61-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 02, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 61, July 2 - Catching up with Raul Calin, who’s on the Road Again

“I’m privileged to work in the sport that captured my heart at an exhibition 25 years ago.”

Raul CalinAs the Countdown continues until the transition in the ITTF presidency, it’s fascinating to get to know the staff who have been driving the ITTF’s engines.  Today’s profile features Raul Calin, who serves as an ITTF events’ expert and, especially with all matters concerning the Global Junior Programme.

Raul, it will be interesting today to get to know more about your contributions to the ITTF, including your many experiences with putting on events.  Can you first give us a little background about how you got into table tennis?

Firstly, Sheri, let me thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this great series of articles. I have read them all so far. There are a few articles in particular that have really caught my attention, but I will not mention which ones and just encourage others to go through the whole series. Probably like myself, many people will discover things they did not know about how great our sport and our history are!

Getting back to your question, like many Spaniards I guess, football (soccer) and basketball were the sports I played when I was child. In 1988 my family moved to Granada and in February 1989 I saw a banner at my school: “Table Tennis Exhibition.”

“Table tennis exhibition? That must be ping pong,” I thought.

I attended the event and I was impressed. Before then, I only knew “three star” recreational ping pong bats and then, all of a sudden, I saw real table tennis players!

After they finished, I asked them how and where I could practice.  They gave me the address of a club in the city. Table Tennis was blossoming in Granada at that time, and I quickly learned the basic techniques and started to be involved in the club and the regional organization of events. Coincidentally, the club’s owner, Rafael Rivero, was the Secretary of the Andalusian TTF.

Then, as I started my university studies of physics, table tennis was taking up more and more of my time -- first as player, then as an umpire.  One day the manager of the current national champion club also from Granada, Juan Garcia Collado gave me an offer: “Raul, if you wish, you can join our club. If you help me as secretary of the club, you can practice whenever you want here.” At the club were He Zhi Wen, Roberto Casares, the best junior players in the country, Vladimir Choubine just hired as head coach, and Jian Zhong as school coach.  How could I decline such an offer?

I moved to “La General,” and together with Mr. Collado, we started organizing many events in our city: the 50th National Championships in 1995, the Ibero American Championships in 1997, European League matches, etc.  By that time I had become a certified National Referee and I was coaching a few Para Table Tennis players as well as helping Choubine and Jiang as assistant coach for the cadet players.

After finishing the Ibero American Championships in 1997, as my reward, my manager took me to watch a few days of the Manchester 1997 World Championships. It was my first WTTC’s.  What a wonderful experience!

And, again in 1998, something similar happened: together with Manuel Robles, the best Spanish wheelchair player, we organized the Ibero American Para Championships. On the final days of the event, the head coach of the National team said me: “Raul, half of the national team going to the World Championships are from your club, I have some health issues and you’re the right person to replace me. I went home that night and packed my bags until the morning.  I went to Paris with the other Spanish coach, Jorge Parody, and I was luckily part of the biggest success of the Spanish Paralympic table tennis period: the Class 10 Team became World Champions, and as I like to say, I was the “accidental” coach there.

Two years later at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, Manuel Robles won a bronze medal in Class 5.  The Class 10 Team Agudo-Ruiz won bronze too.  Jose Manuel Ruiz was the silver medalist in Class 10 Singles, and Alvaro Valera became the very first Spanish gold medalist in table tennis in the Class 8 Singles at the Paralympic Games.

I was the coach there, but this time I was much more engaged, thus somehow more proud of the success. The whole summer we had been in preparation in Granada and I will never forget my feelings on the last day in Sydney. I compared the results from Barcelona eight years earlier in 1992.  With over 25 players, Spain had only won two bronzes. In Sydney, with 7 players we got 4 medals. It was an unforgettable period and credit goes too to Choubine and Valera’s coaches in Seville. Without their work, we would not have succeeded.

After the Sydney Paralympics, I joined the Spanish Table Tennis Federation as the Technical Secretary and assumed the coordination of the Spanish Paralympic Team as a whole. By that time, 2001, I was already an ITTF International Umpire and Para Table Tennis Technical Delegate, and later I became an ITTF International Referee. 

What events led up to your being hired by the ITTF?

Working at the Spanish TTF, I was told to attend the Spanish Junior Open 2002 because “the ITTF is introducing a Junior Circuit and this will be the first event.”

Upon arrival, I had a very specific task: “Raul, there is a Swedish guy from the ITTF.  He is very serious. We do not know how to handle him!”

It was Mikael Andersson, of course, so I approached him to seek what his demands were. Basically he wanted to make sure draws, schedules and information were done timely and properly.

That was exactly my job during the last eight years of our National Championships and particularly for the last four years at International Para TT events in Spain, Argentina, France, Italy, Jordan and so on.  So I think on the last day he was happy with the outcome. He told me: “Next year we will have the first-ever World Junior Championships in Chile. Do you want to help me?”

No need to tell you my answer, right?

Besides that, in January 2003 we got an email from the ITTF announcing a “Competition Manager Seminar” in Doha, Qatar. I was among the lucky selected participants and we got some assignments on a trial basis. I attended as an assigned Competition Manager the 2003 Canadian Junior Open, the 2003 World Cadet Challenge in Malaysia and the already-mentioned 2003 World Junior Championships in Chile. By that time the ITTF job offer was a reality. I’m sure Mikael played an important role in that ITTF decision and I’ll always be thankful to him for that. 

In Countdown Day 67, Mikael Andersson said about you, “Without him and his hard-nosed perfectionism and drive for success, the ITTF Global Junior Programme would have gone nowhere.”  Can you describe the basis of your “hard-nosed perfectionism?” 

Well, I was planning to study mathematics, but in the 11th grade, I realized I was wrong. I discovered my passion was physics! J

Seriously, I think that in the entire approach to the organization of events and of the Global Junior Programme itself (“Programs” for Americans, that’s for my friend Mike Babuin, Countdown Day 92 J) I just tried to implement a kind of “quality control.”

What teachers at the university tried to teach me about dynamics, mechanics, optics, and even thermodynamics probably helped me to better prepare for what Mikael envisioned. For our World Junior Championships, there were, for example, floor plans, lighting, air flows, flooring and subflooring, scheduling, etc.

In 2005 I prepared the first ITTF spreadsheets to analyze the organization of the World Junior Circuit events on a scale of 0 to 10, which measured several aspects. These Excel files are the basis of today’s more elaborated World Tour and World Junior Circuit tournament evaluation reports (now on a scale from 0 to 100, and much more detailed).

Shall I give you an example? Well, perhaps the sub-wooden floor recommended to give more consistency to the flooring at the 2009 WJTTC in Cartagena de Indias or the backdrop for the award ceremonies of the World Junior Championships in Hyderabad 2012, just to give two examples on technical and presentation conditions.  And, if you talk about player services, I was happy that in 2006, together with Mr. Khaled El-Salhy, we saved a “potential crisis.” Within a 16-hour period, we moved the meals from an inadequate catering service in the venue to the hotels.  Thanks to the mediation of the Ministry, the WJTTC’s in Cairo ended up being a complete success. 

Mikael Andersson also said, “But together we had a very strong combination – myself with the strong visions and the creative ideas -- and Raul with his ability to implement high standards for our events.”  How did you go about “setting the bar” for these events?

I “grew-up” in the ITTF under Mikael’s shoulder. I call him “Mr. Imagination” and yes, I enjoyed putting his ideas into practice. Whether it was the World Cadet Challenge concept, the World Junior Circuit Finals, or the World Junior Championships, I always felt very comfortable being his “right hand man.”

In addition, I was lucky to have other referents with experience and knowledge that helped me in several stages; sometimes they even asked me not to push the organizers excessively! Adham Sharara, Jordi Serra, Judit Farago (first as ITTF Vice-President in charge of Juniors and later as CEO), Glenn Tepper, Andre Damman, Graeme Ireland and Ian Marshall have all definitely helped me to do a better job as well.

Let me quote ITTF Senior Vice President, Khalil Al-Mohannadi on the last day of the Rabat 2013 World Junior Championships: “I have attended many events in Morocco, Arab Championships, Pro Tours, World Tours, but I have never seen the hall so highly presented.”

Every year our “challenge” was to make a better event than the year before. Nobody believed the 2011 World Cadet Challenge in Puerto Rico could be matched, but then came Guam in 2012. Ask those who were there and judge for yourself. 

When Mikael Andersson moved into Education and Training, you took over the load of the Junior Programme.  What was that like? 

Ufff … that wasn’t easy! I have to admit, I felt disoriented for a while. It took time to deal with the fact that I could not look any more over that shoulder because that shoulder was no longer there.  But I have to thank Mikael because any time I needed his help, he was ready to give me his input, and it’s still true today. 

Everyone has their own way of looking at things and envisioning the program’s evolution.  How do you see the highly successful Global Junior Programme evolving?

We started with 4 events in 2002. Today we have 30. In the first year we had a few hundred players taking part. In 2013, we had over 2,000 players coming from 105 different national associations. But as Adham Sharara said in Countdown Day 82: “Any sport that sits and observes will die observing.”

For the last two to three years, without Mikael, and with some added responsibilities in the area of the Olympics, Youth Olympics and Latin American events, I have to admit that I have had a very heavy load. So we will restructure our human resources chart and responsibilities soon. These days, together with our CEO Judit Farago and the Competition Programme colleagues, we are envisaging the 2015 World Junior Circuit, and I can tell you, Sheri: we hope to bring new waves of excitement and yes, evolution, for both the participants and those who follow the World Junior Circuit around the globe.

We are going to dedicate more human resources to the Global Junior Programme. In fact, we have just released yesterday, 1st July, the 2015 World Junior Circuit call for applications, so I invite everyone reading this article to visit the Global Juniors section on ITTF.com to learn more.  

You have experience working with our sport’s major events as well as the youth events.  What is especially rewarding about working with juniors? 

Their smiles and the sparkle in their eyes. This is something priceless. If only you could have seen the boys from Fiji and Cook Islands last month receiving their first ITTF medals, or Ito Mima and Adriana Diaz at the 2012 World Cadet Challenge farewell party. Where will they be in 10 years? The sky is the limit and the sparkle in their eyes may be telling you much more about where they may be tomorrow!

On the last day of the 2009 WJTTC in Cartagena de Indias, one of the Swedish players was hopping down the stairs to go back to the hotel. They were leaving for the airport soon and he blurted out: “Terrific, terrific Championships!” He was smiling. It was very rewarding.  

Of course, with such a dynamic program, we are witnessing younger players developing very rapidly.  Is this a good thing?  Likewise, do the kids seem to be personally thriving?

Success in all sports is happening more and more at earlier stages. Look at the records beaten not just in table tennis but also in other sports with younger athletes and earlier achievements. I cannot tell you if it is a good thing or not, but I can tell you it says a lot about the quality of work and commitment by the persons in charge of their development.

If you ask me about players such as Adriana Diaz, Soumyajit Ghosh, Ariel Hsing, Marcos Freitas, Dina Meshref, Chen Chien-An (the current World Champion in Doubles), all of them passed through or are still part of our GJP activities and I want to believe that, yes, they are personally thriving. 

On the subject of thriving, your job basically consists of going from one place to another.  I’ve heard that your schedule can be up to 250 days/year on the road!  Is that true? Can you describe the pace of your routine?  What strategies do you use to deal with the heavy travel load?

Surely you are exaggerating, Sheri (especially in case my wife is reading this, she may start to count my days away after reading this)!

I have to admit that ­­­I could be better in my organization skills. It is true that the last two to three years, when the World Junior Championships finished around the middle of December and I looked back to reflect on whether there was a good balance during the season, I felt positive. But there is always room for improvement.

In 2005, I was seated at a coffee shop with Nabil Al Mamoon, the referee of the Junior Circuit we were attending in Dubai.  I told him: “I do not really understand why the ITTF wants me to work exclusively for them. I could still do the website for the Spanish Federation, but I’m not allowed to do that.”

Now I smile remembering my 2005 thoughts. I do not sit anymore at coffee shops.  Now I just order take out. ;-)

Life has become busier, but you know what? It’s also more exciting! Not every person is so lucky to work in the sport they love. I’m privileged to work in the sport that captured my heart at an exhibition 25 years ago.

My routine? I persevere.  I make the best use I can of new technologies, and assess when a tool is useful and when it is not. For the rest, my office is wherever I am with my laptop.  So whether I am working from home in Malaga or I’m in Taicang from where I am today, it does not make a big difference.

Sorry for my long answers, Sheri.  This is part of what I need to improve, to become more efficient: synthesis! 

Last question: What would you like to say about Adham Sharara's contributions to the ITTF during his presidency?

Rather than saying something tangible, like increasing the ball size, reducing the scoring system to 11 points or the toxic glue ban (I personally like them all), I would like to mention some more “abstract” contributions.

I would say his biggest achievement has been to make our very diverse ITTF family, especially while it was growing so much, still being able to work as ONE.  Also, I admire his capacity to be in direct contact with everyone from Presidents of top National Associations, to the Secretary Generals of little ones.

Mr. Sharara is a great communicator, and we have to admit, the way he handles the Annual General Meetings (AGM) or the Board of Directors (BoD) is probably difficult to match.

For some particular reasons, the 2010 Moscow Board of Directors meeting stands out in my memory. There was a particular motion being handled (sorry I do not remember exactly the subject) and after many exchanges, including many different points of views, let’s just say it was a “hot” debate, he said: “Ok, let’s try to crystalize all the ideas we have listened to so far….”

The result? Two minutes after very convincing words, the vote was extremely smooth, and almost a unanimous decision was reached. Then he called for a coffee break, and people seemed happy there!

Jordi Serra, who was at that time the ITTF Executive Director, was sitting close to me in the meeting room.  He said of Adham Sharara: “He is a genius.” Well, I certainly think he is.

But I am also remembering another quality about him I would like to mention: it’s his intolerance to discrimination. When we are working at competitions, an important element of our events is to ensure that visas are granted for all participants. I know how sometimes he has been personally engaged in the negotiations, putting pressure on the organizers until all of the visas were secured.

His vision of the ITTF is that our Federation not only handles the professional aspects of our sport, but also that our sport is a vehicle for peace.  And he would not tolerate a player being denied to compete because of where he or she was born.

In this concept of “anti-discrimination,” I should also mention the fact that in the ITTF we have equal prize money for men and women in our events. This is something “normal” for us, but we know it does not happen in all sports.

With 220 so diverse national associations, and with around 25 employees coming from different corners of the world, with different cultural backgrounds, everyone has his own opinion, his own visions of how the ITTF should work. However, when he calls for a meeting, divergences are smoothed out and we leave meetings determined to make our Federation move forward, move faster, get stronger.

With the fifth “P” added recently to his strategy, the new focus on PROMOTION is now motivating all of us to make another jump in 2015. Let’s wait and see… or better to say: let’s move and see!

Thank you very much, Raul.  I hope that others will find your love and passion for the sport contagious! I would like to encourage anyone interested in joining the ITTF’s team of employees dedicated to excellence – “Top 5 in all we do” -- to visit the Global Juniors section on ITTF.com to learn more about the just-released job posting.