Table Tennis is in my blood – Deji Okoya-Thomas


Son of late billionaire Molade Okoya-Thomas, Deji recounts how his late father inspired his love for table tennis. He also explains why the 54th edition of the Asoju Oba tournament was renamed in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD

Asides from watching talents come through the ranks in the tournament, what else strikes you, what drives you?

I am a great lover of the state where I come from, that is why it has been difficult when people come and say ‘let’s take this National’. I am a Lagosian, I love my state and the people of this state. Even if my late father had not discussed with my sisters and I before he passed on that he wanted this competition to continue, we would have continued it because we have grown with it over the years and we have seen the impact it has had and it just makes sense for us to continue to make sure that impact continues even though he is no more with us.

That passion gives you great joy, and when you come sometimes, and you see that the MVP is awarded to a young boy of nine or 10 years old, it gives you great pleasure so that is a driving passion and by the special grace of God, we will continue this competition for as long as God says it will continue.

You played table tennis while growing up due to your late father’s love for the sport but was there a time that you thought of delving into other sports like football or basketball?

Honestly, when it comes to me, I am a just a sports lover. There was a point where I was captain of a football team while growing up. I have played different sports from football, tennis and athletics while growing up and I have also watched a lot of them too but table tennis was just in my blood.

When I was young, there was a table tennis board in the house and currently I have a board in my house as well where most of my families take time out to play. For me, it is a form of exercise and it is a game I love so much.

It is a game that anybody that watches it over time, especially at a very high level, you will fall in love with it. Sometimes, at the final when the players get into a long rally, how the stadium is all energised and excited, it is just a wonderful game.

How delighted are you when you see players developed from this tournament going on to represent Nigeria?

I am very delighted. I remember two different occasions, particularly at the Sydney Olympics in Australia and I think Funke Oshonaike was one of the players that represented Nigeria at the games. It was a great delight for me and our family to see her play at that level.

To see a player that we discovered from our competition play at the international stage and also represent the country at that level of table tennis is something to be proud and always happy about. It is like a father who puts so much into the education of a child and when that child excels at adulthood, it is their father’s pride so it is a source of joy to us. We are seeing ourselves as part of the parentage of table tennis in Lagos state and we are glad for what effect it is having on the globe.

We hope that in this year’s edition, we will see another bright talent that will compete at the biggest stage like their predecessors.

How would you rate Nigerian table tennis in 2022?

Well, it has been very good as far as I am concerned. It could be better, but the effort that is being made and having now a representative (Enitan Oshodi) at the highest possible level in the International Table Tennis Federation, makes it even more interesting for the sports (table tennis) in Nigeria to develop.

The opportunities will be greater hopefully and I will still encourage the government to see table tennis as a way of engaging the youths and to use it as one of the mediums they should invest in.

I know we are a football country but some other sports that have over the years withered down a bit still need to develop and this is where the government needs to step in.

It is not an expensive game, table tennis is not like football where you have to pump as much money so we need to just inject a bit so that these players can get the kind of exposure they need. There are limits to what you can get if you don’t go out there into the international arena, you need to be exposed to a lot more competition internationally and that is why you found that some of our best players have ended up in club sides abroad.

We need to do more in 2023 to help emerging players develop to that level.

Why was the decision made to change the name of the tournament?

The family decided to name the tournament after the initiator of the tournament because the former name was a title given to him while he was alive and since his demise, the title has been given to someone else, so it is pertinent that the family use his name for the tournament which has remained the longest sports competition in Nigeria.

The staging of the tournament every year is in fulfillment of the wish of the initiator, and we thank God that we have been able to follow his wish by God’s grace and we pray that God will give us the enablement to continue this noble legacy as this is the seventh year running since he was called to glory.

The Molade Okoya-Thomas Championship over the years has become a talent hub for the country. What plans do you have to improve on the success of this tournament?

We cannot but acknowledge the impact the tournament has had on the fortune of the sport in the country. Some of its products have become global stars. From the past we had the late Atanda Musa, Oshonaike emerge from this tournament and recently an obvious example is Olajide Omotayo, the 2019 African Games champion who has become an integral part of the national team.

Also of recent, is the exploits of teenage sensation Matthew Kuti who was impressive in his maiden outing at the African Youth Championship in Tunisia while his performance at the World Table Tennis Youth Contender in Cairo, Egypt where he claimed the U-11 and U-13 titles are confirmation of the impact the tournament has had on the players.

So, what would you say you will miss about your father?

His humour and humility for me. He was a man that saw every person as equal. He had unique qualities. At one time he was the Patron of Taxi Drivers Association, Ikoyi Hotel, Lagos. This was the old Ikoyi Hotel. He would sit with them, buy drinks and stage Christmas party for them. He was a man that cut across every strata of society. He could relate with anybody, high and mighty and the man on the street. That is one thing in life that I pray to God that I should have the grace to emulate. He did not look down on anybody.

What lesson would you say your father’s life has taught you most?

I learnt so many things from him but the one I cherish most is the one I have just mentioned. Sometimes, we human beings forget ourselves. We forget where we were coming from. You see some people who were not born into wealth or affluence but became prosperous yet they are proud and pompous. They go around with so much air. We must not forget that it is not by our doing, it is the doing of the Almighty God.

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