China’s table tennis federation should give foreign players more access to its coaches to ease the country’s stranglehold on the sport and attract more television and sponsor interest, the head of the world governing body said.
In the men’s game, Chinese players have won seven of the past eight biennial world championships, while China’s women have claimed the past 10 titles.
“It reminds me of 20 years ago when the US was dominating basketball — they [the US] were able to promote the sport elsewhere and bring the top players from other countries to the NBA,” International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Adham Sharara said. “Today, the US is still very strong, but doesn’t dominate like how China dominates our sport.”
The Canadian said lesser Chinese pre-eminence would help attract greater sponsorship and television coverage of table tennis, which has been an Olympic sport since 1988.
Globally, there are 217 national federations, second only to volleyball, but the prize money on offer is a pittance compared with many sports.
The World Tour Grand Finals in Dubai this weekend — table tennis’s richest event — had a total cash pot of US$878,000 for the men’s and women’s singles and doubles tournaments. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 2 in men’s tennis, earned US$1.92 million for winning last month’s ATP World Tour Finals.
“Even in China itself, the general public is getting tired of seeing China winning all the time,” Sharara said. “We need more cooperation from the Chinese. They’re opening the door, but ever so slowly. They need to sacrifice to make the others better, even to lose to the others, so the sport becomes more and more interesting.”
“I say help us for just five years and then you can go back and close the doors,” he said.
Sharara said that this help would mainly consist of allowing young players from other countries to train with China’s elite players, not just provincial teams, plus access to China’s equipment technology, which is superior.
The top five men and top four women in the world rankings are all Chinese.
Men’s No. 1 Ma Long said he would welcome foreign players to practice with him.
“Chinese players dominate, so maybe the prize money is a bit low for the other players,” Ma said.
He spoke through an interpreter and the lack of foreign language skills among Chinese players has also made promoting the game more difficult.
“I’m trying to convince the Chinese federation that their top players must speak English, so now they’re giving them English courses,” Sharara said. “This generation is a little bit too shy, but the next generation, the younger ones, are speaking English already.”
This would help sell the sport to broadcasters, he said.
“Also in terms of personality — in China they’re seen as different individual personalities. There’s the naughty guy, the nice guy, the good-looking guy, but outside China they’re all considered the same, just the Chinese team because they don’t communicate enough,” Sharara said.
Eighteen nations were represented in Dubai, but the men’s and women’s finals were all-Chinese affairs and foreign players seem resigned to their fate.
“We Europeans have a tough job because it’s almost impossible to beat all the Chinese,” said Natalia Partyka, 24, a three-time Paralympics champion who also plays in able-bodied competition for Poland.