They face low funding and low support, the Nigerian para table tennis team is on a high and still fights for gold. Story sponsored by GE.
Lagos— Once every four years, the fever consumes Nigerians – the excitement is heard by the deaf, and chanted by the dumb. The spirit of celebration puts a dance in every limb – abled-bodied and disabled – just so the rhythm of victory can be experienced by all. The Olympic Games.
Just days to the Olympics, grunts fill the air at the National Stadium in Lagos, where some of the athletes have been camped for more than 61 days. Nick Chinedu, Koleosho Ahmed, and Faith Obiora are players of the Para Table Tennis team - men and woman who have refused to let their disabilities define them, but are driven by passion and patriotism to redefine the concept of sportsmanship – rising to become world champions, ranked amongst the best in the world. As they trained with their coach, Chinedu Njoku, they seemed to have become one with their wheelchairs, as they rollethe wheels with one hand, and smashed the ball with the other. The sheer speed behind every stroke fills the room with music – much like tap dancing, as the bouncing balls created a symphony of rhythmic aggression.
Each member of the Para Table Tennis team boasts significant international championship experience, with trophies, plaques and medals to make their locker room look like a national hall of fame.
But for some reasons, they don’t feel like champions today. And the question is: has this got anything to do with the fact that they’re in wheelchairs? According to Chinedu Njoku, the team coach, it doesn’t, “I don’t think it has anything to do with discrimination because medals are coming from the para team” he said, “last year I took three athletes to Morocco for the Olympic qualifiers, and the three of them all qualified”. This is no easy feat. Not many teams - not even their abled-bodied counterparts were so honored.
“The players could really use some exposure to more friendly training environments tailored to the needs of disabled athletes” the coach suggested, stating that “It would have been nice if we could head to Brazil in time, to acclimatize, and at least have enough time to study the way the competition we’re up against are playing. Access to proper facilities, and proximity to other international players will help us adequately prepare for the tournament”.
At their current training facilities, the lighting is poor. The flooring is not up to the Olympic requirements. And their wheelchairs are relics reserved for domestic use at best. Yet these players, in the typical Nigerian fashion have done their personal best to modify the available space and gear to give them a semblance of the Olympic standards.
The sentiments get a little sore at some point, as the players wondered why it seems there’s inadequate commercial interest in Para Table Tennis. They wonder if the public would rather have them littered on the streets of the major cities begging for alms, rather than support them in their quest to bring glory in the shape of gold medals to Nigeria, as champions and not as beggars?
Koleosho Ahmed is ranked Number 47 in the world, in Class 3 Para Table Tennis. He is a representative of the richest state in Nigeria, Lagos. But as bright as this champion’s star is, he feels: “the orientation is too low because people don’t see the potential of special sports in Nigeria.,” he continued to reveal, “countries like Egypt and South Africa support their Paralympic teams, yet in Nigeria we have no support system for special sports – corporate organizations are yet to see the value of sponsoring para athletes, so for now, we rely on just ourselves for support”
“We have each other – we support each other – that’s all we have in terms of cheerleaders or fan club”
Faith Obiora, a wife and mother, who left her family in Delta State, Southern Nigeria 61 days ago to camp in Lagos in preparation for the Olympics has a more urgent need, as she buttresses the need for fair and commiserate reward or compensation from a country they’ve served with their disability.
“The most we get is a few media interviews to announce the medals we’ve won for our country” she laments, “but the honest truth is we need to match all these gestures with something tangible, because I cannot just hail a taxi and get a free ride, or go to the market and get free groceries just because I won a silver medal ”
Her remark brings to the fore the underlying suspicion that Nigerians may have come to associate handicap with destitution rather than sportsmanship. Are Nigerians yet to see these special athletes as noteworthy sportsmen and sportswomen? Are Nigerians yet to acknowledge the role they have to play in rehabilitating the mindset of Nigerians living with disability?
Morale is low, and according to Faith Obiora, something can be done to give them a smile-inducing boost. “When you see your family watching you play, you’ll want to play better than you’ve been playing, just so they can be proud of you” she said, nostalgic, “other countries make room for one or two family members of the players to come watch the games – and this boosts the morale of the players – and they play better, and win big for their country”
Yet, despite the prevailing despair, these champions are pumped and ready to go. According to wheel-chair bound Nick Chinedu, a highly decorated Pimples player, who has played against able-bodied opponents and emerged victorious, he’s ready to take on even the Chinese players who are revered for their excellence in the game of Ping Pong.
“I’ve beaten so many able-bodied players” he boasted, “in 2015, I played in Winchester Table Tennis Club in New York, and I beat a few able-bodied players, and received trophies for that”.
These words echo the sentiments of the Para Table Tennis team, as they believe that there will be a reward for the price they’ve had to pay – training for a minimum of 4 hours a day, everyday for the past 61 days. The reward will come not just in gold, and if not this year, but the day para athletes in Nigeria are seen as heroes who have transformed the agony of their disability into a nation’s pride and glory.
From Nigeria to Brazil with love (and gold on the return trip): our Wheelchair Ping Pong Champions.