SPORTS

TABLE TENNIS TEMPEST

ALEXANDRA SHIMO August 18 2008
SPORTS

TABLE TENNIS TEMPEST

ALEXANDRA SHIMO August 18 2008

TABLE TENNIS TEMPEST

SPORTS

The best players come from China. And that can be a problem.

ALEXANDRA SHIMO

Elite Canadian

table tennis athletes are similar to many our imported goods: they too come from China. Four of the five athletes representing Team Canada at the Olympics were originally from this Asian superpower. At the top of our national rankings too, Chinese players dominate: they represent seven of the top 10 men’s table tennis athletes, and six of the best 10 women. Canada is by no means alone in this situation: all of Team U.S.A.—both men and women—were trained in China, and moved to this continent as adults.

One reason for this hegemony is China mass-produces table tennis über-athletes if they were going out of style. Since the sport was first introduced to the Summer Olympic Games in 1988, Chinese players have won of the 20 available golds. They also lead the world rankings: the top four men in the world are from China. The best male player in the world, 24-year-old Wang Hao, who holds his racquet like a pair of chopsticks what’s known as the penholder grip, has been No. 1 in the world for 10 straight months, and is widely expected to win gold at this

summer’s Games. For the women, the situation is even more pronounced: all of the best five women in the world are Chinese, and many of the world’s competitions end with the team winning all the available medals.

Since the Chinese are so much better at Ping-Pong than the rest of the world, there are lots of top-notch players in China who aren’t good enough to play for the national team, but could crush the competition outside China. What this leads to is “Ping-Pong immigration,” explains Tony Kiesenhofer, director general of Table Tennis Canada, with lessthan-top-notch Chinese players switching allegiances, and moving abroad to represent another country. “You go to a match between Poland and France,” says Dan Seemiller, a coach of the U.S. men’s team, “and it’s just Chinese players playing against each other.”

This situation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Ping-Pong immigration brings talent into countries like Canada and improves the overall quality of the game. Athletes and coaches are awarded funding according to their results on the international circuit, so it’s important to have the best in the country regardless of where they were trained. But when the top spots go to recent Chinese immigrants, there is less of an incentive to develop homegrown talent,

says Ron Edwards, executive director of the

Manitoba Table Tennis Association.

And Canadian-born players find it harder to compete and win. Once they have their papers sorted, Chinese players find they can start dominating national competitions. And on the international circuit, they “often take the spot” of the Canadian-born players, says Rémi Tremblay, the lead coach of Club Tops de Repentigny, one of the best table tennis clubs in Quebec. While this may be great for international results, it can leave players discouraged and frustrated, he adds.

Eighteen-year-old Shen Qiang says he arrived in Canada in 2004, and shortly thereafter began winning Canadian junior competitions. This summer he will be a proud representative of the Canadian Olympic team. While he didn’t immigrate explicitly to further his table tennis career (he came with his family, who live in Toronto), he is pleased with Table Tennis Canada’s sports program, and is looking forward to the fall opening of the new 24-hour training centre in Ottawa, so he can work harder on his game. Born in Jixi, in northeast China, Shen first picked up a paddle at nine. By age 11, he had left home and quit school to move to Harbin, a city 300 km away, to train full-time and represent the province of Heilongjiang. The competition in China was extremely intense, he says. The athletes trained six hours a day, five days a

week; they were paid to train full-time and compete, he says. “In China, it’s very competitive because if you don’t make results then you will be taken off the team, and if you don’t have table tennis and no school, there is no future for you.”

Although this sounds extreme, it is a sport system other countries are eager to observe and understand. To learn how to compete against the best, many countries, including Canada, have their best table tennis players train for a few weeks or longer in China. While the Chinese government won’t provide access to their very best athletes, even the lesser players provide extremely stiff competition. Twentyyear-old Pierre-Luc Hinse is a full-time Canadian athlete, and in his attempt to make it to Beijing (which he just missed), he has attended a number of these Chinese table tennis camps. In the summer of2001, he went to one in Zhengding, a historical city three

hours southwest of Beijing. The camp was hard work, emotionally difficult and draining, Hinse says; no one liked the food, and the intensity and six-hour-a-day training schedule were gruelling. The Canadians weren’t even playing against the national team, but they were still outclassed, says Hinse, who was ranked first in Canada at the cadet level at the time, but is now ranked ninth at a senior level. “It was embarrassing,” he adds. Even the top Canadian players could not keep up against the Chinese. What made it worse was the fact that the Chinese players would laugh at the Canadians when they missed the ball. “Some players were courteous, but others would make fun of us. It was like we were beginners,” he says. “They can do that because they are the best in the world, but for us, it was hell. We just wanted to leave and come home.”

To give other players a chance to compete and to tackle “Ping-Pong immigration,” the

International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has decided to step in and change the competition rules. Starting in September, there will be new eligibility criteria. If a table tennis athlete immigrates, he or she will have to wait a period of time before representing a new nation, depending on the athlete’s age. Players under 15 will have to wait three years before competing for their new country. That figure increases to five years for players between 15 and 18, and seven years for players 18 to 21 years of age. Over 21, a player can never play for a different country at certain international events. Most countries supported the new rules, says Rudi Sporrer,

‘IT WAS EMBARRASSING. SOME CHINESE PLAYERS WOULD MAKE FUN OF US. WE JUST WANTED TO LEAVE.’

the chairman of the rules committee for the ITTF. “Something had to be done to develop younger table tennis athletes and not just bring adult athletes in from China,” he says. (Unlike their success on the courts, the Chinese do not dominate the International Table Tennis Federation; it operates on a one-country-one-vote basis.)

Canada was one of the countries in favour of the eligibility restrictions, says Kiesenhofer. Many countries were importing Chinese PingPong stars, fast-tracking citizenship and fill-

ing their ranks with these elite players. This was more common in Europe, where players earn big paycheques in professional leagues. Countries like Canada that refused to do this were being put at a disadvantage, he says, and the new legislation gives all countries the same set of rules. (Table Tennis Canada will not fasttrack the citizenship of Ping-Pong stars. However, athletes usually play in Canadian competitions, and gain a national ranking before the threeto five-year process is complete.)

Regardless of how they affect Europe, many believe the rules will reshape the Canadian Ping-Pong landscape. Eighteen-year-old MarieAndrée Lévesque left home at ll to compete

at high-level table tennis, moving from the small town ofMatane, Que., to Quebec City, where she lived with her coach and his family, then to Montreal, where she resided with her physical education teacher so she could attend an elite sports school. Although she has devoted the greater part of her life to table tennis, she is among the players who find it difficult to compete against the Chinese-trained athletes who dominate the Canadian rankings. Currently, she is ranked 22nd in the Canadian seniors and llth for the under-21s. Her best result was at the 2007 El Salvador Junior Open where she finished fifth in the doubles event and ninth in the singles event. She trains 23 hours a week, at the Centre de haute

formance en tennis de table de Montréal, and receives thousands of dollars from Sport Canada. It’s not enough, however, to cover the costs of the flights, the accommodation, and the entrance fees to international competitions, she says, and her parents also contribute several thousand dollars so she can pursue her dream. Having sacrificed so much, she is looking forward to the implementation of the new rules. “It will give a chance for Canadianborn players to be on the team. It will be easier for people like me to play for Canada.” M