By Mike Rowbottom

mike rowbottom ©insidethegamesThe ZEN-NOH 2014 World Team Table Tennis Championships, which get underway in Tokyo tomorrow and run until May 5, are likely to become "the most extensively viewed event" in the history of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), it is claimed.

It's good news, naturally, for the ITTF President, Adham Sharara. But, as he tells insidethegames, the future health of the sport is dependent not just upon its promotion, but a greater balance of competitiveness between European nations and those in Asia, most notably the country which has dominated the medals tables for the last 20 years - China.

Sharana, a 61-year-old Canadian born in Cairo, has held his current position within the ITTF since 1999, when he succeeded China's former international player Xu Yinsheng.

Adham Sharara, President of the International Table Tennis Federation, will retire in November to concentrate on improving Europe's challenge to China ©Getty ImagesAdham Sharara, President of the International Table Tennis Federation, will retire in November to concentrate on improving Europe's challenge to China ©Getty Images

But he describes the current dominance of China - which has won the last five men's individual world titles, the last 10 women's world titles and the last six world team titles – as "a real problem", and says that when he retires from the Presidency this September he will hope to take up the newly created role of ITTF chairman and to spend time in an independent capacity helping Europe and other parts of the world to challenge the Chinese dominance.

It is a bold statement from Sharana. But then the Federation he heads up made its own bold statement in choosing Japan for the imminent event.

The award of of the 52nd edition of the World Team Championships - which run in alternate years to the World Championships - was announced by ITTF in May 2011, after several sporting events including the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships had been shifted from Japan due to the Tōhoku earthquake and the following Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

This gesture of faith is about to be rewarded by unprecedented levels of media coverage around the world.

The showpiece team tournament will be broadcast live on television in more than 100 countries across the globe thanks to agreements set up by ITTF media rights holder Total Sports Asia with the likes of Eurosports, FOX Sports Australia, One World Sports and BeIN Sports.

The ITTF is expecting to reach a further four million people through its online streaming, while getting a further three million views on its YouTube channel.

It will also provide updates through social networks, including Twitter - where it will use the #TTokyo2014 hashtag - and Facebook, as well as a daily newsletter.

Despite these heady statistics, the suggestion that he must be excited by the massive media profile of the imminent competition in Tokyo - reports that there will be a feed direct to Mars have yet to be confirmed - draws a measured response from Sharara.

"Yes, to a certain degree," he says. "We do have extensive TV coverage, but also worldwide free internet live and on demand streaming on itTV.  I expect the bulk of interest to be generated in the traditional table tennis markets, mainly in Asia, Germany, Russia."

He accepts, however, that table tennis is still a sport that could benefit from its own Usain Bolt figure.

"Yes, of course we could," he says. "Not only table tennis but also any sport. The best athletes from our sport come from China and mainly Asia, and usually they are reserved and not very outgoing, mainly because of language restrictions, although inside China they are big stars."

The stars include Zhang Jike, who has won the last two world individual titles in 2013 and 2011, and women's world champion Li Xiaoxia.

China's winning team at the London 2012 Games - from left, Ma Long, Wang Hao and double world champion Zhang Jike ©Getty ImagesChina's winning team at the London 2012 Games - from left, Ma Long, Wang Hao and double world champion Zhang Jike ©Getty Images

"Now we are trying to get them out of their shells and be stars overall," Sharara adds. "They are learning English so they can communicate better with the international press. Some of them are now emerging as stars in their own right with outgoing personalities.

"But we do not have a Usain Bolt yet. We do have an up-and-coming German player, Dima Ovtcharov, currently ranked number four in the world, who could be the 'Great New Hope' of table tennis and could challenge the Chinese supremacy very soon.

"This would help our sport a lot. But if Usain Bolt decides to change sports, he is very welcome in table tennis!"

Table tennis doesn't yet have its Usain Bolt figure, according to the ITTF President Adham Sharara, but the Jamaican athlete has an open invitation if he ever feels like taking up the sport...  ©Getty ImagesTable tennis does yet have its Usain Bolt figure, according to the ITTF President Adham Sharara, but thas an open invitation if he ever feels like taking up the sport... ©Getty Images

In the meantime, however, Sharara is occupying himself with the question of how to alter the current balance of power within table tennis, where the last European to win the men's world title was Werner Schlager of Austria in 2003, and the last to win the women's world title was Romania's Angelica Rozeanu in 1955.

In 2001, just two years after taking over as ITTF President, he was reported in the Beijing Review to have said that his sport would become "boring" if China continued to dominate, as they had at that year's World Championships in Osaka and at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Austria's Werner Schlager, pictured at the London 2012 Games, was the last European winner of the world individual title, having picked up gold in 2003 ©Getty ImagesAustria's Werner Schlager, pictured at London 2012, was the last European winner of the world individual title, picking up gold in 2003 ©Getty Images

Asked if he sees any imminent change in China's - and more broadly Asia's - domination of the sport at world level, he responds:

"Not for a while. This is a real problem. I intend to take time out from the ITTF Presidency by retiring this September and spending more time independently to help Europe and other parts of the world to rise and challenge the Chinese dominance.

"I believe that this will generate a lot of interest in our sport and will make for a healthier balance. Of course the Chinese deserve the results they are getting because of their very hard work and dedication to excellence. But at the same time to make any sport interesting we need a rivalry and unpredictable results. It will take time, but eventually it will happen."

Sharara does not foresee the need for any imminent structural changes to his sport within the Olympics following the two momentous shifts which occurred before the 2008 Beijing Games, where the doubles format gave over to a more inclusive team event, and London 2012, at which the reduction of individual entries for each country from three to two prevented the possibility of a clean sweep in the medals. Four years earlier, hosts China had won gold, silver and bronze in both the men's and women's competition.

China's Li Xiaoxia, the Olympic and world champion, currently dominates the women's game ©Getty ImagesChina's Li Xiaoxia, the Olympic and world champion, currently dominates the women's game ©Getty Images

Asked if he wishes to see any further significant shifts in the Olympic competition structure, Sharara responds: "No. The table tennis event at the London Olympic Games was very successful, so we do not need to make any major changes.

"In fact, table tennis moved up to Group C [from Group D] in the IOC Olympic Grouping of sports, and that was based on the London Games. So, we are very happy that the changes we made improved the performance of table tennis as a sport at the Games.

"We will make some minor changes for Rio 2016, but mainly in the competition format for the team event, so that Brazil can have a few more matches, and also in the schedule to adapt to local conditions."

Sharara believes these changes made to Olympic competition have been "extremely successful", adding: "The TV rating for table tennis [at London 2012] in Germany was third overall among all sports. This would not have happened if the Chinese would have dominated all events and medals.

"The change in the entry, limiting to two per event, gave an opportunity for other nations such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and Germany to also get medals. The 'universality' of the table tennis event was more in line with the universality principles of the International Olympic Committee.

"Of course we also enjoyed much higher TV ratings in many markets because the events were more competitive. According to the IOC's own assessment, for the spectator turnout in terms of percentage of seats available, Table tennis was ranked third. This is very high.

"Of course our venue was smaller, 6,000 spectators capacity, but it was full for every session right from the beginning. The atmosphere was great."

During the London 2012 Games, table tennis attracted 152,000 Facebook followers (seventh best out of Olympic international federations), 21 million YouTube views (fourth best) and 48,000 YouTube subscribers (fourth best).

"I have announced that I will retire from the ITTF Presidency effective September 1,  2014," Sharara says. "However, the ITTF is creating a new position of chairman, which has lesser responsibilities, mainly to chair the Annual General meeting, to review the constitution, to lead the ITTF's planning process and to try to seek positions in international sports bodies.

"At this stage in my life, and after 15 years of being President of the ITTF, preceded by four years as Deputy President, this new position would suit me perfectly. It is an elected position, so I hope to be elected by my peers.

"This would keep me involved in the ITTF but without the day-to-day operational responsibilities that I have now. It would be a much more focused position, equivalent to 'Speaker of the House' in the Parliament or the 'chairman of the Board' in big companies.  This will also give me more time to run for positions in international sports bodies, which I have not done so far in order to focus on ITTF business.

"The position of President, according to our constitution, will go to the current Deputy president, Mr. Thomas Weikert, as of September 1, 2014, with my full support."

In this year's insidethegames brochure at the SportAccord Convention in Turkey, Sharara reflected upon the changes to the presentation of matches which he said had "revolutionised" his sport - reducing the size of the ball from 38 millimetres to 40mm, thus slowing it for TV and PC viewers, reducing games from 21 to 11 points in order to make them more of an "intense experience", changing the service rule to make the spin imparted more visible to receiver and viewer alike, and changing the colour of show courts.

Asked if "the revolution" is now over, he responds: "It is definitely a challenge, but we are doing our best to be creative and introduce new elements to keep the spectators and fans interested.

"At this moment we are trying to make the sport more entertaining as far as real 'family entertainment value'. But many people within the sport do not like change and would prefer to keep the tradition. At the same time nowadays people get bored easily.

"So it's a dilemma. We want to keep the sport fresh and exciting, while we do not want to disrupt the traditions. So, it is a delicate and thin line that we must tread carefully."

Sharara also took the opportunity in the SportAccord brochure to spell out his sport's Data Base Intelligence Plan, "fuelled" by five target areas - Participation, Popularity, Profit-financing, Planning and Promotion.

In his own contribution to the insidethegames brochure, Lamine Diack, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, opined:

"The greatest danger to athletics and the entire Olympic Movement is the rising age of the average sports fan which is interested in Olympic sports. The 50 plus age group is now the main audience for our sport.

"The IAAF, with heavy investment in internet and social media and the development of a School/Youth Programme crowned by the IAAF's globally successful 'Kids Athletics' project,  is combating this issue.

"We are engaging with the younger generation to inspire the athletes and fans of the future. We are confident that in the next 30 years Athletics will reap the reward of those efforts."

Asked to what extent he shared Diack's concerns when he viewed his own sport, Sharara responds:

"This is a common and cyclical issue for all sports and all forms of entertainment. It's a natural progression. The trick is to be aware of it and take advantage of the situation.

"For example, if the audience interested in sports is 50 plus in age, then we need sponsors of big ticket items like cars, airlines, real-estate, etc. that will draw the attention of these consumers and target them as potential buyers.

"Then when the cycle changes and the children of this generation take up sport, then we need sponsors targeting youth products, etc.

"Of course what IAAF is doing is correct, but we have to be careful in the cycles that you do not offer programmes to a resisting audience, and then it has the opposite effect. We have to be aware of the cycles and adjust our programs and image accordingly.

"In our sport we are aware of this phenomenon and we target our programs accordingly. We have programmes for all age levels, but we focus on the cycle-appropriate age.

"For example our 'ITTF Hopes' programme will see the sunset in 2014, and instead will switch its focus to coaches. Basically we initiated over the last six years a programme targeted at kids of less than 12 years of age, and now we target their coaches to take them to the next level."

IAAF President Lamine Diack's concerns about attracting a younger audience for athletics are shared by the President of the International Table Tennis Federation, Adham Sharara ©Getty ImagesIAAF President Lamine Diack's concerns about attracting a younger audience for athletics are shared by his counterpart at the International Table Tennis Federation, Adham Sharara
©Getty Images

Asked how important the imminent World Team Championships are in terms of promoting his sport to a younger audience, Sharara comments:

"In general we try to get coverage for all our events as widely as possible. Of course it is easier for World Championships just because of the prestige of the events and the large participation of athletes from all over the world.

"In Tokyo this month we will have 115 countries taking part with teams. This is very large and a result of our development programme across the world.

"This is the 'participation' part of our P5 Plan. However, the Promotion part of our P5 plan may suffer if we cannot present the event in its most attractive way to as wide an audience as possible.

"So again, we must find the right balance between participation and promotion. We are now very active and progressing very fast in the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Weibo's, etc.

"We are also progressing very fast on our YouTube channel, as well as on our own streaming service called itTV. We push as much as we can to get global TV coverage of the event, and in those areas where TV coverage is not available live, and then we have live streaming on offer on itTV free of charge."

Asked if it is possible to make sport too accessible, he replies:

"The more accessible the sport is the better. If you mean that there would be a 'fatigue' factor if the sport is too visible or too 'in your face', then yes. Like anything else, 'too much of a good thing ....'

"It could get boring and stale and out of fashion, or 'démodé', as they say in French. This is why we must always have new angles and new ways to present the sport and make changes necessary to keep fresh and exciting."

Germany's world ranked No4 player Dima Ovtcharov could be the sport's Great New Hope, according to its President ©Getty ImagesGermany's world ranked number four player Dima Ovtcharov could be the sport's Great New Hope, according to ITTF President Adham Sharara ©Getty Images

Asked about his aspirations for the Data Base Intelligence Plan which was launched this year, Sharara responds:

"I have very high hopes. It is the system that will bring table tennis as one of the top five sports in the world [by internet independent assessment sites], and the ITTF as one of the top five federations in the world [by the IOC's own quadrennial assessment].

"The system is simple, easy to put in place, but initially it takes a long time to set up. Once it is set up, it is a miraculous way to plan and operate. It is a protection against failure and a catalyst for success.

"We have just started this process in January and now we are in the second phase of soliciting input to our goals and objectives database. There are four components to this system; each component is an interlinked database.

"Objectives are set in time according to the human and financial resources available. Basically each of the 34 databases pushes the other to succeed and reach the objective using a system called 'flex time'. This way, it is only successes.

"Most strategic plans I have seen set up the organisation for sure failure. Then you spend the time justifying the failure or postponing the target date. With the DBI system, this can never happen. We set our five priorities for the P5 Plan, and then we implement using the DBI system. It is really simple and fail-proof."

As Sharara contemplates the future for table tennis, a former Chinese world champion, Cai Zhenhua, has just found his area of expertise extended to the world's highest profile sport of football following his appointment as President of the Chinese Football Association, an appointment which involved him in high profile photocalls with a certain David Beckham.

Asked for his view on this novel arrangement, Sharana comments:

"It is very interesting. Mr Cai is 'excellence-oriented', so because China is struggling in soccer they have decided to give him the responsibility to bring the sport to a decent level to compete internationally.

"I am sure he will use his table tennis experience to replicate the table tennis success. It will be interesting to see the results."

The same holds true for Sharara's imminent launch into independent promotion.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.