Day eleven in London and let’s face it – Team GB is pouring it on in many sports winning medals by the minute. The UK broadcaster BBC has suddenly transformed themselves from being a powerful and objective media outlet to become more like a national cheerleaders. Turn on the TV any time of the day and there they are sniffing for gold medals in each and every rowing boat – bicycle garage or at the tracks. In the Table Tennis venue on the other hand they have not been seen very much and of course our events are by now pushed completely out of the live programming tableau. Luckily for hard core TT fans they can access the event by using the red button on offer for those wishing to choose the sport to watch.
Success counts in the Olympics – and medals at the games count even more. Most National Olympic committees are these days completely caught up in the medal hunt applying all kinds of evaluation criteria’s to make sure that funding ends up with sports that have positioned themselves as contenders to win the glittering medals. Other sports – not meeting the tough criteria can easily find themselves swimming on their own, in many countries without direction and long term talent development plans in place.
As for Table Tennis in Great Britain, the UK sport authorities called in late 2008 for severe funding cuts to the high performance program using exactly the reasons that many National Associations should fear for in the years to come; China will win all the Gold medals so we do not see any reason to fund your High Performance programs. This came despite some good world class performances, on the junior level mind you, from Paul DRINKHALL – Darius KNIGHT and later on Liam PITCHFORD.
Table Tennis took at that moment, four years ago, a big blow with steep cuts almost immediately affecting the daily training and competitive opportunities for the athletes and coaches. The decision also forced job cuts – coaches and performance directors let go and basically left the National Team program mainly in England scrambling to survive (at least that was the impression you got from looking at things from the outside).
Knowing all of this and many others things related makes it hard to pass judgment on the ETTA or any of the other small sized Table Tennis Associations in Great Britain for NOT even qualifying any athletes for this event. Yes I know that they did play here and basically did alright – but let’s remember that the privilege to participate is awarded to any country hosting the Olympic Games.
So – let’s focus for a minute and talk Team GB in Table Tennis based on their performance here in London and what to expect in the future (Rio 2016 in mind).
Joanna PARKER is the best British female player at the moment, at this stage of her career ranked 119 in the world and slowly, slowly advancing. Here in Excel she defeated the Brazilian junior Caroline KUMAHARA four games to nil, but never stood a chance in the second round against Kristin SILBEREISEN from Germany and lost in five games. Will she be there in Rio 2016? It’s possible of course but signs indicate that she most likely will not. The style of defense is relatively safe with European standards – but with almost zero attacking skills it will be hard to reach the necessary level to pass the European qualifying test four years from now.
When it comes to the Men’s team the chances are slightly better. No doubt in my mind that Paul DRINKHALL with his performance in both the tem event and in the singles has showed some life again following some years of basically doing nothing. Paul came to dance this time relatively fit and played a strong match against the Singaporean lefthander Zang Yi to advance to the round of 32 where he eventually lost to Dimitrij OVTCHAROV.
I still consider Paul DRINKHALL to be one of the (few) European players out there with some potential to progress fast in the next few years, and if so, he might become more than a pretender in Rio 2016. That is if Paul wants it of course. Reports (practice volume, quality of practice and efforts to improve the physical conditioning) the last few years out of Sheffield and from around the world has not exactly oozed world class. Clearly it has been a struggle for the British right-hander to make the transition from high level junior table tennis to world class pro level.
In my mind you cannot blame that on funding cuts or the system itself. The only exemption from that might have been the level of sparring made available in the Sheffield center – the home for daily practice for both Paul and his common law partner Joanna Parker.
No, clearly this is a question of motivation. Let’s face it, the young duo of Paul Drinkhall and Dariuos Knight was run quite hard from the age of 14 to the age of 18. The trips to China for long training camps were for them as common as a trip down to the grocery store for you and me. The results (in cadet and junior competitions) were also perfectly OK, indicating good times to come for England – at least if applying the European perspective.
However when the two youngsters – dragging Liam Pitchford along reached the crucial teenage years things got more complicated;
“I think there were a number of factors involved. First of all our programs might not have been good enough – let’s admit that, but I also feel that the lack of internal competition made it much more difficult for the coaches to push the players. Suddenly without doing very much in terms of international results both Paul, Darious and lately Liam were promoted to the senior national team. All this came in the early teenage years and that didn’t make things easier – lack of focus in training – not listening to the coaches became more common and they lost the momentum and motivation said the Chief Executive Officer of the ETTA Richard Yule when we chatted earlier during the games.
When I later on during the Games , using my best Swedish manners, tried to confront the always friendly ETTA Chairman Alex MURDOCH his comments are sprung from the same line of thought . I ask about the internal debate and if the lack of competitive success is debated at all in England? What about head coach for the Men’s team JIA Li Yu? Is he sitting safe?
“Yes it is. We have a lot of discussions going on. You have to understand however that we in many other areas are doing well with our sport. Table Tennis is one of only five Olympic sports that show increase in community membership in England – when we apply for our funding with government agencies this is important as well. We are now more focused than before with new directives to regional coaches to really look for talented kids and involved them in Table Tennis. Nicky Jarvis is now hired by the ETTA to lead the charge and drive many of the youth projects forward together with the regional coaches. We need to be better on following up what’s happening out in there in the local clubs and keep raising the bar for our young players. Personally I would like to see more training camps where junior players interact with senior players but also that we can attract quality sparring partners to help us out – our best players need that to improve . When it comes to JIA and his work I still think he is an excellent coach – his problem has been more related to handling our young teenage players and having them pay attention to his advice all the time said Alex Murdoch..
All in all I do understand the issues. But let’s hope that England or Team GB gets going. We need them to improve QUICKLY. We need them to return to RESPECTABILITY and to constantly deliver good players. Honestly speaking (and that’s what the Eleven Point Blog is all about) they should be top three in Europe – in all categories youth as well as senior. That’s not the case right now – actually far from.