Risks of birth defects, nervous system and lung problems brought about the end of the “speed glue” era in table tennis and next month’s world championships will be the first without it for over 30 years.
The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) banned the substances from Sept. 1 last year, or just after China’s clean sweep of gold medals on home soil in the Beijing Olympics.
That means the elite table tennis scene at the Yokohama world event from April 28 to May 5 will have changed markedly compared with previous championships. Speed glue, first discovered by Hungary’s Tibor Klampar more than 30 years ago, revolutionized the game, increasing spin and speed by up to 30 percent and making powerful shots easier to play.
Yet there was a darker side. While the game became a better spectacle because of powerful shotmaking, harrowing incidents started the warning bells ringing. A player at the Scottish championships collapsed after his glue can fell over and he inhaled all the fumes.
Some athletes had nervous system-related disorders such as severe headaches, concentration problems and poor awareness.
German table tennis magazine Deutsche Tischtennissport even reported a pharmacist stating there had been at least five instances of birth defects in newborn babies after skin contact with toluene, one of the toxic solvents in the first generation of speed glues.
Former French national team doctor Christian Palierne, who carried out major research into the consequences of speed gluing, told Deutsche Tischtennissport: “It has been proved beyond doubt that inhaling solvents during the speed gluing process has side effects. The coaches must ask themselves whether they really can be answerable for allowing 11 to 13-year-olds to use speed glue.”
Still, these claims were the extreme end of the spectrum and on a day-to-day level, health-related problems were rare.
Yet in December 1992, the ITTF banned speed gluing.
Players organization CTTP, led by Sweden’s 1991 world champion Jorgen Persson, said the decision was too drastic and too close to the 1993 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The 1992 Olympic champion Jan-Ove Waldner was also concerned the ban would simply bring about cheating. Two months after the ruling, the ITTF rescinded the ban and instead found a compromise whereby dangerous glues, containing the most dangerous toxic substances such as toluene and trichlorethylene, were made unavailable through control of the market.
The glues were weaker, meaning players had to put on more and more coats of it to get the same speed and spin-boosting effect, often just prior to each international match.
ITTF president Adham Sharara said the repeal of the speed glue ban in 1993 was a mistake and that the decision to ban it in September last year would stay.
“There’s no going back,” he said. “We’ve made enough compromises and the end of the Olympic Games in China spells the end of speed gluing. It would be irresponsible to ignore all the reports about the danger of certain chemicals in our society and in our sport.”