Nick Butler ©ITG

I was told off last week, as happens from time to time, by somebody from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It followed a tweet I had posted immediately following the election of Thomas Weikert as President of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) alongside the exact eight candidates he had proposed for vice-president beforehand. Caught up in the heat of the moment, no doubt, I wrote: "Table tennis following weightlifting in choosing continuity over change. Still the usual outcome in sport politics". 

I followed this by tweeting: "Just like at @iwfnet all opposition ruthlessly removed. Impressive win nonetheless from Thomas Weikert".

I was told that this was not just "unfair" but "inaccurate". 

"How can you compare somebody who has only assumed a post in 2014 with somebody [re-elected International Weightlifting Federation head Tamás Aján] who has been there [as secretary general and then President] since 1975?"

A fair point when you look at it like this, but I was framing it more in the tone of the election.

The ITTF is generally considered one of the better run Olympic International Federations. It scores highly in comparisons ranging from governance standards to social media reach. 

I was, therefore, surprised in the build-up to the vote to discover how bitter and bad-tempered the election seemed to be. There had been a complete breakdown in relations between two former allies in Weikert and Canadian Adham Sharara, who had governed the sport from 1999 until he stepped-down mid-term three years ago to take up the new position of chairman.

Weikert was Sharara's anointed successor but, according to the German's camp, he has been unable to handle not being in control and had sought to interfere and undermine his Presidency. Sharara, unsurprisingly, disagreed and claimed Weikert had been acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

ITTF chief executive Judit Farago was suspended and put on paid leave earlier this year in connection with this dispute. A specific reason has not been given, but it was thought to relate to a breakdown in "trust" with Weikert after she seemingly supported the Canadian's agenda. 

Weikert also claimed that Sharara was "masterminding" the campaign of his sole opponent for President, Belgium's Jean-Michel Saive. 

Germany's Thomas Weikert celebrates after being elected President of the ITTF ©ITG
Germany's Thomas Weikert celebrates after being elected President of the ITTF ©ITG

This was denied both by Sharara and Saive, who presented a picture of a David versus Goliath-like contest in which his campaign - officially supported just by his brother and one assistant - was up against the entire might of the ITTF administration.

There was plenty for me to get my teeth into when arriving two days before the election last Wednesday (May 31). Both sides were dishing dirt from all angles and, at about 11pm on the eve of the vote, I found myself in possession of reams of - fairly inconclusive - documentation suggesting figures associated with both sides had indirectly offered all sorts of incentives in return for a vote.

The candidates themselves could not have been more different in terms of style. Weikert oozed professionalism in his 10-minute presentation and, without wishing to resort to national stereotypes, Germanic efficiency. His speech was like a box-ticking exercise in Olympic clichés. 

"Good governance" - tick. 

"Ethics code" - tick. 

"Being transparent" - tick. 

All that was missing was a reference to table tennis "being in his DNA".

Saive soon sorted that out.

"My mother won a Belgian national title while pregnant with me," the former world number one began. "I have table tennis in my genes."

His speech appeared more impulsive and less structured but struck well and was greeted by a warm round of applause. The 47-year-old certainly had charisma and flair yet was also making solid points. He seemed a seasoned politician more than a naive ex-athlete.

Yet, after a four-hour wait for the vote to be counted, Saive was beaten by a comfortable margin of 118 votes to 90. Two factors constantly promoted by the Weikert camp were thought to have been key to his defeat. These were his alleged support from Sharara and his lack of experience in administration.

It is hard coming in from the cold to cover an organisation full of people you have rarely met before. My instinctive impression, based purely on what I saw rather than what I was told, was that the ITTF missed a golden opportunity here.

Several  former athletes have taken the reins at other International Fedeations in recent years.

There is Sebastian Coe in athletics, Poul-Erik Høyer in badminton and Jean-Christophe Rolland in rowing, to name three. 

All seem to be doing a pretty good job. They know how politics works, but also understand things better from a sporting perspective and act as strong figureheads for their sports.

Belgium's Jean-Michel Saive was beaten in his quest to be named ITTF President ©Getty Images
Belgium's Jean-Michel Saive was beaten in his quest to be named ITTF President ©Getty Images

This latter point raises an interesting question about the role of an International Federation

Weikert, a lawyer by trade, came across as a solid operator but an unexciting one.

This probably did not matter much to the 208 out of 226 ITTF Federations who bothered to vote, of which 47 of these cast their ballot via proxy without actually attending the meeting.

Weikert offered continuity and stability. He has done a good job marketing the sport and has channeled the profits around the world via development funding. Why would they vote for a rival who promised change and an end to the status quo? "Looking around this room, I don't smell a sense of revolution in the air," one observer said beforehand.

There is certainly nothing wrong with a "boring" leader if they get the job done. But, while it is only the votes of ITTF members which matter, Weikert must also represent the governing body in three other constituencies. 

These are table tennis players, the Olympic Movement and the sporting public.

Saive, as one of the greatest and most recognisable players of the modern era, would clearly have gained more support from the first group. Weikert is a former player who understands the game as well, though, so I feel that this is not a huge factor in itself.

Saive is currently chair of the European Olympic Committees Athletes' Commission, so is better placed internationally. I have rarely seen Weikert in operation at IOC and other sporting meetings. He is certainly not a regular in the bars and lobbies like, say, Aján is, and does not appear particularly close to IOC President Thomas Bach. This may all sound peripheral but, when the IOC make decisions between different sports, these personal relationships are often key.

The ITTF President is the number one ambassador of the sport of table tennis to the wider public. I feel that the flamboyant and recognisable Saive would have gone down better here.

Players entered to capacity crowds during the ITTF World Championships in Düsseldorf ©ITG
Players entered to capacity crowds during the ITTF World Championships in Düsseldorf ©ITG

Better promotion of the sport must now be the number one objective for Weikert as there are clearly plenty of challenges ahead.

Don't get me wrong, though, some of the action at the World Championships which closed here today has been fantastic.

Table tennis is, at its best, as fast and as tactically and mentally demanding a sport out there as any. The men's singles final between Ma Long and Fan Zhendong had shades of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008 as the lead and momentum constantly changed in the final set.

A sell-out crowd of 8,000 attended the last four days of competition and, when the top German players were in action, the atmosphere was excellent. Athletes entered to a boxing style fanfare of flashing lights and loud music before the crowd were riled by the usual combination of kiss-cam, bongo-cam, dance-cam and cannons firing free tee-shirts.

Trouble was, the home stars were eventually overpowered by those from Asia and, when two Chinese players played each other, interest declined. There is no other sport dominated by one country more than table tennis and the only players who really looked like coming close were those from Japan and South Korea. The only European to reach either the men's or women's quarter-finals was 36-year-old Timo Boll of Germany. 

Europe is lagging behind. Africa, Oceania and the Americas are even further back.

Some of the Chinese athletes are huge stars in their own country. Zhang Jike, the 2012 Olympic champion, who suffered a shock third round loss here, reportedly earned around $9 million (£7 million/€8 million) in 2016 to make him the second-highest earning athlete in Chinese sport after swimmer Sun Yang. Hundreds of screaming and mostly female fans cheered his every point this week.

China's Ma Long celebrates during a sensational men's singles final again Fan Zhendong ©Getty Images
China's Ma Long celebrates during a sensational men's singles final again Fan Zhendong ©Getty Images

The language barrier makes the Chinese less marketable in the western world. Ma is not as big a star across the world as someone equally dominant would be in another sport. The ITTF want to add three new events at Tokyo 2020, including mixed doubles. If I were IOC I would count against them that China will almost certainly win all the gold medals.

Sharara angered China by reducing the Olympic singles quotas from three to two before London 2012 to ensure another country gains a podium finish. This seemed harsh but necessary. Another move here was to have Chinese stars playing alongside those from other countries in doubles events. 

Further work is required and surely more international players should spend time in China to take advantage of their unparalleled depth and resources. It is up to the ITTF to orchestrate because it is their sport which will otherwise be effected.

Weikert still has to prove he is the best man for this job.