71-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
COUNTDOWN 71 Days - President Sharara Reflects on the Impact of Ping Pong Diplomacy
“My passion for the rest of my years since then has been Table Tennis.”
An interview with Adham Sharara by Sheri Cioroslan:
Q: With today being Day 71 in the Countdown, I wanted to pay special homage to Ping Pong Diplomacy, which occurred in 1971. At that time, you had already moved from Egypt to Canada. You were progressing nicely in your table tennis activities, even starting to coach already. Surely you would have heard about it because the Canadian team also went to China.
Did its theme “sport diplomacy” leave a lasting impression on you?
A: "In more ways than one. First let me tell you about my personal experience and a big lesson I learned from this event. In 1971 I was a university student (McGill University) and I was ranked in the top 5 in Canada. The Canadian TT Association at that time used to select based on Ranking and other considerations, rather than a selection tournament. One of the criteria was to do well at the Canada Games held in February 1971 in Saskatoon, this would be part of the last selection process and the team would be announced right after. The additional last condition for selection was to pay a sum of $600 towards the costs of the trip to the World Championships in Japan. Unfortunately, this eliminated all the younger players like myself who could not afford to pay such a large sum ($600 in 1971 was a fortune). Amongst the young players considered for selection were Errol Caetano and I (both around 18 years old), we both accepted the conditions. Some other strong young players could not pay, so were not selected. In my case, with some help from my parents I could pay. But I had another problem.
The WTTC was exactly at the same time as my university exams. I went to the Dean of Engineering and asked him if I could write the exams before or after the WTTC. I suggested that I write some before and some after, which all my professors were ready to do. I will never forget his answer: “In life you have to know how to set priorities. It is up to you”. Then he told me his decision: “We will not make any special exam dates for you. It is up to you to decide. You write the exams as they are scheduled, or you fail”. Of course he gave me a choice. A hard choice. Fail or write the exams. I chose to write the exams and to forgo the selection to the 1971 WTTC. This was one of the biggest mistakes in life. My heart said, “go to the WTTC”, and my mind said, “be responsible and write the exams”.
During the WTTC in 1971 in Nagoya, the press started reporting in the newspapers and on TV that the Canadian Team was invited to visit China after the championships. I could not believe it. Nixon was considering recognizing China, but Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, had already recognized China. It is a well-known fact that Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor treated the soldiers of the Red Army during the war. To respect Dr. Bethune’s contribution and to respect the fact that Canada recognized China, the first western nation to do so thanks to Trudeau, the Chinese government invited Canada first and insisted that the Canadian TT team set foot in China first. This is a very obscure fact that most people do not know. The USA’s TT team entry in China overshadowed many facts. The fact is that Canada was invited first, then Nigeria, Colombia, England, and finally the USA. It is also a lesser known fact that the first delegation to set foot in China after the Cultural Revolution was the Canadian TT Team.
Well, you can imagine how I felt. A historical moment was happening and we, the younger players in Canada, were missing it. I felt especially very bad for Philip Woo Cheng of Vancouver. He was the best young player but could not afford the $600. There were other young men and women in Canada that missed this opportunity. So, if you look at the photos of the Canadian team meeting Chou En Lai at the time, you will see senior players in their 40s, with the exception of Errol Caetano, Larry Lee and Violetta Nesukaitis.
I was very angry. I had made the wrong choice. I listened to the Dean of Engineering and did not follow my heart. So as the story started to unfold, and the hot news were coming out of Nagoya and later out of China with all the TV news and newspapers covering the event extensively. With U.S. President Richard Nixon making warm comments about China, the recognition of China by the USA was eminent. It was just a matter of time.
I decided to go see the Dean of Engineering at the University again, and to show him the letter I had received back in January from the Canadian TTA considering me for selection. I told him that I had the $600, and I told him that at the Canada Games I had only one loss to Errol Caetano and beat all the other players. He said “So?”. I said angrily “So, I missed this historic opportunity to be part of something that will mark history forever”. He laughed and said, “You made the right decision, this ping-pong stuff will be forgotten very soon, but your future as an Engineer is forever”. Little did he know that my passion for the rest of my years since then has been Table Tennis. So, maybe after all, missing Nagoya was the right decision in hindsight. Maybe this is what made me so adamant to never miss another opportunity in table tennis. Maybe this is what made me run for president in 1995 and 1999 even if everyone thought it was a crazy notion. I just followed my heart.
What I learned from Ping-Pong Diplomacy is:
- Sport is an instrument for Peace
- Table Tennis changed the world
- Listen to your heart and you can’t go wrong
- Table Tennis is THE sport for peace
Throughout my presidency of the ITTF, I never forgot the above lesson."
More about Peace tomorrow. Stay tuned for Part 2 on Olympic Day.