81-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 81, June 12 - Interview with Adham Sharara: Growing Pains
“Any sport that sits and observes will die observing.”
Let’s start by hypothesizing that when the ITTF became tied for first place in terms of the number of affiliated national associations, 220, growing pains would inevitably manifest themselves. Would you agree with that supposition?
Yes, of course, and not only when we reached 220 members, but even much before. Any international federation with more than 150 member national associations is considered very large and will always have growing pains. I want everyone to know that reaching 220 members in itself was never my goal as president. My goal when I became president was to spread our sport everywhere in the world. We started a simple but effective development program in 1998 while I was Deputy President, then we put together a plan starting with Oceania, probably the most difficult area in the world to develop our sport. In 1999 we hired Glenn Tepper and initiated the Oceania Development program. Then every year after that we added a continent to the program. The 220 member associations are a result of the success of the development program.
The growing pains come from trying to be equitable to all parts of the world and accommodate the requests made to the ITTF. At some point some of our new member associations must become independent from ITTF assistance and take on their own responsibilities. But in the beginning we are there to provide guidance, assistance, technical expertise and whatever the association may need. It is easier when you have one or two new associations over a long period of time. But we have constantly increased our membership on a yearly basis (40 new members in 15 years) so it is difficult to keep up. However, I am very happy with the progress and only with the help of the Continental Federations we are able to keep up this pace.
This year’s WTTC’s program contained a reference entitled “Philosophy behind Japan Table.” The very short text stated: “Table tennis is played on a table. And families and friends gather around a table. By way of analogy, the World Championships can be regarded as a huge table around which the families and friends of table tennis get together. To express our profound sense of gratitude for all the sincere encouragement we have received since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Japan Table Tennis Association wants to invite everyone to join us around that table. These are the thoughts behind the JAPAN TABLE 2014 logo.”
To reiterate, JTTA said it “wants to invite everyone to join us.” Everyone was invited.
The triple disaster caused by the earthquake in parts of Japan was devastating. The ITTF's EC immediately thought that it must send a message of solidarity to Japan. Of course the Japan TTA is one of the most active members of the ITTF. I proposed to Mr. Koji Kimura (ITTF VP at the time) to bid for the 2014 WTTC. Everyone understood the message, and the 2011 AGM awarded the event to Japan unanimously. The ITTF really showed concern and its wish for Japan to remain active and for table tennis in Japan to have a high goal and stay active. Credit must be given to the Japanese people and to Japan TTA for stepping up and face adversity. They did. And as we all know they presented a highly successful world championships, one of the best ever for the ITTF. It also seems that most ITTF members wanted to experience this event in Japan and show support for the remarkable recovery of Japan, which should be an example for all of us. It is also remarkable that both men and women teams from Japan did so well at the Championships. Kudos to Japan and a sincere "thank you" to the ITTF members.
Also, at the same AGM, Chris Band made the speech quoted in yesterday’s article. The net result of the vote taken by the Board of Directors is that starting with the next World Team Table Tennis Championships, entries will be capped a 96 teams per gender.
Can you tell us how this concept originated?
The speech from Mr. Band was greatly appreciated and represents the views of most participants. However, only a handful of associations have hosted the World Championships. So, although we all appreciate Mr. Band's sentiments, we must first and foremost listen to the organizing associations because without them we would have no world championships and zero participation.
What factors went into the EC’s endorsement of capping the teams at 72 for each gender?
Based on the reports received from recent world championships organizing committees starting with 2011, we noted two very disturbing factors. First, the championships was losing money, with large deficits in 2011 and 2013. Second, the size of the event, as far as participation is concerned, was growing rapidly. Of course large participation at the WTTC is very good news for the ITTF and the member associations. But it is not good news for future organizers. The fact that we are starting to have deficits is also a huge deterrent to future organizers. To keep the size of the event the same is OK for participants and the ITTF in general. But if we want to be responsible and have well-staged championships that produce a return on investment to the host association, then we need to act responsibly and set limits on the participation.
I asked our senior staff and the competition department to provide some solutions. I also asked the point of view of our marketing staff and TMS International. They all came to the same conclusion, which is simple mathematics, the reduction in number of participants would provide for a better championships and stable budgets (knowing the number of participants in advance). In their estimation for the World Team Championships we would need to have an event with 72 Men’s Teams and 72 Women’s Teams to reach a profitable result and to be able to run a good championships. In reality even this number is very big compared to other sports and compared to the logistics needed. However, the ITTF's EC agreed with this starting point and was ready to present it to the Board of Directors and also present a reduced quota for the individual events, while maintaining the entry open to all associations.
Obviously Chris Band put a lot of thought into his heart-felt speech at the end of the AGM. What were you thoughts listening to his speech at the time? And what are your thoughts now?
His speech was not new to me. I had corresponded already with Mr. Band by e-mail on this subject. His feelings reflect the feelings of a lot of associations that wish to have a direct entry into the world championships. Unfortunately, this principle is no longer valid. Things change. As much as we want to accommodate every association at our world championships, all 220 of them, it is just practically impossible now. No one has come up with a better solution. There were some proposals regarding some possible solutions but all of them do not work. However, we listened and looked at many options. Finally, we decided to go to the most concerned with this issue, the organizers.
For 2015 we made very little change because China indicated that they are ready to host a large number. For 2016, the Malaysia TTA indicated that they could accommodate 96 Men’s + 96 Women’s teams, not more. But they will use 4 halls and build a special temporary hall for practice. For 2017 the reduced number per association will be implemented, and for 2018 the ITTF gave the Swedish TTA time to choose between 72, 84 or 96 teams, and the option to withdraw if they wish.
This is the reality, we are victims of our own success. We have more members but not enough room to accommodate them at our WTTC. Therefore, the logical solution is a qualification system starting at the Continental Championships like most other sports have. It should be regarded that the Continental Championships is an integral part of the World Championships like they do in many other sports. In fact, our hope is that this move will reinforce the importance of the continental championships.
It seems like the ITTF has conflicting priorities: trying to grow the table tennis family, yet putting a cap on the number of national association entries. Can you comment on that?
I do not see any conflict. The principle within the ITTF of direct entries to the World Championships is the exception rather than the rule in international sport. We were able to maintain this universality principle as long as we could. In fact, we should have changed already much sooner, but I always resisted. The "logic" was that as long as we have bids then there is no need to change. However, this lulled us into a sense of false security. The bids are scarce and usually only one bid per year with some inducements from the ITTF leadership. This is not a healthy situation. We need more than 3 bids per year to raise the bar and make it a competitive exercise. This can only be achieved by making the WTTC easier to organize and within economies of scale. At the moment, if we did not change, the only associations that have the necessary facilities to stage the WTTC are China, USA and Germany. We must make the staging of a WTTC an attractive proposition.
What were the key factors that went into the compromise position agreed to by the Board of Directors?
Basically consulting with the future organizers and trying to find a solution to minimize the reduction. One accepted solution was the reduction in the number of persons getting free hospitality. I would like to thank the Malaysian TTA for proposing a larger number (96 teams), which was readily accepted by the Board of Directors as a good compromise.
Shifting gears a little here, as we saw the other day, there have only been 19 associations, fewer than 10% of our members, who have organized the WTTC’s. Surely the extraordinary hospitality and logistical requirements are serving as a barrier to entry. Would you agree?
Yes, I agree. However, the number 19 is bit deceiving because in fact it i