Ashu Jain - Athletes Making a Difference

March 01, 2012, 9 a.m. (ET)
Ashu Jain. Photo by Jose Santos

Athletes Making a Difference

Ashu, why don’t you run for the Athlete Director on USATT’s Board?” Eric Owens, the incumbent whose term was about to expire, suggested to Ashu Jain. Jain had never given much thought to the politics of the sport, but after submitting his nomination onto the Board seat, he was elected as one of two Athlete Directors for the 2005-2008 term. Holding the position of Athletic Director also earned Ashu a seat onto the USOC Athletes’ Council, which is comprised of one primary and one alternate representative from each of the governing bodies under the Olympic umbrella. (The goal of the USOC Athletes’ Council is to provide guidance to the USOC Staff and CEO, committees and working groups, and board regarding key issues effecting athletes.)

“Back then, I thought I was on an all-star team,” says Ashu, regarding his first USATT Board meeting in 2005. After all, each individual of the board were of the highest caliber, with recognizable names and contributions; but years of internal strife and dysfunction, coupled with a general lack of team focus, plagued the USATT board from the inside. The USOC was handing down a lot of pressure to engage in immediate self-guided reform or risk de-certification. The primary role of the USOC toward NGBs such as the USATT is to provide funding, media and technical support, the right to hold Olympic and Team Trials, and more importantly, credibility on an international level. De-certification most probably would have resulted in a drastically altered NGB, one with no rights to obtain USOC support or ITTF recognition. Possibly, the USATT could have survived, but without the strength of the authority and credibility it has under USOC governance. Worse, it could have become totally defunct as has happened to other NGBs under a similar process. The USOC wanted no business in running the NGB, that’s not what they want to do. Years of continuous pressure on the USATT to reform, which were previously tabled, were now underway as the board made multiple motions to begin the reformation process. Ashu Jain was a catalyst for this reform.

In July of 2007, the board finally came together with unanimous support to begin reform; changes were to be completed by December of that year, timed just in advance of the Nationals. A major part of the reform called for resignation of the entire board, except the Athletic Director’s position. Ashu alone would carry over to the new Board. Following that, Jain was nominated chair of the Governance Reform Committee, which was responsible for crafting the new bylaws and the current board structure. Ultimately, the goal was to make the USATT an improved organization, one that could better serve the sport and its membership in the future. Those last six months of 2007 were spent between Ashu, the newly retained CEO, and the Nominating Committee, working together to finalize the process while helping to orientate the new board.

Today, the USATT is a financially healthy organization managed by a very competent and able CEO. However, it is not without the difficulties many businesses share in today’s times. With a limited budget and funding, the USATT struggles to find ways to reduce spending and increase revenues-- the USATT has recently announced new fund raising initiatives. The focus of today’s board is to work tirelessly toward making the organization better, and of course, to provide more support and benefits to the membership.

Leagues, youth, and membership-at-large are the priorities of the current board. The USATT does not want to merely gain membership through growth; they want to make the organization more valuable to its members. This is a significant change in the board’s vision and strategy. The new board considers a good clubs and leagues system to be a very necessary tool for creating the right structure and environment, an environment that would ultimately increase participation and competition. Of course, anyone who has been paying attention over the years would know that this has been discussed and initiated before, but never with any success. Today more than ever, the board is taking steps in making the leagues a reality. “We must figure out how to make leagues succeed in the US,” Jain shares, when discussing USATT goals. He also says, “We’re concurrently working on a technology package, led by David DelVecchio and Han Xiao. This software would help tournament directors run tournaments better and help members manage their memberships easier.”

There has been a paradigm shift in both the USOC and NGBs regarding how the Paralympic movement is to be managed, but noteworthy is the fact that the USATT was ahead of the curve in trying to do this. As a part of the new USATT, the board’s, and especially Ashu Jain’s, vision included providing the disabled athletes with a voice among the able-bodied athletes. Now, two of the seven members of AAC are disabled athletes. “And, those two have often the most responsive, intuitive, and dedicated members of the AAC.They bring incredible value to our committee and the organization, “notes Jain, “but, of course, we have a long way to go.”

The scope and breadth of the board’s responsibilities is seemingly endless, but some of the more progressive steps being fronted include not only the leagues system and support of disabled athletes, but also being prioritized are the ideas of creating regional and national areas of excellence, which could ultimately result in creating an overall better brand for USATT and its clubs. Specific goals have broad reach concerning developing and organizing youth participation, with an increased annual budget for junior players, and designing an improved system for youth to become actively involved. The membership-atlarge is also a top priority, and changes are in the pipeline to provide players with better overall tournament and membership experience; with continuous shift towards improved communication, the board hopes for a better two-way relationship with its members. An improved rating system is also a topic of discussion. The board actively encourages the various members and committees who serve, recognizing that without them, the overall organization would suffer. It’s a change in focus and attitude that is giving rise to “the New USATT”, and the future looks bright.

Ashu Jain shares his belief that, in retrospect, “The New USATT is quite different from the previous USATT. It may not be apparent to the members, today. But it will be, one day. I think the members that are most involved in the organization through committees could attest to that. Peter is an admirable Chair person and has kept the board focused and united. As it’s been many times before, we have a great constituency on our board, but now that it is smaller and more focused, we are able to make quicker and better decisions.”

What many do not realize is the overall impact that Ashu Jain has personally had on the current USATT organization. Not only some of his vision, but without a doubt, his hard work and dedication too, have helped bring shape to the governance and leadership of the sport. Jain has been involved from the inception of this new USATT, providing momentum for reform, but also continuing to be involved in every emerging step as the foundling organization metamorphasized into what it is today. From behind the scenes, Jain has contributed to every major USATT decision.

Simultaneous to his work on the USATT Board, Ashu carried out his duties as the primary representative to USOC’s Athlete’s Council. At the end of his term in 2008, Jain was voted by his peers from other Olympic sports of the USOC AAC into key Leadership positions for the following term. Shortly after this new appointment, he was part of a small athlete delegation to World Anti-Doping Headquarters. Following a closed-door meeting with staff, many newer recommendations were adopted by this group. The Anti-Doping Division, chaired by Jain is in the process of making a submission to WADA, with collaboration of US Anti-Doping Agency, to enhance the code that governs testing standards and protocols for all athletes around the world.

Also this year, Jain was selected to the ITTF Athlete’s commission, joining likes of Wang Liqin, Vladimir Samsonov, and eight other top athletes from around the world. The Athletes’ Commission structure is still in its developing stages at the international federation level. But Jain knows here is where he can help. With seven years under his belt, he hopes to get more and more athletes involved in decisions made by the ITTF. “They’re a great organization, led by a dedicated President. They’ve shown to be open and willing. Athletes can add great value to the organization and help improve decision making.” With ITTF’s continuous efforts to improve racket testing procedures and experimenting with different service rules and ball sizes, the input from athletes is absolutely invaluable.

His peers at the ITTF have already recognized Jain’s dedication and capabilities, as just this past month, he was selected by the ITTF to represent international table tennis at the biennial Athletes’ Forum, held by the International Olympic Committee. Bringing in key elected athletes from different sport’s federations and organizations from around the world, the key decision making powers in the IOC take this opportunity to gain athlete input. At this fifth IOC Athlete’s Forum in Colorado Springs, 37 different recommendations were made to the President of the IOC, Mr. Jacques Rogge. Perhaps the most notable recommendation made was to give a life-ban to those athletes that are caught in an egregious and serious doping offense. President Rogge seriously considered all 37 recommendations and gave a verbal acceptance to 35 of them. The remaining two recommendations are still under advisement.

Though many over the years have given great time and effort into USATT improvement, few from table tennis have had quite the level of active involvement and impact that Jain has earned. But how did he get here? Looking back on a Sunday in February, 2001, in San Diego, during the final and decisive match of the US National Team Trials... we can see some of the integrity and commitment Jain has exhibited in his earlier career as an athlete.

As the Trials come to a close, Ashu is leading in the final game 20-15 but his opponent, Barney Reed Jr., has just won four points in a row and has one serve remaining. This is the match that decides who makes it onto the 2001 National Team; if Ashu wins, he is awarded the final spot on the team. Otherwise, his team trials will come to an anti-climactic end. A short side-spin serve to Ashu’s backhand, he steps in and returns the serve with a down-the-line backhand flip for the win. Point. Game. Match. National Team! A fist pump in the air accompanied with a quiet “cho” by Ashu and he’s off to shake hands with the Umpire and his opponent.

But wait, moments later someone from the sidelines raises the question about Ashu moving the table. “The match is over -- you’ve already won it” says the umpire. But could he possibly accept making the National Team on a questionable point? After a moment of thought, Ashu accepted that the table may have moved and he took the point as a loss and the two players returned to the table. He then won the next two consecutive points and the result remained the same.... Two More Points. Game. Match. National Team!

Jain continued with another improbable story in 2002’s National Team Trials and made it onto the team again, but later that summer he suffered an injury where he fractured his ankle. Working through the pain in hopes to continue to compete is testament to Jain’s clear commitment to athleticism, but with his athletic career cut short due to injury, what next?

“ Ashu, why don’t you run for the Athlete Director on USATT’s Board?” Eric Owens, the incumbent whose term was about to expire, suggested to Ashu Jain...

Athletes making a difference, that is the crux of Jain’s passion for the sport, and it is the ideal he hopes to continue with over the next few years.