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Whiff-whaff's road home starts in Sheffield

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Matt Slater | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

When Boris Johnson "respectfully" told the Chinese that "ping pong was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century - and it was called whiff-whaff", I actually felt guilty for not voting for him to be London mayor.

How could I not recognise the genius of a ping pong diplomat who could so succinctly sum up the national character with a reference to our desire to cancel the cheese course, clear the plates away and get the bats out?

But promising to bring a sport home and doing it are two different things. A bit like his "Boris Island" plan, repatriating table tennis is a nice idea but it won't come cheap and Johnson isn't paying.

That obligation falls upon Britain's Olympic bosses and they need a better reason to invest than fine rhetoric or historical sentiment - they want medal potential, which is why they will be looking to Sheffield this week for signs of whiff-whaff life.

The English Open, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday at the South Yorkshire city's English Institute of Sport, is one of three major staging posts for British table tennis on the road to London 2012 (the others being another English Open in January 2011 and an Olympic test event later that year).

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Watch Matt Slater's report on the funding crisis that is threatening Britain's hopes of competing in the Olympic table tennis tournament in 2012

Partially funded by UK Sport, the body that dishes out public money to elite sport in this country, the English Open's 65th edition has attracted 13 of the world's top 20 players in both the male and female rankings.

Trading shots with the very best from China, Germany and Korea will be 26 British players, including 23 in the under-21 section. Foremost among those will be the 19-year-old Paul Drinkhall, our brightest prospect since Desmond Douglas in the 1980s.

Drinkhall, an affable and modest lad from Middlesbrough, has just joined the senior tour after a stellar junior career which saw him reach three in the rankings and lose in the final of the world championships. And he has already shown signs that there is more to come, claiming a stunning victory in the under-21 competition at the Chinese Open in June.

That's the good news. The bad news is that British table tennis' current good health is pretty relative - the last decade has not been a good one for those who have followed Johnson's games-obsessed aristos.

Like most minority sports in this country, table tennis needs Olympic (or other major championship) success to initiate the virtuous cycle of sports funding - points mean prizes. Failure has the reverse effect.

With no money to spare the English Table Tennis Association has been unable to stage ping pong's "Wimbledon" for eight years. This means less exposure, which means less money, which means fewer full-time players and coaches, which means less chance of success and so on. It's a horrible downward spiral and the sport should be congratulated for pulling itself out of it.

Unfortunately, table tennis' green shoots came too late to survive the chop in the great British Olympic budget cut of last year.

A failure to raise a hoped-for £100m from the private sector left a hole in Team GB's 2012 war chest. Table tennis was one of eight Olympic sports to see its allocation slashed, going from £2.53m for Beijing to £1.21m for London.

This was a devastating blow for a sport starting to get its act together but hardly surprising when you consider the facts: no British player has qualified for the Olympics since Matthew Syed in 2000, Drinkhall, while very talented and years off his peak, is still outside the top 100 and our last significant victory came at the 1954 world championships when Rosalind Rowe and Diane Scholer-Rowe won the women's doubles.

And that is without mentioning the elephant in the dining room, China.

The hosts took gold, silver and bronze in the men's and women's singles in Beijing and might have done the same if they could have fielded second and third strings in the respective team competitions.

The Asian superpower has won 20 of the 24 available gold medals since table tennis gained Olympic status in 1988 and it has been a similar story at the worlds.

But China's domination of table tennis goes deeper than the medal count. It has been estimated that 200m of the world's 300m table tennis players are Chinese (in comparison, the latest figures claim there are 190,000 regular players in England) and a quick glance at the rankings will illustrate just how deep their talent pool goes.

One consequence of this is the high number of Chinese players now competing under flags of convenience. A British coach told me about a European competitor that had recently held trials for a batch of Chinese juniors, the winners were given new passports within the week.

What's most frustrating about this is British table tennis could have gone down this route as well, achieving better short-term results and earning more funding. The governing body took a more principled view, however, building from the bottom with a young squad of domestic talent. But they've paid for it with reduced rations.

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Watch Matt Slater being thrashed by a table tennis robot ahead of the English Open

The implications of this are very serious indeed. Having set up a national table tennis centre in Sheffield, hired additional staff and embarked on a training and competition programme designed for results in 2012 and beyond, the authorities decided to take their UK Sport budget over two years, not four.

This has enabled them to continue what they've been doing for the last couple of years but means the money will run out in 2011. Hardly ideal for bringing ping pong home or helping the government achieve its ambitious 2012 legacy targets of inspiring a generation to play more sport.

Because that is the real missed opportunity here - table tennis is a remarkably accessible sport. It can be played almost anywhere (as Johnson pointed out), is easy to grasp, a lot of fun and perfect for densely populated countries with a shortage of good outdoor space. The same set of reasons that made table tennis so attractive to Chairman Mao are very quietly increasing the numbers playing the sport in this country too.

So there is a lot riding on Drinkhall, Darius Knight and the rest of our young squad in Sheffield this week. They need to be more like Andy Murray and Laura Robson at Wimbledon and less like the rest of the British contingent. An early surrender will only confirm the view that this is not a sport worth investment.

I wish them well for a few different reasons. First, they're a cracking bunch. Second, it is a great sport to play and watch, particularly live. And third, if we are to have any chance of getting a million more people playing more sport after 2012, games we can play on our dining tables are going to be crucial.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Don't call Table Tennis, Ping Pong! Ping Pong is what people play by the side of a pool on holiday, Table Tennis is a sport.

  • Comment number 2.

    Fascinating blog Matt. I've started playing table tennis again after a year out. It brings something different to most sports, its all about control and reflexes instead of outright strength and fitness. Its also great fun, and almost everyone who plays it is friendly. You couldn't say that about football! Can't recommend it enough!

    But please, never call it Ping Pong.

  • Comment number 3.

    It is all very well saying the English Open is in Sheffield but will it be shown on mainstream tv or consigned to a digital channel and relavtive obscurity. Table tennis is not a sport that is condusive to TV, the ball is small, moves very quickly and unless you have some knowledge, it is difficult to appreciate the amount of spin players are putting on the ball. The change from 21up to 11up has also had an negative effect - players were told by the ETTA (English Table Tennis Association) that it would make the sport more of a spectacle but going back to my first point, as it is rarely shown on mainstream TV is it difficult to judge if that been a success. Also the move to 11up was deeply unpopular and caused a lot of players (myself included) to give up playing league as a direct result of itsforced introduction. Our league voted 98% in favour to keep 21up but the ETTA would not allow this so we had to comply if we wanted to remain affiliated to them and take part in competitions / leagues etc.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog reminding us of the shortfall in table tennis funding - it seems terrible that the government should forgo their promise to deliver funding - you only get to host the Olympics once in a lifetime.

    Plus as you said its a sport that can get a lot of participants at a low cost why couldn't some health funding (over £100 billion per year) be diverted to increase participation in minor sports like table tennis (an extra £1m for table tennis is less than 100,000th of the health budget) -it would end up saving money I reckon but the gov't never seems to be able to look at the bigger picture.

    P.S. Regarding prospects such as Paul Drinkhall and Darius Knight - you should contact Matthew Syed (Times newspaper and ex Table tennis player) and start a campaign - get 1000 people to contibute £100 each or something - I'd be up for it!

  • Comment number 5.

    Ping pong? Grow up! This isn't a youth centre.

  • Comment number 6.

    Ping pong? Chillax! Only kidding, I don't even know what that means.

    Come on, though, I only call it ping pong a four or five times and half of those are in reference to Boris' quote (which even the most strait-laced table tennis enthusiasts must admit was quite funny). I must call it table tennis about 20 times.

    But it's funny tennismtr and flymuztastic mention playing ping pong by the pool or in a youth club as those are the places I've played the game. And I would imagine the same can be said for the vast majority of people in this country who have tried the sport at least once, which I'm led to believe has been guestimated at three million.

    I can't help wondering if the more informal "ping pong" route is the one the sport should be exploring more/pushing harder. We're already seeing how 5-a-side football and 20/20 cricket can drive participation numbers and publicity for those sports (and you watch sevens do the same for rugby now that it's in the Olympics). Athletics is starting to explore the less stuffy, bite-size format, as is golf. I don't think British table tennis can afford to be sniffy about those who prefer to call it ping pong...the more the merrier, in my view. And I get the impression that ETTA knows this. It seems to be really keen to push table tennis as a pub/student union/workers rec room type game. Where there's a pool table, let's have some ping pong too. Good idea, I say. And who cares what we call it.

    paulc2 (3) - You make an interesting point about the scoring system. I must admit I wasn't aware the move from a 21-pt system to an 11-pt system had been so controversial. I think I must have swallowed the party line that this was a popular move and had speeded up play. On your other point about it not being a great spectator game, I half agree with you. I think I make the point in the piece that it is a better game to play than watch, though it is very good to watch too, especially live. When you're there first hand I think you can see the spins the players are putting on the ball, certainly as much as you can see what a tennis player is doing, or a bowler in cricket. How to televise table tennis is a challenge but I can't help thinking it can be done better with better camera angles, super slo-mo and high-def. Basically, all televised sport is getting better. I don't see why table tennis should be any different.

    danj180 (4) - I couldn't agree with you more about the crying shame/missed opportunity all this Olympic penny-pinching is....why on earth do we bother bidding for these things if we're not going to at least try to do them properly and maximise their benefits. For me, it's very simple. We won't get a better chance to showcase all the different Olympic sports, drum up some interest and create a few role models in our lifetimes than London 2012. To miss that chance for the sake of a few million here and there is really quite depressing.

    As for your ps, sorry, all my spare money is going here

  • Comment number 7.

    tennismtr- I thought it was what lazy Americans called it

  • Comment number 8.

    I knew Matthew Syed would get a mention on here. There is a man who finds it almost impossible to write a column without mentioning he was an Olympic "athlete" and somehow seems to manage to compare himself to sportsmen who actually achieved something in their careers.
    Matthew Im sure you are reading this, I thought it was almost impossible to dislike a writing style more than I utterly despise Simon Barnes (possibly the smuggest man on the planet)but the Times has excelled itself in just about matching him by employing you.
    Oh...nice article Matt by the way.

  • Comment number 9.

    In response to comment 8

    Your attack on Matthew Sayed is both ignorant and disrespectful.Matthew is indeed an Olympic Athlete. Table Tennis at the elite level is a sport played with high level of skill,intensity and athletism. He represented our country at two Olympic games and that makes him an Olympic athlete in ever sense of the word.He was the English champion and number 1 for many years and has won the Commonwealth table tennis championships atleast 3 times(to my memory).
    And that aside,he's one the missionaries of the game in the country and continues to promote and expand the game tirelesly in the UK. And ofcourse he's cofounder of the Greenhouse which is a sports related charity.

    And Ive read a few of his articles and I dont find anything to despise about his writing style.. Im pretty sure he won the Sports Writer of the year last year. As a table tennis fan and someone who follows the sport,your slander is disgraceful.

  • Comment number 10.

    i would love to get involved in table tennis as i like to think i'm pretty handy, but i can't seem to find any clubs near me. frustrating!

  • Comment number 11.

    @ 7. At 5:46pm on 28 Oct 2009, gorooneyronaldo wrote:

    USTTA - I think its lazy Brits (Boris being a prime example) call it ping pong, I've never heard it called that here

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm living in China at the moment and every school has lines of table tennis tables in the playgrounds. During every break and recreation time fifty to hundred kids will crowd round the tables eagerly awaiting their turn. And these kids are good. They can easily play me of the table! In terms of interest from a young age, Chinese kids have great access to the sport.

    Also for all the people complaining about the term "ping pong" it's a homophone for the Cantonese 乒乓 (球) which is the chinese way of writing the name of the sport (the character in brackets means ball). In Mandarin it is called ping pang qiu.

    In my opinion, since the Chinese dominate the sport, ping pong is also an acceptable name for table tennis! Not just for lazy Brits.

  • Comment number 13.

    Razorsharp, are you actually Matthew Syed? Syed is yet another columnist who doesnt get that the readers dont care about his own personal experiences and actually want more information about the subject itself.

  • Comment number 14.

    Excellent blog Matt. I hope that Table Tennis/Ping Pong/Whiff Whaff has more blogs and discussions like this to try and get more people interested.
    I agree with paulc2 (3)that it is not the best to watch on TV as you are not able to appreciate it aswell, but it should be on more to get the intrest from people that dont play! If u are bored flicking through the TV channels im sure alot of people would stop and watch Table Tennis if it was on.
    As to Diggers Digberto (8) i have no idea what the problem is with Matthew Syed stating facts about himself??? As he is an Olympic athlete!!
    Last thing, i dont understand what people problem is with calling Table Tennis, Whiff Whaff or Ping Pong, at the end of the day thats wat the sport was first called? Its the history of the sport.

  • Comment number 15.

    You can always rely on the BBC! English National Championships this weekend and where's the coverage?.

    BTW...our Olympic hopeful Darius Knight, you know the one they've spent all the money on.... can't even make it into the quarter finals!

  • Comment number 16.

    Is it like tennis but for small people?

  • Comment number 17.

    Table tennis is not intended for small people it's everybody's sports. I played TT for almost 10 years now and it is really one of the greatest sport ever discover/made.


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