more superstar than others. There’s nothing like that at the Games Village. That’s one thing I love about it. We are all there for a goal, to participate, to win.
That is very, very important because we worked hard to qualify, all of us. And when we get there, that’s the journey. Being there means you’ve already achieved your dream. That’s one thing I like about Olympics. We are all the same.
The Games Village gives everyone a chance to just be normal people. A lot of them just want to be free, to go to a lot of places without people disturbing them, or to just be free to talk without being very, very careful about what they say.
The Games Village offers that opportunity to everyone to just be themselves without worrying too much about all those things, and that is the best thing about it.
Which of your previous six Games have been your favourite and why?
Oh, Atlanta ’96. My first! There was nothing that could beat America to me back then. I was very happy in America as a Nigerian. You know, almost every Nigerian wants to go to America.
I had the opportunity to see a lot of stars, a lot of personalities. Not just sports people, but a lot of superstars. I was able to see Hakeem Olajuwon, I was able to see a lot of musicians that I love. I was able to see all the big stars in basketball.
A lot of all these superstars, Hollywood stars, came to the Village to make a show for us. I will never forget it. That was super. That was the best so far. Rio was not bad but the first… nothing compares.
Who was your favourite Hollywood star who came to visit?
The only person I wanted to see back then was Monica, and then Brandy. A lot of them came, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I saw him too. We always watched them in movies, they all came around and it was super. You can just imagine me looking for a way to get autographs [laughs].
Who was the one athlete you really wanted to meet?
It was [former NBA player] Hakeem Olajuwon. I met him and it was great. That was early in my Olympics career, I think it was Atlanta 96 when I was growing up. He came to the Games Village and it was so awesome to get a chance to see him.
But nowadays, there’s nobody I want to meet. I’ve been there, done that. So, I’m not looking for anybody anymore. Maybe people are looking for me, I’m not looking for anybody.
Which was the best organized Games, and which was the least organized, in your opinion?
I didn’t enjoy Athens. I went there with my first child and I was told to take him back or to check into a hotel, because babies or family members were not allowed in the Village.
I disliked it because, going to the Olympics, a part of what we enjoy is being in the Games Village. So I didn’t like that organization. And apart from that, we were surrounded by lots of security and I never liked that, either. I wouldn’t blame them but I didn’t enjoy it.
Rio was very good. I liked the fact that I was kind of free compared to Athens and the other ones. You were free to do whatever you wanted to do. Your room was very, very good. Your playing center was very good. Everything was organized. People were all around you to help you.
Beijing was great, too. The Village was fantastic and I did a lot of shopping. So much shopping that I had a lot of extra luggage!
To be fair, they are all very good, and almost the same. The International Olympic Committee are very good with organization so I don’t think there’s any one that was better, as such. I’m just talking about me because I’m thinking about the one where I had fun, the one I really enjoyed, and the one I did not enjoy.
What was it like to be the flag bearer for Nigeria in Rio?
Oh, wow, that flag. I would say it’s a feeling that was indescribable. I was very, very happy to do that at the Olympics. It’s something that I was so very excited about.
When I came back to Germany, I was celebrated at my job because their male Table Tennis player that carried the flag for Germany is their number one here.
So, I was celebrated here and it’s unbelievable that the Germans celebrated me for carrying the flag of Nigeria.
I don’t think that is going to be possible this year because we’re not going to have a lot of people at the stadium, maybe they are just going to choose two or three people for the march past.
In your six previous appearances, which opening ceremony outfit did you love, and which one would you rather not see again?
We didn’t have any outfit the last one [in Rio]. We just did the march past [Parade of Nations] in our tracksuit. That one was like, “What nonsense?”
And then the one from Sydney 2000. Oh, I loved the Sydney outfits. Yes, I remember all my friends. I remember the march past. I remember that Sydney outfit was really good. I loved it.
I also loved the outfit for Atlanta ’96. It was very good, I won’t forget it. The ankara was beautiful. I think most of the other ones were like plain white.
At the end of each tournament, do you feel sad leaving the Games?
No, there has never been any feeling like that. Of course, no one wants to lose and you can feel sad at losing a game, but with Olympics the most important thing is participation, that journey; that’s why everybody’s happy just for qualifying.
Even though you’ve lost, you’ve already done your best. Then you can relax and enjoy yourself at the Games. Maybe if you have the opportunity, you can go and watch other games. You can go to the city and do some shopping, you can relax your head that you’ve already achieved your goal and you’re a winner. Everybody’s a winner.
But I believe this year will be very different. I think after your event ends at the Olympic Games now, you just have to carry your bag, go back home. There is COVID 19, so that is the only thing to do.
Will this be your last Olympic Games or do you have plans to go for number 8?
No, I’m not going any more. This is it. I might go as an official or as a spectator. I think it is now the right time to throw in the towel. I’ve achieved my dream and thank God for that.
As you call it a day, what would be your best memories of the Games?
The Games Village. To me it is just like heaven. That’s how I want the world to be; that we don’t see colour, we are all the same, we all think alike. I love the village. I love the love that we share.
I will miss that. It is different from other competitions. It is a very nice place to be. When you enter the village you feel like you’re in another world, you think that you’re in heaven. Because everybody, we all just love each other in there.
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