Ever since I can remember, through three successive administrative regimes, the English Table Tennis Association, the governing body for table tennis, has been dreaming and scheming about producing a world ping pong champion. As an interim and more realistic measure, they settle for dreams about how many players they can get into the world’s top one hundred.  The result of all this dreaming and scheming has been very little. There are currently no English table tennis players, men or women, in the top one hundred and there has not been since the retirement of Matthew Syed who reached a respectable but hardly world shattering number 24 in the world rankings.

 

But it is our job to dream and scheme retort the ETTA, and with our current crop of young players we might soon realise our dreams. Just give us a little longer and a few more resources and all will deliver the goods. Well it might and it might not, but the question we might ask ourselves, not just of the ETTA, but of all sports governing bodies; does it actually matter? Are we having the wrong dreams and therefore hatching the wrong schemes? I would argue emphatically that we are.

 

Recently there was a full page spread in the Sports Guardian 29/11/11 about the prospects of English table tennis, both for the forthcoming Olympic Games and for the near and middle future. This article, and ones very similar to it, have been appearing in national newspapers on and off over the past few decades. The essence of the articles, complete with standard quotes from an ETTA officer, is to hail the success of the grassroots game while pleading that with the necessary added resources an English world beater is just warming up on the horizon. Here is an example of the ETTA’s pleading:

 

‘We just need time now and it is a bit frustrating that given we’ve got all this momentum and young people taking up the sport we are a little frustrated by an inability to make the best of our young players.’

 

 The key theme in this quote appears to be ‘frustration’.  But, what is really frustrating is that this administration, like those before it, can dream of little else for the sport other than a world champion. And the resource that is actually missing is not so much government grants but a deficit of imagination. Yes, every sport would love to have a world champion – it would bring great promotion and probably some much needed sponsorship money. And yes, a sports governing body does have within its remit the responsibility to develop the elite level of the game. But producing a world champion in a participatory sport like table tennis ought not be the principle ambition.

 

I am probably being a little unfair. Over the years there have been some excellent grassroots initiatives, some of which have borne reasonable returns. The latest involving youth clubs and sponsored by Fred Perry is just the latest example. But the fact remains that the rationale behind most these grassroots schemes is either to curry favour with Sport England – all the better to increase the size of the annual grants, or to find that one super talented kid that is going to take on and defeat the rest of the world. Rarely do you get the feeling that the purpose of it all is simply to get people, young and old, playing ping for the sheer joy of it.  

 

As for producing a world champion, the glaringly obvious fact for table tennis is that this task is not being played out on an equal footing. For China and the other successful Asian nations, table tennis is much higher up their national sporting priorities and in the case of China, ping has been their national sport for many decades now. The resources, both monetary and human, that go into creating their endless stream of world champions simply cannot be met by post-imperial declining powers like Britain. Furthermore, the methods that the Chinese table tennis academies use to produce their champions would simply not be culturally acceptable in this country. Try beating a child during a training session in this country and you would rightly end up in a court facing child abuse charges.

 

So, while nothing is impossible, and remembering that tiny Sweden did produce a world champion a few years back, the task of matching the Chinese is so daunting that it distorts the grassroots development of what is a magical pastime both physically, mentally and socially. What I’m suggesting is not so much the abandonment of the elite programme but rather a realignment of priorities where getting people playing in parks and offices and schools is as important, if not more so, than international success. And most importantly, it should be regarded as an achievement and reward in itself rather than as a springboard for some imagined future international success.

 

Far more than football, table tennis has all the attributes to become Britain’s real national sport played by all ages, abilities and socio-economic strata. It is tailor-made for mass participation in both a structured and an informal setting. It is a low cost sporting activity with a high return in terms of fitness, fun and social cohesion. I suspect Sport England is slowly waking up to this possibility. But our ‘official’ long standing, one-sided obsession with international success is blinding us to this opportunity. ‘Ping: The Peoples Sport’ -  that should be our new catch phrase blasted out in every school and park and work place across the country. I’m sure Ivor Montague, communist and founder of the International Table Tennis Federation, would be proud of that one. Even the current Mayor of London might approve.

 

Ironically, table tennis started life as a British parlour pass-time, and perhaps it could once again assume a less ambitious, less grandiose but more loved place in the national psyche. (As for table tennis, ditto for many of our other sporting pursuits.) For the cost of just one year of the national elite training programme we could place thousands of tables in our parks and public spaces. Of course it needn’t be an either-or, but change the dream and suddenly we find that our dreams really can come true. I for one would much rather see five million of us regularly playing ping pong than five million of us grimly watching on TV once every four years another generation of English hopefuls get a first round thrashing at the hands of another generation of Chinese government sponsored robotic champions. (No disrespect intended to the current crop of talented and hardworking British table tennis aspirants or those wonderful Chinese athletes who scale the heights of excellence and beyond).

 

But for those administrators who just cannot free themselves from the thirst for ping pong grandeur, (and I too have been held prisoner by the obsession with success) they can console themselves with the obvious fact that the wider the community base, the higher the national pyramid. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned.  And even more appealing, the new dawn can begin tomorrow. No extra resources required.

 

Behind these musings lay  far more serious considerations. Just where do we see sport heading throughout the 21st Century? Is all sport, table tennis included, to become nothing but the plaything of corporate transnationals or can it be reclaimed as a human pursuit full of both challenge and of joy. 

If there is one thing I am convinced of through thirty years of organising community ping, it is that sport- all sport - desperately needs to be reclaimed by the communities from whence it originated. The longer we delay, the more tainted by corruption, greed and dehumanising commercialism sport will become. Some sports may have already reached that point of no return. Table tennis, relatively untainted so far by commercial pressures, is somewhat uniquely positioned to lead a grassroots sporting revolt, but only if we collectively stop obsessing about world champions and reset our efforts towards our battered and alienated communities. It’s here that we can become truly world leaders.

 

End. JPK. Copyright 1/12/1

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