‘Nigeria sports need honest leadership and dedicated players to grow’
Alhaji Tunji Lawal is a renown philanthropist and the Chairman of Lagos State Table Tennis Association. In this interview with Daniel Adeleye, he explained his passion for table tennis, what Nigerians should know for sports to return to its days of glory in the country amongst others.
How did your journey into table tennis begin?
It started about 17 years ago. I used to be a footballer when I was in the university but I didn’t go further because of my education. So I made a choice of having education than for me to be a footballer. And after my education I resorted to play lawn tennis and I did that for a couple of years until I accidentally met people who were playing table tennis at Ikeja club. I got interested in it and I bought my bat and other materials to be a table tennis player. And that was how I started and my interest grow in the game. From that Ikeja club I moved to Lagos country club and became a member and the interest began to grow further. I was winning championship tournament in the country club from a low level and I was able to get to the pitch in the club to emerge the best at that time.
What really ignited your passion for raising upcoming table tennis players?
Like the story I told you earlier, the interest grows and I also realized in the course of my playing table tennis that there are a lot of youths who are supposed to be in the pitch because of their love and passion for the game. They rather be in the table tennis court learning to play because they have the zeal of playing for Lagos state or even playing for Nigeria. So you could see their passion. I was aware of Haruna Quadri before he left this country. He was so passionate about training at Ikeja club and he was unimaginable. So when he was successful and left the country I wasn’t surprised. The likes of Azeez who is now one of the top player in Nigeria, he was like a seven years old boy then. I remember I was interested in his schooling and realized most of these players needed people to touch them for them to have a focus in life. So as a member of Lagos country club, I joined a couple of friends, Dr Sodiq Ayo and Chukwuma Udom, we came together and decided to pull finances together to start a programme where we are setting up a competition every month. In the third month of that competition we were receiving players who are based abroad. The junior players were also part of it and it was an all-encompassing championship until the outbreak of the COVID and that was the reason why we have to stop.
How were you appointed as the chairman of Lagos State Table Tennis Association?
I was a member of the board in the state before I became the chairman and my appointment into the board was based on the fact that when I was playing table tennis, I can tell you that 80 percent of players in the state and even in Nigeria, know me because of what I’ve been doing. Likewise, Dr Sodeeq Ayo and the past commissioner for sport in Lagos state, Mr Enitan Oshodi, we were also at the national level pulling our resources together and sponsor championships. I guess as a result of my passion for the game, I was able to get this appointment as a chairman. And of course it has to do with somebody who has the passion should be able to run the association effectively.
COVID has dealt a terrible blow on sporting activities in the world and Nigeria is no exception; How much has this impacted table tennis in Lagos state?
Obviously, Covid has its impacts virtually on everything in the whole world. And these young boys and girls that were still dependent on the game and their passion for the game were also affected. But we are trying to bring them back into the field. And as a chairman of Lagos state table tennis association, before we jump into what we are supposed to do we need to study; where are we coming from, what are the problems, proffer solutions and then attack these problems with proffered solution and that will take us forward. We cannot just jump, we need to ask ourselves, what is the mental status of these players and what is their psyche because for what I see in them, it’s just like play and play. What do I want to achieve? Who do I want to be? How do I want to get there? As a chairman we have employed psychologists to examine who they are as well as doctors to study them and what they stand to be after their game. They always refer to them as ‘Omo table’, we want to change that orientation and make them to realize that even if you are not in school, you can make a wave in table tennis. I am happy that most of them are students of Yabatech, Unilag and so on. So let us change the narrative and bring them to bare. Now as a country club member, we want to also engage them too because we may probably have members who are interested in sponsoring some of them, encouraging them and bring out the passion in them. It could be bat, shoes and even their education, there may be members who are interested in this and this is what we are trying to expose them to in the club. And also apart from Lagos country club there are also other clubs like Ikoyi club, Lagos Island club and other social clubs in Lagos because virtually all the clubs have table tennis section.
In terms of generating funds, COVID has affected business and many companies were not really open to sponsorship but after a few months from where we are now, the companies would be coming out and we want to cease the opportunity of this interview to call on companies and other private sectors to come for our aid. Some may use it as a matter of CSR and sponsor one or two players; who knows the next Haruna Quadri may just be looking for someone to trigger him to the height.
What do you make of the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?
I will still come back to that Covid. As you can see we have limited number of players. The organizers have to do some cut back on representation. But for us going forward we intend to play that role of developing new potentials. Another Olympic is four years let’s develop some fearless, aggressive and courageous players who can take us forward again. We have a lot of potentials. There was a Nigeria Table Tennis Confederation here in Lagos, and there are so many players but they only need support to come out. Kudos to the government of Lagos state, they are really trying to do much they can to move sporting activities forward. In Lagos state, after soccer is table tennis and we want to maintain that lead.
Nigeria was once among top ten athletic countries of the world with the country almost always in the final of every major competition from independence up until early 2000s; What do you think responsible for that sudden woe?
Well, in some ways we have to look at, do we have the right people at the helm of affairs that can understand the athletes? You don’t bring a carpenter to do a painter’s job or a painter to do a bricklayer’s job. However, we need to orientate these kids coming out now and if they have to do what they have to do, it became something like money first. And that was poverty. If you have that ego of the fact that I am a Nigerian and I am going to represent Nigeria in whatever it takes, I want to be a champion. And that is different from how much is going to keep for me. That’s what changed. And when you forget what you’re supposed to do for such you’ll never get result because you’ll never give your best when there is no money there. So until we learn how to give our best, the money will follow. If you come out with money first, you’ll forget the quality of delivery of what you’re supposed to give. If you don’t emphasize on that quality of what you’re going to give you’ll end up giving nothing and then the money will never follow. But if you emphasized on the right thing to do then the money will follow and that’s when you’ll enjoy what you’re doing.
Do you think Nigeria’s sports can return to its days of glory again?
Like I said now, we need to change our orientation. As a chairman of Lagos state if I have players coming to me that I want to play for Lagos how much are you going to give me? I rather not to pick that player because obviously the player is coming to meet me for money. But if you believe in me and you believe in my goal and idea that I want to play for you I will pick such player because I trust you but if you’re coming for money, along the line if we start that relationship and money fails what becomes of that goal?
Can you share with us your vision to move table tennis forward in Lagos state and country club where you doubled as chairman?
In the last national sport festival, Lagos state was not in the first three and this was not good enough so I want to take it back to the rightful position. First by discovering who we are, then repositioning players’ psyche and creating a good enabling training environment. These are what we are trying to do in conjunction with the Lagos state Sport Commission. They have been so fantastic and supportive. We want to work assiduously and take table tennis to its rightful position in the state.