Back in 1999, when Adham Sharara became ITTF President at the World Championships in Eindhoven, the current Dutch Table Tennis President Ronald Kramer, although an all-round lover of sport, “knew nothing” about the ITTF.
Fifteen years later, as Sharara prepared to take on the newly-created role of Chair, Kramer was formally confirmed to assume the ITTF responsibilities that accompany his position as the elected European Table Tennis Union (ETTU) President.
We took the opportunity at the World Championships in Tokyo to discuss his journey in our sport.
Prior to his introduction to table tennis in his early 20’s, Kramer participated in volleyball, as a player and as President of his club, and badminton. As an athlete, he caught on to our game quickly and soon started playing four times a week.
Professionally, as an international lawyer, Kramer worked in Holland’s Sports Ministry and served as a Director of their Olympic Committee. In 2003, the Dutch Olympic Committee initiated the creation of a database of “interesting people” who were considered capable of making unique contributions to the Boards of the country’s sports organizations.
In 2008, he was asked if he would consider joining one of those Boards. Wanting to utilize his experience and talents, he said he would, provided that he be matched with a Board that faced unusual challenges or had significant troubles. Kramer wasn’t interested in just occupying a Board seat; he wanted to channel his energy toward resolving adverse or difficult circumstances.
Within about a year, Kramer felt that there was a good fit with the Dutch Table Tennis Association. He came into the association as Vice President. The challenge they faced was preparing for the World Championships to be held in Rotterdam in 2011. By the autumn of 2010, he was asked to assume the presidency of the Dutch TTA.
He thought, “I’ll do a half year, then see what happens.” In 2011, he was formally elected to the post and still retains that position. At the following European Championships, he was elected Vice President of the ETTU.
At that stage he certainly never expected to become the ETTU president. But a series of events put the ETTU in turmoil. In the lead-up to the last ITTF elections, which took place in Paris in 2013, President Sharara was challenged by the then President Stefano Bosi. Mr. Bosi, who had served European Table Tennis for a long time, distributed a number of accusations on ETTU letterhead, which were widely circulated. No proof for those allegations was offered. President Sharara was overwhelmingly re-elected. And that left the ETTU to deal with the fallout. Shameful damage had been done to both the ETTU and the ITTF.
Because of his legal background and his propensity to deal with difficult situations, Kramer was prepared to serve as an intermediary and liaison between the various individuals and even between the ITTF and the ETTU. After numerous mail messages and discussions, many of the difficult issues were dispensed with when Stefano Bosi resigned as ETTU President.
With the sudden vacancy, Kramer was asked to stand for the position. His first admittedly instinctive reaction was, “No, I have no ambition.” But instantly he had a paradigm shift as he viewed the situation from a different perspective: the ETTU was facing troubles and challenges.
Kramer then agreed to run, on the condition that he could go forward with a like-minded team. When three members of the “old team” then voluntarily stepped down, he was able to put forth three others to replace them. That put closure to the election process at Schwechat (Austria), in October 2013.
As the new ETTU President, however, Kramer had to deal with the schism from within the ETTU that still existed. To “bridge the political gap,” the team adopted principles of openness, transparency, and vulnerability as well as communicative processes. The first step was a renewed focus of the ETTU “being a table tennis organization -- with a Board -- to serve table tennis, not a Board to tell Europe what to do.”
The old way was a more top-down management style in which the ETTU President “spoke almost solely at Congresses and then votes were taken. Certain organizations need a governing model like that, but I believe there is a better way for the ETTU.” The new way is for the ETTU to meet informally at the World Championships in an Extraordinary Congress for the purpose of “discussing what will be decided later.” There everyone has a chance to discuss their ideas and possible actions. Once the vote takes place at the next Congress, Kramer said, “Maybe not everyone will agree with the outcomes, but all will have been listened to. Each person will have had the opportunity to state their opinion.
Kramer was “pleasantly surprised” when this methodology, which he calls “collective decision-making,” was embraced. “In addressing an open question, for example, an unprecedented 15 representatives took the floor. By involving as many people as possible in the problems facing the continent, nearly everyone was happy” in the first go around.
The next challenge the ETTU faces is to come up with a proposal for future European Championships that addresses the ever-expanding scope of hospitality, costs, formats and regulations. Kramer noted, “We have sent a short questionnaire to all ETTU associations asking their opinions on these questions.”
He acknowledged that this process is very time consuming and more complicated on the front-end. “But,” he interjected, “it is a process that gives energy back. It’s open and everyone is aware of the issues and the direction we are going in. The roads people have in mind might differ, but, if we can describe the desired end-result, together we can find ways to get there.”
Kramer added that as in all continents, “There are some higher-developed countries and some that are newer developmentally. Some are relatively rich, some are poor. Each has its own unique situation. But together, we all are part of the same table tennis family.”
Being a process-oriented person has made Kramer comfortable dealing with these types of situations. “I believe you’re never too old to learn. Part of my openness is that I am eager to learn.” It may also come from the fact that he has been exposed to many cultures and places in his life. For instance, he was born in Australia and has done a lot of travelling mostly, but not only, in Europe.
So, when he was invited to Dubai last January for the unveiling of the ITTF’s P5 presentation, he was just over three months in his new role, eager to listen and learn. Everything and many people were new to him. “I must admit I was just wandering around, getting to know who’s who, and beginning to learn and see more. I had not immediately realized,” he divulged, “that accompanying being the ETTU President would follow having associated ITTF positions. So the next thing I knew, I was suddenly going to be on the ITTF’s Board of Directors and be Europe’s continental representative on the ITTF’s Olympic and Paralympic Commission. To be quite frank, I had not immediately realised that by becoming ETTU President, I would also be 'in' the ITTF.” He couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of what he’d just said.
In Tokyo, when the ITTF family was faced with President Sharara’s decision to change his focus by stepping down as ITTF President and assuming the new title of Chair, Kramer said he was surprised. But he respects Sharara’s decision as well as his “style and humor.” He likes the proposed overlap that will give fellow-European Thomas Weikert the chance to learn more as he grows into the position. Kramer observed, “This is how successful companies operate. When you think you’re good, as soon as you feel comfortable, that’s when it’s time to leave.”
Continuing, he commented on Sharara’s stated goal of attempting to get either himself or another member of the table tennis family appointed to be an IOC member. “This is the moment. Relations between the IOC and the international federations operate on a longer cycle.” Referring back again to the professional model of business, he asserted, “If you never take a first step, you’ll never take a second step and you will never reach any goal.”
“My philosophy is, ‘Go and do.’ Develop platforms. Tap the big reservoirs of people and their ideas. Exchange thoughts. Otherwise we are not serving our sport, we are just tourists.”