Table tennis gambles without a whiff (or a whaff) of a medal

November 9, 2009

No surprises at the English Open in Sheffield earlier this month with top seed Ma Long beating fellow countryman Ma Lin in a highly predictable all-Chinese final. A bigger revelation from the world of table tennis, however, comes with the approach of the administrators to their funding problems.

Having seen income cut in half following the Beijing Olympics to £1.2million for London, bosses took the unusual decision to front-load their expenditure, and spend most of the available money in the first two years of the four year cycle. It would seem that that theory is also to front-load success, make significant progress on the world scene, and force UK Sport to reconsider.

I like the idea. It’s bold, and it might – just might – work. And there’s little to lose: no Team GB player has qualified for the Olympics by right since Matthew Syed in 2000.

The young British squad continues to shine. Unfortunately, they’re starting from a dark place. Paul Drinkhall leads the way, but his straight games defeat in the last 32 in Sheffield to top ten ranked Chen Qi illustrated why the 19-year old is still outside the world top 100.

Theoretically, there is a flaw in the plan. Funding for Team GB is allocated almost entirely based on medal prospects, and hopes of a British player winning one of the twelve on offer is fairly unrealistic. It’s not Drinkhall’s fault – nor that of Darius Knight, Kelly Sibley or Joanna Parker, all still fantastic prospects to qualify for the Games by right. They just happen to have chosen a sport that is dominated like possibly no other. The Chinese won all four gold medals in Beijing, eight out of twelve overall, and will no doubt leave only a handful of minor medals for the other big table tennis nations such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore to scrap over in 2012.

The reason the plan might work, however, is that the existing principle for making funding decisions is wrong. Table tennis is clearly a more relevant sport to our society than many others on the Olympic list (accessible, cheap, easy, inclusive, school-based, classless), and this principle of paying only for success is one which sits increasingly uneasily with me.

Success is fine, but legacy is of much greater importance. Without wishing to denigrate the skill of the athletes, or the efforts of their administrators to take their sports to a wider section of the public, exactly what benefit do rowing and sailing have for British society? And who honestly cares whether they can repeat their combined 12-medal haul in three years time? (Or can name more than half of the 2008 medalists?)

In this funding period sailing and rowing are being given a combined £50million. When the big table tennis gamble fails to pay off, my hope remains that the current social penchant for hounding people in authority will have reached sports administrators: a new set of decision-makers will have been forced to find funding for the most accessible of sports, and required to reconsider exactly why sport matters.