Alan Hubbard: Despite dwindling sport participation figures, table tennis is fast becoming the new snooker

Tuesday, 13 December 2011
Alan Hubbard_22-11-11According to Sport England's latest survey we are breeding a nation of lazy beggars. New figures reveal that the number of young people playing sport is falling at an alarming rate. Rather bad news for Olympic legacy.

"Very disappointing," admits the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, whose Government has quietly dropped they Labour-made pledge to increase the numbers taking part in sport three times or more a week by a million by 2013.

Curiously however, such diverse activities as boxing and mountaineering are among the handful of sports actually bucking the downward trend, but the biggest upsurge of all is in, wait for it, table tennis.

Ah yes, good old ping pong, the game beloved of politicians as means of bringing global peace to mankind.

Ping pong diplomacy is a phrase that has firmly lodged in the sporting lexicon. The favourite sport of Chairman Mao, it famously brought the United States and China together again during the Cold War and 40 years on it is still building bridges. The first Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup in Doha last month featured pairings between North and South Korea, India and Pakistan and the US and Russia.

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President Obama and David Cameron (pictured left and right respectively) have swatted balls at each other and London Mayor Boris Johnson never misses the opportunity to pick up a pimpled bat and take a swipe or two whenever he visits a school or youth club.

How he ruffled the traditional inscrutability of the Chinese when informed them in Beijing that "wiff-waff" was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century.

True. It was first played among the upper-class as an after-dinner parlour game with a row of books as a net, cigar box lids and bats and ball.

And now, it seems, it is finally coming home. And not just at Butlins.

Table tennis, which has 300 million participants worldwide and has been an Olympic sport since 1988, may be dominated by the Chinese but Britain has spectacularly re-embraced the old parlour game. Well, socially anyway.

The English Table Tennis Association boasts on its website that numbers for the sport are booming, adding an extra 40,000 regular players to the 2.6 million who already waft their paddles weekly.

In Britain, table tennis seems to have become the new snooker, played in clubs and pubs and often in lunch breaks by office workers.

And they are said to be pinging and ponging like mad across the Atlantic, too.

So what is behind the boom? It is partially down to Andrew Essa, a former City lawyer whose London Ping Pong Company (lppco) is the capital's first and – so far – only corporate ping pong entertainment firm. The lppco offers a night of wiff-waff fun for willing employees who get free retro headbands and play doubles with colleagues in front of a DJ or between karaoke-singing sessions.

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Essa noticed the growing appetite for ping pong in both bars and companies in America and London and, since starting the lppco late last year, he has now put on scores of events for firms like Microsoft, Accenture, LinkedIn, Google and Bank of America.

London hosts a number of ping pong-themed club nights at venues around the city, including King Pong at Shoreditch's Book Club. A specialist ping pong palace, tentatively named Bounce, is currently being planned by the owners of another London venue.

What made Essa invest in ping pong? "For a start it's low-risk, inclusive and fun," he says. It's something where you don't have to go to the gym to keep fit.

"I was in a Hammersmith pub a couple of years ago and there were hundreds of players, all paying £50-a-head to wear fancy dress, drink and play ping pong for charity."

The 2.6 million who regularly play have been boosted by a further 40,000 taking advantage of tables set up in pubs and clubs like King Pong.

Yet it is still regarded here as a minor sport in Olympic terms. Why? According to Andrew Baggaley, Britain's leading male player, "you need a Barry Hearn to get hold of it and promote it like boxing or snooker. Give it a bit of glamour. And it needs to be on television.

"I know that people who have watched table tennis have loved it. The biggest medium for the promotion of any sport is television and the press. If you don't see it or read about it regularly, you have nothing.

"I don't think you necessarily need an iconic figure but what you do want is someone who is a bit of a character, whose profile can be developed – look at Eddie the Eagle."

Britain have never won an Olympic medal, one in London from any of GB's three men and women (if they qualify) would  be a triumph. Baggaley is Britain's number one, ahead of Paul Drinkhall and Darius Knight, but is ranked only 142 in the world.  There will be 172 players in the Olympic tournament and four of the world's top six men and five of the women are Chinese. Medal hopes are slim, judging by the lack of success at the recent ExCeL test event.

Fred Perry was the last Briton to win Wimbledon, but had table tennis been an Olympic sport in the thirties he most likely would have struck gold. He was a world table tennis champion at 19.

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Baggaley (pictured) has been a full-time table tennis player since leaving school in Milton Keynes. To date he has won three English senior titles and five Commonwealth Games medals, as well as beating several world class players. Yet outside his sport few have heard of him though he's something of a character who speaks his mind and spends his spare time playing guitar in a rock group.

"What I like about the sport is the individualism," he says." One against one. There are not many sports where you are not actually hitting each other but can still go eye to eye. Barry Hearn has compared table tennis to boxing and I think there is an element of that in our form of combat.

"I train quite a lot with MK Dons and the people there have set up a programme for me. It's great working with professionals from another sport although we are from different worlds. Their chairman, Pete Winkelman who is in the music industry, has been very supportive.

Can he make a decent living out if it? "Obviously it's not like being a top football or rugby player, but we do alright," Baggaley says.  "Most of us play in overseas leagues. I now play for a French club who pay me a weekly wage. We play in front of relatively big crowds, sometimes up to 2,000. I've also played in leagues in Italy, Sweden, Germany and Belgium

"Ideally, I'd love to be in a professional league in this country but you need a promoter to set up a grand prix with decent prize money – I am sure that's something Sky would be interested in.

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What did he think of BoJo's wiff-waffling?

"Loved it – anyone who has a good word for table tennis and helps boost the sport is great," he said. "I'd love to challenge him to a match if he's up for it."

And how about 2012?  "Obviously, the Olympics are the pinnacle of any sports person's career.  I am going to give it my best shot and hope for something big, but even just to compete when they are in your own country is absolutely amazing. The opposition will be strong, particularly the Chinese. Beating them is always difficult, but the times they lose is when they have the maximum pressure on them, so there's a chance."

Meantime the pubs and clubs are alive with the sound of plastic on rubber.

So, anyone for table tennis? Just about everyone, it seems.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title from Atlanta to Zaire.
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