Nigerian Phenom Sets Sights On Winning Table Tennis Gold at 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Upending China’s Dominance

Aruna Quadri (top) took on Germany’s Timo Boll in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
source Eric Baradat/getty

Aruna Quadri is a powerhouse on the court. When he wins a match, he lets out a fierce yell, pumping his fists in triumph. When he loses, Quadri stomps his feet and muscled quads. The floor rumbles, like an earthquake. All this over something as mighty and as formidable as … a puny ping pong ball.

At 5’9’’ and 154 pounds of raw energy, Quadri is wiry but strong. The 28-year-old ping pong phenom is feather-light on his feet — a sprightly athlete waging an intense battle with a little white bouncing ball that weighs no more than a penny. You’ve never seen ping pong like this in your basement. With his signature forehand swing, the Nigerian athlete is headed straight for the medals podium at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, says Olalekan Okusan, a veteran sports journalist based in Lagos. That means Quadri could break the longtime trend of Chinese state-sponsored athletes who train from childhood and dominate the table tennis ranks.

Quadri competed for Nigeria at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics, reaching the quarterfinals and becoming the first African to do so. There, he trounced some of the top players in the world, including Germany’s Timo Boll and Taiwan’s Chen Chien-An, eventually losing to the world’s top-ranked player, Ma Long of China.

As one of Nigeria’s most decorated athletes, Quadri earned the International Table Tennis Federation’s Star Player of the Year award in 2014. Since relocating to Lisbon to train with top-tier coaches in 2010, he’s won the Portuguese Cup four years in a row and has dominated matches at the much larger European Confederations Cup. He’s now ranked 26th in the world.

“Initially, I never believed I could get this far or grow so fast against all expectations,” Quadri says.

Since officially becoming an Olympic sport in the 1980s, professional table tennis has been dominated by Chinese competitors, who’ve won 24 of 28 golds. But in China, the craze for table tennis is dying down, says Song Fei, editor at China’s Table Tennis World. These days, today’s youth are more “drawn to the NBA, Nike, LeBron James and Kobe.”

Meanwhile, African ping pong players like Egypt’s Omar Assar, Portugal’s Andre Silva, Egypt’s Khalid Assar, Togo’s Mawussi Agbetoglo and Nigeria’s Ojo Onaolapo and Boboye Oyeniyan are on the rise. In Nigeria, athletes like Quadri are household names and are often treated like royalty, just as NFL and NBA players are in America. As Okusan points out, Quadri is a rare, internationally dominant athlete for the nation.

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