Feature | Badminton

Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori hopes to inspire others in Nigeria the way Lee Choong Wei inspired him

The African Games gold medallist meticulously watched videos of his idols as he preps for Olympic debut in Tokyo

By Sanjeev Palar ·

Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori is on course to make his Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.

The Lagos-born badminton player, who clinched two continental titles in 2019, is likely to represent Nigeria in the men's singles in Japan, as well as the men's doubles alongside his partner Godwin Olofua.

In a country where athletics, football, and boxing take center stage, the 23-year old is blazing a path in the racquet sport in his homeland, and shared exclusively with Olympic Channel how his accomplishments on court are helping shine a spotlight on his nation.

"I hope that my achievements inspire other athletes to take up the sport and believe that they too can do it." - Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori

Nigeria's top ranked men's singles player Anuoluwapa Juwon Opeyori

From football to badminton

One day, when Opeyori was eight years old, he went out to play football.

On his way, he walked past a sports hall and was mesmerised by the sight of people playing badminton. Invited to join in, he picked up a racquet and spent the rest of the day learning how to play. He never made it to the football field.

Opeyori loved the sport so much, he couldn't wait to try it again.

"The next day I just came home from school, I dropped my bag at home and went straight off to the sports centre to play badminton" he told us.

Anuoluwapo and his brother, Folorunsho, who is two years older, both picked up the game and were soon well on their way to mastering the finer techniques of the sport.

From a mere past time, badminton soon became a serious passion.

The elder sibling saw the potential in his younger brother and decided to give up chasing his own athletics dream to instead focus his time on training Anuoluwapo, while also holding down a job to provide funds in hope of allowing his younger sibling the best chance of success.

"He had to work and play badminton. He sacrificed his own badminton just to train me" - Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori on his brother Folorunsho's sacrifice

Opeyori inspired by the best in the sport

With the help of his brother and the coaches in his local club, Opeyori sharpened his game.

A huge fan of two of the biggest names ever to play the sport, long-time world number one Lee Chong Wei, and two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan, the young Nigerian began learning from watching both his idols.

"Let me take bits of Lee Chong Wei and let me take bits of Lin Dan and join them together. Both of them are my heroes." he shares.

"I admire Lee Chong Wei because of his style of play, he is so fast on court.

"If you want to play Lee Chong Wei you have to be ready to fight." he adds, about the three-time Olympic silver medallist.

"I admire Lin Dan because he is very technical. He doesn't look like he's moving very much but he is and he has great speed too"

Opeyori spent time studying the playing styles and techniques of his idols by reliving their matches online and then trying to emulate their moves at training.

"Sometimes when I play, I see myself as Lee Chong Wei. I will tap into his spirit to play, even in tournaments." - Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori

Men's Singles Final - Badminton | London 2012 Replays

The Men's Singles Final took place on 05/08/2012 at Wembley Arena, London. ...

Making the national squad

Opeyori's determination and hard work paid off when we was invited to join the Nigeria national team in 2017.

A year later, he was part of the squad that won silver at the Africa Team Championship.

With the support of the national badminton federation and private sponsors, he was able to dedicate himself to badminton full-time and focus on honing his game. He even managed a two-month training camp in Indonesia in 2018 where he learn a lot through having strong sparring partners.

In 2019 he continued to deliver on his potential when he clinched gold at the African Championships in Port Harcourt, and later that year went on to claim the title at the African Games in Rabat.

It was a milestone moment for the Lagos born player which help boost his self-belief that he can achieve great results. Opeyori describes it as the best moment in his life and that "the medal means everything to me."

"I never expected it. I was trying to fight for every game, every match. I was just hungry" - Opeyori on clinching his maiden African Games title

Anuoluwapa Juwon Opeyori with his gold medal at the 2019 African Games in Rabat

On course for an Olympic debut

Opeyori is currently 92nd in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) Race to Tokyo rankings. But given that each nation can only qualify up to a maximum of two players, he is currently on course to make the cut to compete in the men's singles as well as the men's doubles with his partner Godwin Olofua.

"It's another first for Nigeria. I am going to go very far in this game," he believes, adding that "I should keep at it and my hard work is going to pay off."

"I’m not going to relent, it has given me more motivation to tighten up my game, upgrade and be at the highest level that I can achieve." -Opeyori on potentially making his Olympic debut

Nigeria's top men's doubles pair (L) Godwin Olofua and (R) Anuoluwapa Juwon Opeyori

When asked who would he most like to play at Tokyo 2020, he was quick to pick Chou Tien Chen.

The Chinese Taipei shuttler, "is a very good player, a very strong player. I feel that with him, I will be able to play my game. He is the type of player that allows you to play."

Opeyori picked him because, "I want to play my heart out. I don’t want an opponent who will just use a high level of skill to not allow me to play the way I want to play. He is a very good player, I can rally with him together."

Trend setting beyond Tokyo 2020

Opeyori has certainly taken the road less travelled in Nigeria but hopes that his journey, and his accomplishments will pave the way for the next generation of badminton players in his country.

He has already made plans to resume his studies when he returns from the Games and would like to build an academy in Lagos one day to help unearth future talent.

"I hope to inspire the next generation" he says frankly. He's also aware of the burden that he carries on his shoulders at the upcoming Games, for a strong result has the potential to lead to increased domestic support for the next wave of Nigerians looking to break into the international scene.

"Seeing their boy at the Olympic Games, it will mean everything to them (the fans in Nigeria). They will keep supporting me as well as the other young players that are coming up, the next generation." - Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori

Best men's badminton rally from Rio 2016

Best men's badminton rally from Rio 2016 with Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long