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No cash for ping pong

PostPosted: Mon Dec 22, 2008 11:29 am
by Charlie
Having long championed the cause of providing sports facilities for teenagers as a way of keeping kids off the streets, I was shocked to realise the extent of government hypocrisy revealed in this piece from last weekend's Observer by Anna Kessel about the reduction of funds for table tennis clubs in the Uk because of the unlikelihood of British players grabbing any medals from the all-conquering Chinese. As if there is only one relevant criterion for the decision.

Ping pong's coming home,' said Boris Johnson at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony. It is the only sport Johnson has associated himself with since his election as London mayor, and table tennis would rather he had not said it. Johnson's image of a bumbling fop adds nothing to a game that is increasingly becoming more cutting edge than conservative.

Not only are 200 million people around the world playing table tennis, but some of them are billed as the coolest individuals on the planet. Its old-fashioned 'ping pong' image is receding and in the United States YMCA playing halls are being replaced by table tennis 'parlours' with juice bars. Playing table tennis is the latest Hollywood craze, followed avidly by Ed Norton, Susan Sarandon and Matthew Broderick. Footballers Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie boast about their table tennis prowess on away trips, and music stars 50 Cent, the Beastie Boys and Mark Ronson attend table tennis parties. All of which has led to the establishment of a new magazine, Celebrity Ping-Pong, featuring interviews with literary fans Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Last month the New York Times ran a feature on the subject. In New York, billiard halls have begun ditching pool tables and bringing in table tennis to cope with the demand, and there are waiting times of up to an hour to play.

Back in Britain, though, despite Johnson's enthusiasm, the sport is facing dark days. Remarkable success for Paul Drinkhall and his England team in the World Junior Championships in Madrid - England were the only European team to make the semi-finals, and Drinkhall reached the men's singles final - gives a good indication of the direction the sport is going in. Britain have dominated the European game for the past four years, and players from China, the world's No1 table tennis nation, are desperate to travel to the high performance centre in Sheffield to spar with the nation's best.

Figures released by Sport England last week show that participation is steadily growing, and one report says as many as 2.4m people played the sport last year. Unlike rowing or sailing - big benefactors of Olympic funding to the tune of £27m and £23m ahead of 2012 - table tennis is a sport for the masses, accessible to urban areas and cheap to play. The sport's budget for Beijing was a streamlined £3m for a four-year cycle. And yet the Olympic programme for Britain faces severe cuts in the run-up to 2012.

Having reached every target set by UK Sport, the Olympic purse-holders, over the past two years, the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA) cannot understand why their sport is now on the chopping block. 'It's like being told you're going to die on 29th January unless they find a cure and you can live on,' says performance director Steen Hansen.

Table tennis is one of eight sports waiting to hear their fate when a £12.5m funding pot is shared out at the end of next month. Whatever they are awarded on 29 January has to last through to 2012 - unless they can pull in private sponsorship. Even if the money is equally distributed, table tennis would receive only half of their existing budget of £3m. The ETTA, who run the Olympic team through the BTTA, say anything less than £600,000 a year would force the closure of the national high performance centre, where the top players live and train. There would be redundancies among the coaching staff. 'Day and night, we have invested our lives in this,' says Hansen. 'Both Jia Yi Liu [the national coach] and I are owed over 150 days holiday. That's because we believe in these young guys. We have produced the best group of youngsters in a decade, and now it's, "bye bye, go home".

'They have fed us a dream. Promises have been made. Sebastian Coe and his staff won the Olympic Games for London on the basis of legacy and chances for all. Now, suddenly, that only applies to some sports, and not for us. We have only asked for 0.5 per cent of the whole budget [a total of £550m]. It's absolutely ridiculous if we don't get that.'

Hansen has been through funding crises before. In 2002, the budget was cut to £144,000 a year. Accordingly, Hansen slashed the squad to six of the most promising youngsters, three boys and three girls, losing all the senior players. Six years on, five of that set make up England's most talented group of players in a decade, but their progress is once again threatened just as they prepare to break on to the senior stage.

'We've already lost momentum once,' says Richard Yule, chief executive of the ETTA. 'We had to shut down our national centre and make staff redundant. We lost a couple of years as a result of that hiatus. In 1995 there were no players ranked in the top 50 in Europe, junior or senior. Twelve years later we are European champions at junior level and won bronze at the world juniors [last weekend]. You can't tell me that's not significant progress.'

Table tennis runs on a 10-year development cycle: chop and change the budget and you disrupt a generation of young players. 'We're not a sport where you can train yourself against a clock,' says Yule, 'You can't do what [Olympic champion] Rebecca Romero did in rowing and cycling in a racket skills sport. It's highly technical.'

The ETTA are astonished by the cuts because only three months ago UK Sport helped the governing body to employ two new assistant coaches on four-year contracts. 'They were part of the panel that made the decision to hire them,' says Hansen. 'If there was a problem with the budget then, shouldn't they have said?'

UK Sport's policy is heavily focused on medal potential, and with China dominating the sport globally Britain have only a slim chance of a podium finish in 2012. But after a publicity campaign based around the buzzwords 'legacy' and 'participation' this argument does not wash.

'What a poverty of ambition,' says Yule. 'The president of the international federation [ITTF] has identified England as one of a few countries to tackle the Chinese domination of the sport, but in our own backyard we're struggling to get support. If you cut people off on a developmental basis you're never going to get there. I understand the rationale - going for sports where it's easier to win a medal - but that's disappointing in terms of a strategy. Britain should want to be good in sports that are truly global and credible in terms of competition.'

With Britain's top players, Drinkhall and Darius Knight, third and 16th in the world junior rankings and both 18 years old, their time to peak is during the next two Olympic cycles, aged 22-26. Cut off their funding now, and results could go backwards. And without a successful elite, the grassroots movement will also suffer.

'If you take away the top of the pyramid then there is nothing to aim for. English table tennis is very much into community, but what will be the point if there are no role models to follow?' says Hansen.

More than 30,000 players from youth clubs across the country took part in the Fred Perry Urban Youth Cup, the finals of which were held at York Hall in east London yesterday. The project is supported by Knight, whose own career began in a garden shed in south London.

Knight hopes the sport will take an ever bigger hold among inner-city youngsters. He dreams of the day when table tennis has the same kudos as football. 'When I watch those adverts with footballers doing all the tricks I always think they should do that with table tennis,' he says. 'You could have Andrew Murray and me doing it at the next level, all the tricks, because no one's ever seen it played like that. People would be amazed.'

Cuts in funding, says Knight, jeopardise all that. 'I'd fade away,' he says. 'Before the Sheffield centre was built we spent years struggling for practice. At senior level you need a full-time working environment to have any chance. It's so difficult for a European player already, but this makes it even harder. We've done well at a junior level, we are right there behind the Asians now, we just want to take it further.'

Knight was raised on the same crime-ravaged south London council estate that produced some of So Solid Crew. His success shows that table tennis can do exactly what the government asks of a sport: tackle social deprivation and provide international-class talent. Knight's ascent of the world rankings, moving up 164 places in 18 months, was aided by a triumvirate of coaches, men who became 'family' to the young star.

There was Gideon Ashison, who first spotted Knight's potential and trained him in his shed, then Hansen and head coach Yi Liu. Knight credits them as, 'the three most important people in my life'. Without them he fears he would have followed the same pattern as his father and many of his friends - drugs, crime and prison. Knight's father beat up his mother, and from a young age Darius was used to calling 999 for the police. Now he looks to his mentors for guidance.

'Gideon taught me how to eat, speak and dress. How to pronounce myself, how to cook. I was like a little rat before that. I used to put on really baggy tracksuit bottoms, you know typical... I had my hair plaited. And he told me I'd never play for England looking like that so I cut my hair and my mum cried because I'd been growing it for 10 years.

'He paid for my hotels, my food. Last year he was going to miss his son's wedding to coach me at the senior nationals. He's always put me first, always, always. It's not something I usually say but those three are my heroes.'

When Knight's mother left him and his sister at home, his coaches helped him to pick up the pieces. 'She went to Jamaica for three months, I had to look after my sister, I had to train and someone robbed our house and took all the benefit money. I asked Steen to help us out. I can't think of many performance directors who would do that. A lot of times I've asked Jia for money too. Without those three I wouldn't be here today.'

Yi Liu - a 'god' in international table tennis, for whom crowds bow down in his native China - is like a disciplinarian father to Knight. 'He is ruthless. He never praises us. The first time I even realised he was proud of us was when I went to his house. I was so shocked, he's got pictures of us there. He wants the best for us. This is not just his job, it's his life. He's got a granddaughter, a wife, but he always puts us first before them.'

Knight is aware that his team-mates have their parents watching every competitive match. He does not have that luxury. 'I'd love to have my mum here,' he says, 'I'd probably cry. Well maybe I wouldn't go that far... but it would be nice to show I do have a mum, I'm not an orphan. She came to the nationals last year and fell asleep. She had been out the night before - I wanted to slap her! But I thought it's OK. If it was anyone else's parents they'd be like "come on, son!" but I love how she's different.'

With the kids at York Hall yesterday Knight showed why he is an excellent ambassador for table tennis. He is someone they can relate to. Cut his chances for success at 2012 and Britain will lose one of its best sporting role models.

Anna Kessel

• Information on the Fred Perry Urban Cup at

PostPosted: Mon Dec 29, 2008 8:31 pm
by Charlie
No comment from anyone on this outrage?

PostPosted: Tue Jan 06, 2009 3:12 pm
by Con Murphy
It is an outrage, and seemingly anathema to all the long-term investment that went into producing such unprecedently good results for sports such as cycling this time round. I did wonder whether London becoming an Olympics host might end up counter-intuitively producing short-termist funding, ie why should the Government care what happens to these sports beyond their own propaganda exercise in 2012? And if the sport's not even going to help that, why care now? Unfortunately, I'm not sure people will get too exercised* about it so long as Team GB delivers the expected headline medal haul.

*pardon the pun - or Neillogism, as I call them.

PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2009 1:07 pm
by rosyxyz
Is there a record for bouncing a Ping Pong ball on a paddle? Hi, Does anybody know the world record (if any) for the most consecutive bounces you get from bouncing a ping pong ball on a ping pong paddle? I really want to know, and any help would be appreciated.
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