The Inside Story of Africa’s Unlikely Ping-Pong Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Ping-Pong is on the rise — in unexpected places.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
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. Which means Quadri could stand to 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 ever 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 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,” says Quadri.
Since officially becoming an Olympic sport in the 1980s, professional Ping-Pong has been dominated by Chinese competitors; China’s won 24 of 28 golds. But in China, the craze for ping pong 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 players are worshipped in America. As Okusan points out, Quadri is a rare, internationally dominant athlete for the nation.
No doubt, the popularity of Ping-Pong in Africa has mushroomed thanks to Quadri, adds Okusan. Since Quadri’s career launched in Lagos, the country has seen new facilities, more major tournaments and regular visits from Chinese coaches scouting for up-and-coming talent each year. But African athletes still face a steep hill to the top; tournament, training, equipment and travel fees aren’t cheap. As inflation in Nigeria drives up the price of basic food staples, money for table tennis is not a high priority for the government. Two decades ago, Nigeria hosted 11 international table tennis competitions each year. Today, athletes are lucky if there are three. Quadri self-funds his athletic career.
Like a rose blooming out of concrete, Quadri owes much of his rapid rise to stardom to his sheer force of will and some luck. (He might thank the divine too, as a devout Muslim who fits five-times-a-day prayers in between practices.) Raised in a farming village in the Oyo State — home to Nigeria’s first university, television station and skyscraper — Quadri lived elbow to elbow in a small home as the youngest of seven full siblings, along with eight other half siblings. “Growing up was not that easy,” says Quadri. “My father had three wives, and he was never around.” By the age of seven, Quadri was already playing Ping-Pong in the streets with a homemade racket and wads of paper, a common hobby among his friends. He played casually, occasionally competing in local and statewide competitions in middle school and high school — but not for long.
When he turned 18, Quadri’s defeat of the country’s reigning champ caught the eye of Nigerian Table Tennis Federation president Wahid Oshodi. “He wasn’t the most skilled player in Nigeria, but his determination, discipline and humility to get to the top was obvious,” says Oshodi, now a member of Nigeria’s Olympic Committee. Oshodi paired Quadri with the top coaches in Lagos and took him under his wing. Such patronage is crucial in a country like Nigeria, Quadri says, where the state offers less support than in other countries.
So far, Quadri’s career is dotted with medals, not all of them gold: bronze at the African Championships in Cameroon, silver at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships in Jaipur and gold at the Men’s Table Tennis World Cup in Düsseldorf. At Rio’s Summer Olympics, China’s Ma Long outmaneuvered Quadri in the men’s singles, beating him in four straight matches. But that may leave Quadri just hungry enough for the gold.