Anytime soon, perhaps as early as tonight around 2100 local time here in London it might be all over for one of the all-time greats in our sport – forty-six year old Jörgen Persson from Sweden. Competing in his seventh Olympics, the former world champion is part of the Swedish lineup of three trying to upset Germany in the Men’s team event opening round of sixteen. From what I have seen so far during the games this might be a mountain too high to climb for Persson and his friends. Instead it is the Germans coming in as the overwhelming favourite in that match.
I crossed path with Jörgen for the first time in the early eighties – to be more exact I think it was 1984 when I signed my first coaching contract and joined Halmstad BTK, the club in which Jörgen started his career and still today competes for in Swedish national events.
My job was to take care of the youth and the juniors and occasionally work with the first team in training and matches. Honestly , I did not see much of the young Mr. Persson during the regular weeks due to his intense travel for the Swedish national team with camps and international events each and every week. Having said that I did get a few kicks at the can to coach him in the league as well as in a few Swedish national championships. What an experience and thrill it was for a young ambitious coach to follow the action from the floor – close by.
Any Andersson coaching impact on his career – his development over the years and what happened later – starting with his not so successful debut in World championships 1985 in Gothenburg moving on to titles already the next year in the European championships 1986 was limited to ZERO – in fact it was me learning the trade of international world class table tennis by getting this opportunity. Jörgen taught in his quiet and polite manner, without knowing it of course, a young coach to stay sharp and to work hard and to most importantly think the game. Still remember one of the best matches I have ever seen as the Swedish championships men’s singles semi-final – might have been 1986 or 1987? between Jörgen and Jan Ove Waldner – that was table tennis at its very best.
The coach that formed Jörgen to what he later became; a hard working innovator with a tremendous drive and appetite to be the best was Stellan Bengtsson. Stellan, both as the player and later as the private coach (I am sure no money was ever exchanged between the two friends) drove Jörgen to understand the game in a deeper meaning and to stay on track with developing his own style, something that was very important to do in the ultra-competitive Swedish national team at the time.
In Dortmund 1989, Jörgen Persson was ready to take on the world working hard for the legendary Swedish team that broke the Chinese wall in a match that we never ever should forget.
In the singles event the tall Swede with his signature backhand smash eliminated Chinese after Chinese (I think three of them) to reach the final in which he eventually lost. I will never forget Jörgen after the final, sitting there alone, on a chair in the middle of the Westfalenhalle , his head buried under the towel and with tears in his eyes after losing the singles final against Jan Ove Waldner. Right at that moment I realized how deep the desire to win really was (still is) – how badly they wanted it and how much it really meant to these guys. Already two years later – in Chiba 1991 it was “Persson time” as he won his first and only individual world title.
Today, some twenty-three years later I am sure that the desire to win is still there, especially when the bright Olympic spotlight is turned on. However with legs all but gone and the technical and tactical signals not travelling from mind to hand as fast as before it becomes tough. Four years ago Jörgen did his very best to win what apparently the Table Tennis gods decided was not for him – an Olympic medal. That dream is now as far out, pushed back to something almost un-reachable in life – unless of course a miracle would appear and strike tonight against Germany, tomorrow and the days to come in favour of the Swedish team.
In the last ten years or so, I working for the ITTF with various things and Jörgen still playing, we have become what I would call very distant friends – meeting for a quick chat at events – occasionally a cup of coffee at airports or when time permitted. Most of the time, when meeting up, we have talked table tennis – how the sport has developed (or lack thereof) – the new rules and the changes that he as an athlete has been forced to live with. I know that Jörgen didn’t like the new bigger ball, a change that according to him drove skill out of the game for power only. When I for the first time ran into him yesterday before the final he said ; “ Well , look at Zhang JIKE – that’s the new modern Table Tennis – its full power or you have no chance “
The journey from the unbelievable performance in Beijing 2008 to Excel N1 arena and the London Games has been all but smooth for Jörgen. He has gone to work (practice ) unfocused , battling personal issues outside the court with a heartbreaking divorce sucking energy and motivation out of the tall Swede by the minute . But most of all I believe that personal doubt has been the nr one thing to come to peace with – alone in hotel rooms at nights . Should I – or should I not travel the journey of preparation, including the travel – the many events – the training camps necessary to perform at this stage? I think Jörgen did his best this time – but that he deep down never believed – never really wanted it. To prepare and try to play in the Olympics again could have been basically the only thing he knew for sure that he could manage.
What the future holds for one of our sports greatest is hard to tell. Many top players walks the (tough) walk to become coaches (I have hard time to believe that for Jörgen) or remain in the industry as advisors for the manufacturing industry. With his engagement for the German rubber manufacturer ESN alive and active this is perhaps the place where we will find him in the years to come.
At the same time – maybe not? ? . Jörgen Persson is a special person with a tremendous kind and deep down human touch. Often he could never spell or say the world NO – always trying to please others rather than himself, a life quality almost distinguished among today’s “me – myself and I” centered top athletes. You never know what they will do, people with a deep clean soul and the ability touch greatness.
When Jörgen Persson walks off the blue colored Olympic floor tonight or in the days to come (miracles does happen) I think he deserves a standing ovation. Not only for providing millions of fans with spectacular Table Tennis over the years – but also for being a great role model and a great sportsman. May the future hold something good for him and may the Table Tennis gods guide him properly and keep him close to the sport that has been his life.
Thanks Jörgen and Good Luck tonight !