68-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 68, June 25 - Jean-Michel Saive Recounts His Past and Present Successes
“It is very important for table tennis to have people in the Olympic Movement.”
Carrying on with the theme of Olympic Day (held on June 23), it would be interesting to know what kind of interactions you have had with the past IOC President Jacques Rogge and what kind of influence he has had on you.
He was Chef de Mission for Belgium during my first Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. Now his son Philippe and I always sit next to each other during our Belgium NOC Board meetings.
I will tell you a small story. When I was elected President of the European Athletes’ Commission, we had in Belgium a farewell party in Jacques Rogge's honor. My election and his party were on the same day. I could not attend the celebration since I was in Croatia for the election. When I was elected, he phoned me right away. He told me how proud he was because when he was President of the European Olympic Committee, he created the first Athletes’ Commission. And on that very special day for him in Belgium, a compatriot became President of the European Athletes’ Commission. It was, of course, a great moment for me!
Adham Sharara will be stepping down as ITTF president on September 1. He has said he hopes to gain a seat for the ITTF in the IOC, SportAccord, or ASOIF. As you just mentioned, you have already established yourself as the President of the European Athletes’ Commission and as a member of Belgium's Olympic Committee. Additionally, you are one of only three players who has competed in all 7 Olympics since our Olympic debut in 1988. Could you share your thoughts about the importance of having a "seat at the table"?
Of course I am very proud of those positions. It is very important for table tennis to have people in the Olympic Movement. We have a strong sport, stronger than we think. So, yes, it is important to have a "seat at the table." I wish all the best to Adham Sharara to gain a seat for the ITTF in the IOC, SportAccord, or ASOIF. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for what he has done for Table Tennis.
Something really admirable about you is that a couple decades ago you rallied the top players, the "professionals," into action by creating the Club of Table Tennis Professionals, the CTTP as it was known. How would you compare the CTTP with the current role and activity of the Athletes' Commission?
It is really different. It took a long time for the Athletes to have an official Commission inside the ITTF. Before we had the feeling that the voice of the Athletes was not listened to, so we took the initiative to organize ourselves. And we had some big successes.
As the world record holder for participating in the most World Championships, which coincidentally started for you in Tokyo 1983, what would you say have been the most positive changes made to honor the athletes?
I would say the ITTF Star Awards. This was a great idea to honor the players and put them in the spotlight.
But perhaps you mean: which changes in the game? Well, the 2-colors of rubber was a good rule. When players could use the same color on both sides, it was terrible to play against defenders and to receive the service. Other positive changes include prohibiting toweling off after each point, changing the service rule (not allowing the arm to block the view) even if it is still very difficult to control correctly, and probably going to the 11-point game. I was against it in beginning, but I have to admit the matches are more spectacular now. But the biggest change is the World Tour with competitions in all continents.
The era when you were at your peak was a really exciting one because the Europeans and Asians were playing on par with each other and a lot of players, among them yourself, exhibited dynamic personalities. At this year's WTTC's, the Chinese men's team featured world ranked numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. How do you see the rest of the world mounting a challenge to their supremacy?
It is a very good question, and it looks like it is not an easy one to answer. Many people are trying to compete against them. But they are really, really strong and well organized! The Chinese have a lot of excellent players and coaches. I think the only way for Europe to challenge them is to have more common practices together and exchanges between players and coaches on techniques and tactics against the Chinese.
What was your peak moment as a player? The thing you are most proud of, will never forget?
My peak moment was for sure in 1994 when I became the # 1 player in the world after beating Jan-Ove Waldner in the Europe Top 12, and then one month later, the European Champion (again against Waldner). At that time, in the European Championships, the top two players from the world ranking list were at both ends of the table in that final!
The thing I am the most proud of is that I stayed # 1 in the world ranking for 15 months in a row!
Before that time, I remember discussing with you the topic of the then-impending ban on speed glue at the 1993 World Championships in Sweden (where you won the silver medal). It was a very upsetting issue for you, but you obviously adjusted. Was dealing with the ban as bad as you feared it would be? Of all of the changes made to the game during your career, which was the hardest one to deal with as a top player?
No doubt about it, the change from speed glue to water glue. Since 2008, some companies were ready with their rubbers and some others were not. Still today it is not solved entirely: 6 years later! There still are some players who do not have confidence in their sponsor’s rubbers. In combination with that, you have the 4.04 mm thickness limit for racket control. This just created a chaotic situation between players and referees; and some people started to think that players are cheaters. I cannot say this was a positive step.
You've told me before how proud you are of your brother Philippe, who has gone on to become the initiator and promoter of the Legends of Table Tennis Tour. As a participating player, what are you finding most enjoyable? Surely it is bringing back a lot of great memories.
It is great that Phil has organized the Legends Tour. It is a pleasure to see, and to compete, against the old friends. But what has been fantastic is to see the big smiles and the happiness of the spectators in the hall. They were so happy to see us again. The first event was held in Belgium and I saw some people who first came to the hall 20 years ago!
I saw a great interview of you that was conducted in Tokyo at this year’s WTTC’s. At one point you were asked about your longevity as a top player. You referenced the fact that our sport is also a game. Could you share that viewpoint again here?
Table Tennis is a game. There is always something new. It does not matter against who you play. In swimming or Athletics, the race is always against the watch or the distance. The only thing I regret: with age, it is more difficult and you see how fast your performance can go down. I say this half-joking, but it’s true nonetheless.
Speaking of “age,” you first played in the WTTCs when you were only 13! That must have been so exciting. In those days there was no ITTF Global Junior Program. Could you share your views about the importance of this program in light of your own experiences?
Yes, I was only 13! It is fantastic today for juniors and cadets to have this circuit. It allows them to compete all over the world and to compare their level with the players from the same age from all over the world. They can gain experience faster than we could before. And that experience extends beyond table tennis, such as travelling, becoming more culturally aware, and picking up other languages too. I want to add that the Youth Olympics Games has given our juniors yet another great opportunity.
Thank you, Jean-Michel. You are a great ambassador for our sport!
Next up in the Countdown Series: The ITTF’s Global Junior Program