You have to admit that the Guatemala experience, as a whole, is closer to the “wild walk of life” than a day in paradise. This country, with a population of close to fourteen million is offering a lot to its visitors. Guatemala City, the capital since 1776 when the Spanish rulers decided to move from the demolished city of Antigua, is a rough and tough experience, not exactly the place for a relaxed evening walk.
Armed security is a common feature at restaurants and a careful look over the shoulder in each and every corner, especially at night, is highly recommended. The city has grown in the last ten years to almost triple its size. Traffic is often crazy and the number cars are way too many, when families nowadays have not only one but three cars to play around with. On top of that you can have various civil actions from disgruntled groups not getting what they have been promised by the government. Travelling back from the well-organized excursion to Antigua ( one hour drive from the capital) our driver and also the tour/guide for the day reveals a few complains about the day to day life in this country .
“This morning the military did some kind of protest towards the government for not fulfilling salary payments nor the latest pension allocations and shut down the road for a couple of hours. Instead of one hour I was forced to sit in my car for more than four hours to reach Guatemala City – it’s quite tiring – next time it might be the farmers doing the same thing. But this is life here he said.
Central America is, for those not having the opportunity to make a visit just yet, a little bit like the beauty and the beast. The scenery can wipe you away with beauty and of course those with access to sufficient funds are able to organize themselves quite well to live comfortably. But to live, work and to do business, and even more so if you are involved in keeping sports alive, the best is to befriend the right people and accumulate a good dose of patience.
The former president of the Latin American Union; Miguel Angel Delgado , currently working as the Latin American sales rep for the Indian sporting goods manufacturer STAG, is showing me the city during one of the lunch breaks .
“You have to know how to work the government in order to survive as a business person in a country like this. Last year I did get a preliminary government order worth around 3 million dollars for soccer balls and other goods. They asked me to execute and basically promised to pay within one month of delivery. What do you do?! Of course I didn’t have that kind of money – so my option was to consider a loan from the bank. In the end I bailed out, knowing that you might not get the money, unless you are somehow private with the President of the country of course – then you are always good. But you have to keep working. I often drive down for meetings and to hang out at the government offices. I know most of these people by now and occasionally you are able to get some proper orders from them Miguel explains.
Politics is involved at all levels and you have to factor in that most likely the government in power will change when it is time for a new election. History will tell you that – no government has ever been re-elected in Guatemala. Promise and Delivery doesn’t always add up in countries like this.
More of the wild stuff. From the mid-sixties all the way up to 1996 there was a state of civil war in Guatemala – the government fighting with the China / Russia and Cuban backed guerilla. Nowadays the lefties have put down their weapons making their voice-s heard in the political boardrooms with little success.
Instead another and perhaps much more dangerous war is developing; the fight against drugs. Many of the powerful drug cartels forced out of Mexico in the north and Colombia in the south is making Guatemala their new home. The situation is pretty bad with actual production now happening in the country. Only in January, according to Miguel, close to 300 people have been killed in mostly gang related encounters.
Having said all this ; You travel back home with the beauty of this country on your mind. With that I do not only refer to the scenic beauty and great ambience of Antigua – a world heritage site and once the capital of the Maya civilization – but more the impression based on the people you meet. The 2012 ITTF GJC finals – obviously slotted in for January 2013 was a great event organized by a dedicated and passionate group of volunteers under the leadership of newly elected president Jorge Herrera and his group of executives.
Jorge ; well educated, good job, smart and with firm hand on things, pulled all the possible strings and delivered a great event with support of the government authorities.
The catch-phrase; “Pasion For Guate” was plastered all over the walls in the 8000 seat Dome arena – and passion they showed. In a time of “complete spectators crises” in Table Tennis – the ITTF GJC finals averaged three hundred spectators the first two days watching the group matches. For the final day close to six hundred people, many of them from the Table Tennis community of around 1000-1500 active players but also a number of outsiders came to watch what we had to offer.
The fun part; They all loved it and so did the young players who really decided to play along – writing autographs and interacting with the crowd at several occasions.
Based on the interest ; Clearly , Table Tennis can grow in Guatemala and with Jorge and his team now getting things organized – it may still take a few years – but we could see Guatemala back as a competitive force in Latin American table tennis again.
“We will try, our mandate is four years and we at least have a plan that we will try to execute. You know – not long ago Guatemala really had good players and we want to come back to that situation again Jorge Herrera says whilst showing us around in the association owned national training center with space for around twenty tables for training and sleeping arrangements for about thirty persons if needed.
In a few weeks we will host the Central American Junior and Cadets and I am really interested in the Olympic Qualification for Rio 2016 as well. The Guatemala Junior Open had 18 countries participating last year and we will again work hard to market our event when we travel to Paris said Jorge.
“We are also trying to organize our High Performance program and soon enough we will have a foreign coach / director here taking over some of the responsibilities. Since the start of last year we are also gathering our best talents in one place outside Guatemala City and they train there every day “
In my mind the ITTF GJC finals – presented as a quality stand-alone event is here to stay. In the good hands of the ITTF Global Junior program director (or is he blessed with another title now?) Mr. Raul Calin this event can only grow in importance. The perfect size (16 + 16) and format of this event can also open the doors to much needed new markets for our sport. What we have to do now is to start marketing the importance of the ITTF Global Junior Program and the circuit as a quality springboard to excellence again. We used to do that with good success in the beginning, but with the passing of time and the introduction of the U 21 singles connected to the ITTF Pro Tour many top juniors are these days taking a pass on the Junior Circuit.
You can always argue both right – left and center when it comes to the importance for young athletes to play on the Global Junior Circuit. In my mind more of them should and one thing that coaches have to remember is the crucial importance of finding situations and events when the rare but delicious dish called “learning to win” is on the menu.
The perfect example of that theory was unravelled right in front of our yes in Guatemala when the Portuguese left-hander Joao GERALDO finally made something good out of his, by now well documented, talent level. It was not enough to win this event – but young Geraldo made his supporters proud by playing aggressive and entertaining table tennis from start to almost finish. The final three games ( -1,-1 and -4 !!) in the final match against Morizono from Japan was unfortunately a bit on the ugly side – but aside from that the lone European male player in this event came to play this time – and that’s what you want to see.
The Junior Girls singles event, turned out to be, not surprisingly, an all Singaporean affair. The comfortable winner was ZHOU Yihan – a seventeen year old technically well-schooled athlete , holding a Chinese passport but currently representing Singapore .You have to wonder here , considering the two flags attached to her name , when she will appear in championships play ? . It might in fact take a while as ZHOU not yet is appearing on the ITTF site as registered for her new country. Could be an STTA rare oversight of course – or perhaps the aim is to unleash ZHOU as a candidate for the Olympic Games in Rio by then with a freshly printed Singaporean passport in her pocket?
Nevertheless. I would hope that Singapore – quickly can find a model that works also for producing top athletes from the ground and up. Good thing is that they were the first one to active the ITTF Hopes flag this year – maybe things are improving after all. We need more countries making an effort to have a good female team – that’s for sure.
Two athletes deserve honorable mentioning-s from Guatemala. The Egyptian nr one female player Dina MESHREF was the only player in the field that was able to put a bit of a scare in ZHOU Yihan . Dina played a strong event and clearly masters a skill not often associated with female junior players; Tactical Play.
The next award, more of the encouraging nature, goes to the former ITTF World Hopes Team member (2010), fifteen year old HUNG Ka Tak from Hong Kong. He was the most active player in the world last, year recording 176 registered ranking matches. In Guatemala he played an excellent event and was ever so close to advancing passed the quarterfinals which would have been an outstanding result for such a young player. The young boy is maturing by the minute and will next take a run at the Youth Olympic Games qualification starting in June. Let’s hope that the supporters surrounding Hung Ka Tak also goes through some of that maturing process. International participation – at all levels – does come with certain responsibilities after all.