91-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | June 02, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 91, June 2 - Interview with ITTF President Adham Sharara: “I am motivated to do the best for our sport.”

Sheri Cioroslan and Adham ShararaYour ITTF bio states your profession as Electrical Engineer.  According to thesaurus.com, "electrical" is defined as "charged; energetic," and "engineer" is defined as "person who puts together things."  Over the past 15 years, you have certainly lived up to that billing as ITTF President.  You have stirred the ITTF with your dynamic leadership, including even orchestrating your own denouement.  So, let us talk about your decision to change your focus, this 100-day finale, and what possible encore performance might develop.

Yes, you are right, my mind does work like an Electrical Engineer.  But to be more accurate, I would say more like an Electronics Engineer, which is, in reality, my major at university.  I like to think fast, but at the same time I like to be well prepared.  I rehearse a lot in my head. 

Many people are surprised that I can make fast decisions, or that I have an answer to a complex problem very fast, or even that all my speeches are ad-lib rather than a prepared written script. The main reason is that since my very young days I learnt to rehearse everything in my head over and over again.  So when the time comes to utter the words, they are ready as if they were written in my brain. 

I also think about solutions to problems over and over in my head.  I believe that for every problem there are at least 10 solutions.  So, I keep thinking over and over of the best possible solution. 

I remember as a 10-year old, I was infatuated with a girl in my school (2 years my senior), and I knew that I might just bump into her at the beach.  The odds of that happening were one-in-a-million, but I kept rehearsing the possible conversation over and over in my head.  Of course, I did not see her that day, but I was ready just in case. 

This describes well my character as a professional or as a manager.  Always be ready, never be caught by surprise and always think of the best solutions.  I do come across as a cold and business-like character, and that is true in business, but the opposite in my private life. 

Maybe 2009 is a good starting point in this discussion.  Prior to that election, you were actively seeking to implement a transition strategy.  What gave you the desire and motivation to rally, shall we say, for another four years at that point? 

In 2008 I had already decided that 10 years as ITTF president was enough.  10 is a nice round number.  It looks good, it sounds good and it's a decade.  This was my ideal exit point. 

I also sincerely thought that Mr. Yang Shuan would make a better president than me.  Why? Because he comes from a very strong table tennis country, and with his open-minded attitude, he could have China help the rest of the world.  Just like Canada did in Ice Hockey in the 1960s and 1970s, and like the USA did in Basketball over the last 30 years.   

Mr. Yang has this mentality and always was ready to put China at the service of the ITTF for the betterment and development of TT across the world.  In addition, in 2008 he was also the Sports Director of the Beijing Olympic Games.  This is a very important position.  He knew all the IFs and their leaders, and of course he was very close to all the IOC staff and leadership.  It was a perfect combination and the time was right.  Unfortunately, just 3 months before the elections, Mr. Yang indicated that, for professional reasons, he could not run for the ITTF Presidency.   

By the way, I am very happy that Mr. Yang has since been appointed to an IOC working group for the IOC's Agenda 2020.  My goal of involving more TT officials in the IOC is already happening.  (I am also a member of the Youth Olympic Games Coordination Committee.) 

So, after trying in vain to convince Mr. Yang, and in order to ensure that we would have a candidate, I approached a couple of prominent ITTF officials (a woman first, and then a man), but both indicated that they were not ready for that role. 

I also received unbearable pressure from my peers and supporters to run for another term.  So, I did.  But, as of that moment, I started to think of my exit strategy and how best to do it while still serving the ITTF the best way I could.  

Ok.  Let's fast-forward to the beginning of 2013.  You quietly announced that you would stand for president one last time.  Then, it seemed from out of nowhere, came an avalanche of accusations, which, in the end, were all for naught.  That scenario must have been really grueling to deal with on top of all of your responsibilities. 

I must say that this was the darkest moment in the history of the ITTF as far as I am concerned. 

I know that in other sports, and also in politics in general, especially in some cultures, this type of smear campaign is common.  For me, this was the first time that I would face an open and public smear campaign that went far beyond my professional and volunteer responsibilities. 

Those that led that campaign and had any part in it should bury their selfish heads in the sand and be ashamed of themselves.  The damage caused is absolutely enormous.  Copies of accusations were sent to the IOC and to the press.  They also attacked my family, my integrity and the integrity of the ITTF. 

This was a difficult time not only for me and my family, but also for the ITTF.  I became very angry and started to question myself and the validity of 22 years of volunteer dedication to the ITTF (in 2013: 14 as President, 4 as Deputy and 4 as Continental VP).  I could not understand how anyone, especially TT colleagues, would take such low and despicable action. 

But, as always, I thought about it a lot and came to some conclusions and decided to fight back in a systematic and clean way and to prove them wrong.  As I always say, "It was a blessing in disguise."  At the end the truth prevailed, and the outcome was a much more united ITTF. 

Also, the overwhelming election win in Paris for my team and for me was uplifting and energized me.  But, at the same time, I thought it would be best to step aside in due time, and not during an election year to avoid other vultures appearing.  So I consulted with many inside the ITTF and we came up with the perfect solution, which was successfully implemented at the Tokyo AGM.   

Now I feel good.  I feel vindicated.  And I am motivated to do the best for our sport. Top-5, man!  Top-5! 

But I will tell you a secret, well now it won’t be a secret anymore, my intention was already not to run in 2013.  I had decided this at the London Olympic Games.  I saw the ITTF as a solid and successful federation, and I was buoyed by the success in London, so I thought this was the best exit scenario. 

Then some ill-intentioned people started rumours of impropriety already in London.  I reported them to the EC in September at our meeting in Paris, and I confronted a couple of the accusers.  I thought things would die down after that.  But, instead, the vindictive nature of some made matters worse and the accusations escalated.  So, with my close supporters, we decided that I had to stay and run one more time, otherwise people may believe the rumours and false accusations.  

So, you went to the 2013 AGM and logically had someone other than yourself run the election portion of the meeting?  And the wheels started to turn.  Maybe you were thinking: in Canada we have had a separate Chair and President going back some 25 years.   Was that the genesis of the Chair position?  

Actually we asked the Deputy President to chair the entire meeting until the announcement of the results of the election.  This was not my idea.  It was a complaint received from my opponent, and although that is not ITTF policy, we reluctantly accepted, just to avoid any complaints or protests after the fact. 

And yes, you are right, at that moment I thought if this is the perception, then why not create a neutral and permanent position of Chair? 

You are also right we have had this successful system in Canada for at least 25 years and it works very well.  But not only in Canada.  In fact, all successful corporations have this system in place (Apple, Microsoft, banks, etc.).  So why not the ITTF? 

Here's another secret, I had proposed this system already to Mr. Xu Yinsheng in 1997, but he did not agree with it at the time.   

The ITTF is known to be the first to innovate.  I guarantee you that in a few years you will see several IFs doing the same thing. 

At the 2014 AGM, the Chair position was created and you were elected.  Thomas Weikert will take over as ITTF President on September 1. 

Yes, this is correct. This is a new structure and a big change from previous practice.  So I expected much more resistance. I also did not want to force anyone in this direction.  I simply sent an e-mail communication to all members explaining the purpose of this new position and my interest in being elected. 

I also made it clear that I would retire from the presidency (long overdue) on 1 September 2014, which marks exactly 15 years of service as president.  (I was elected in August 1999 in Eindhoven.)  

I was pleasantly surprised that the permanent Chair position was accepted at the AGM with 80% of the votes, and that I was elected with 90% of the votes. 

Thomas is very capable.  He is the president of one of the largest and most successful national federations in the ITTF (Germany).  But at the same time he understands the needs of the smaller associations, and he promised to focus on development.  He has a very friendly personality and good diplomatic skills.  So I think he will be very successful. 

I have repeated a joke many times, so indulge me one more time: "I always say that a successful president must be tall, have a good head of hair and be handsome.  So, Thomas is taller than me, has more hair than me, and … well . . . 2 out of 3 ain't bad." 

What are your top goals as these last 100 days are counting down? 

I am rushing to complete many pending matters, but both Thomas and our CEO have assured me that we should have a smooth and steady transition rather than a dramatic cut-off date. That makes it easier to function during these last months. 

Regarding my priorities, they are very clear and, in this new function, I will have the time to accomplish them: 

  1. Be the Chair of the AGM – I want to make the AGM a better gathering, as president and Chair at the same time this was not possible.  But focused just on chairing the assembly, I can make it a much better experience.  I am thinking about it now and we shall see in Suzhou.
  2. Deliver the P5 Plan and DBI System – The process has started and will be very inclusive. We are receiving a lot of input, and the momentum created in Dubai in January continues to grow.  Again, I believe this is a system and plan that will succeed and will bring TT in the top 5 in the world as a sport, and the ITTF also in the top 5 as a federation.  I am sure that many federations will copy the ITTF's process once they see its success.
  3. Review the Constitution – this is a low priority item, but very important.  Somehow it is always relegated to the back burner. I will make sure that we get it done and present a new constitution in two steps at the 2015 AGM and the 2016 AGM.
  4. Marketing – I will continue to help the ITTF and TMS to reach their marketing goals.

The above functions are temporary.  No. 1 until 2017, No. 2 for one year, No. 3 for two years, and No. 4 when needed.  But this is a good way to continue to serve the ITTF, while giving full range and reign to the new president as of September 2014. 

How do you see your future involvement with the ITTF?  What other possible "encore performances" might develop over time? 

Once I have finished the tasks listed in the previous question, I will remain available for advice, but I will never interfere or impose myself.  I hope to be invited to World Championships so that I can watch 84 matches, rather than have 84 meetings. 

Thank you very much.  It will be interesting to visit with you further about your plans -- past, present and future -- over the next several weeks.

You are welcome, and thank you very much for volunteering to write 100 articles.  This is really amazing and remarkable. 

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