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African table tennis stars storm Kigali for Paris tickets

26 men and 24 women from at least 15 countries in Africa are in Kigali at the BK Arena vying for Olympic spots in table tennis to be hosted in Paris beginning July.

AFRICA’S table tennis talent is at full display in Rwanda as the East African country plays host to the 2024 edition of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) tournament alongside the African Olympic Qualification Tournament.

The two combined tournaments, which also serve as Olympic qualifiers are being hosted at the BK Arena in Kigali from May 15 to 18 as tennis talents vie for a chance to book their places at the Summer Olympics in Paris.

In the ITTF Africa Cup, Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna and Egypt’s Dina Meshref demonstrated their dominance by clinching the titles.

Aruna, the top seed fresh from his success at the World Tennis Tournament’s Saudi Smash, secured a commanding victory in the final against Egypt’s Mohamed El-Beiali. Displaying exceptional form, Aruna claimed the title with a resounding 4-0 win (11-5, 11-6, 12-10, 11-3), reclaiming the championship he narrowly missed in 2018.

“I’m very happy. I’m excited, especially the last edition, I was very close to winning against Omar, I was injured, but of course, I was never giving up. It’s like payday for me,” Aruna expressed after the win.

Similarly, Meshref rallied from a 2-0 deficit to triumph over compatriot Mariam Alhodaby, clinching the Africa Cup title after two consecutive final losses. These victories position Aruna and Meshref among the contenders in the African Olympic Qualification Tournament, featuring athletes from 15 nations across the continent.

The tournament seeks to identify the continent’s team of 6, three men and three women, who will be representing Africa at the Paris Olympic Games from a participant base of about 50; 26 men and 24 women from Algeria, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, Madagascar, Mauritius, Tunisia, Uganda, and host Rwanda.

Notable contenders include Nigeria’s Olajide Omotayo and Offiong Edem, who face formidable challenges from youngsters like Wassim Essid of Tunisia, Cameroon’s Ylane Batix, Madagascar’s Fabio Rakotoarimanana, and experienced Congo Brazzaville’s Saheed Idowu.

Omotayo, the 2019 African Games champion, eyes his second Olympic appearance, while Edem, a bronze medallist at the 2023 African Games, seeks her fifth Olympic Games participation. Their journey to Paris involves navigating past formidable opponents, including experienced campaigners and promising newcomers.

Edem, a bronze medallist at the 2023 African Games, is seeking her fifth Olympic Games appearance after competing at Athens 2004, London 2012, Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020.

The 37-year-old former African Games champion will be relying on her experience against 2010 African Champion, Cameroonian Sarah Hanffou, who is aiming for her third appearance at the Olympic Games after featuring at London 2012 and Tokyo 2020. The duo will however face stiff competition from youngsters from Tunisia, Madagascar, and Mauritius.

The qualifiers feature three stages, a preliminary group stage of 3 or 4 players each. Winners and runners-up will advance to a direct knockout system where the top two finalists from stage two secure automatic Paris qualifications, while semi-final losers in stage three compete in a direct knockout for the third Paris spot. Matches in stage one are best of five games, progressing to best of seven games in stages two and three.

Beyond table tennis, the tournaments highlight Rwanda’s growing legacy as a sports event hosting hub capable of accommodating diverse sports events, consequently contributing significantly towards the country’s economy through sports tourism.

According to John Birungi, the President, of the Rwanda Table Tennis Federation (RTTF), Rwanda’s successful hosting of the Olympic qualifiers “is part of our country’s development strategy to boost the economy through sports tourism.”

Notably, Rwanda hosted the first-ever Basketball Africa League tournament at the world-class BK Arena, during its first three seasons in 2021, 2022, and 2023. It will host the 2024 playoffs and finals from 24 May – 1 June.

From the Tour du Rwanda 2022, and Cricket T20 tournaments, to the Africa Tae Kwondo Championship, among others, Rwanda has hosted some of the biggest sports events on the continent.

“This is for us also to be able to use the facilities that the government of Rwanda have invested in like the beautiful BK Arena, and it’s all part of developing sports, also boosting the economy by bringing in these big continental events,” Birungi added.