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

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 23, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 40, July 23 - Leandro Olvech Keeps His Promise to Work with Passion for the ITTF

“I progressively put my career as a player aside and increasingly devoted my energies to coaching.”

Yesterday the Countdown concluded with the final profile of the members of the ITTF’s Executive Committee.  Today the ITTF’s Director of Development reveals something he has in common with Masahiro Maehara.  Like his colleagues, Leandro Olvech displays a deep-rooted passion for the sport along with a special feeling for those who have touched his heart along the way.

The Countdown has already mentioned you on Days 55 and 54, regarding the ITTF’s humanitarian projects and ITTF recognition for those projects.  You obviously have a huge passion for our sport.  How were you introduced to table tennis?

My grandparents were Japanese, and there was a TT culture in our family. At their place, my aunts and cousins used to play every Sunday.  I remember watching them.  I was amazed, especially by their serves.

When I was a child I used to swim at a football club in my neighborhood, Velez Sarsfield. Every summer, with my friends we used to go to the swimming pool all day long and then in the evening play “ping pong.”

The room was under a tribune of the football stadium. There were two tables, one for the table tennis players and the other for kids like us. They called us “mosquitoes” because we just showed up in the summer to bother them. There was an old big guy who played with a hardbat. Once you defeated him, you were allowed to play on the main table.  I did it during my third summer, when I was 10 or 11- years-old.  I kept playing almost every day all year long, including tournaments on weekends.

When I was 14, I met Leonardo Marino in a TT tournament. He was a friend from my childhood and we used to play football together within the Japanese community. He invited me to play TT at Cedima, which is a club for people with a disability.  It is in the poorest district in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, my home city. Both of his parents have a disability and played for Argentina´s national team. 

That was shocking for me, coming from a middle class family and having contact for the first time with people that were unusual for me. I went there every day that summer and they invited me to be their coach together with Leonardo. I accepted the challenge but had no experience as a coach and absolutely no clue about Para. There were neither books nor videos to help me at that time.

I remember asking a tetraplegic player to perform a topspin stroke. I showed him how to do it and he stared at me and laughed. Then I understood it couldn´t be done in the same way as able-bodied and decided to play in a wheelchair myself.

As the speed, perspective and tactics are quite different, I progressively left my career as a player on the side and increasingly devoted my energies to coaching. After two or three years I was assistant coach on the national team and briefly afterwards national coach of the standing players. 

You have a background in Americas Para TT (PTT), please tell us about that.

During that time on the national team, there was a budget to travel to only one or two tournaments abroad per year, so there was almost no chance to qualify for the World Championships or Paralympics. Therefore we decided to host the Tango Cup in Buenos Aires and then the Para-Panamerican Championships. It was very stressful. We had to squeeze our budget to find the funds, but it went very well and was a great experience.

Before Sydney 2000, there was a renewal of national coaches in different sports and the National Paralympic Committee´s president asked me to step aside and continue as a sport manager as I could have a bright future and it was needed. I still remember crying after that meeting and wondering if that meant I would be leaving table tennis forever.

Then I nominated myself as President of Argentina´s PTT Committee, which I won. After some months I was also elected as Americas Representative on the PTT Executive Committee. It was called IPTTC at that time and was under the umbrella of the IPC.

I was 25 when I got elected.  With a few exceptions, all of the other executive members were double my age.  So I learned a lot from them, not only technical things and protocol issues, but also about sport´s philosophy and how to think globally. We used to have heated, but constructive, discussions and some meetings finished after midnight. At that time some of my current colleagues were also beginning their service on the committee: Alison Burchell (PTT Secretary General, ITTF Operations and PTT Director now) and Raul Calin (PTT Technical Officer and ITTF Event & Olympic Games Expert now). 

You also went on to co-write the PTT Level 1 Manual. What was the process associated with that?

The chairperson on that time, Christian Lillieroos, asked me to work on a coaching manual, so I organized a World Coaching Conference in Oslo. We invited a representative from the ITTF.  The representative was Glenn Tepper (Development Manager at that time).  He had just finished the Level 1 Coaching Manual for able-bodied athletes. He proposed to add the PTT component to the ITTF Coach Accreditation System. We created a PTT Coaching Committee and together with Alejandra Gabaglio (currently one of the most experienced ITTF experts) and some elite coaches, we produced the PTT Level 1 Manual.

The next edition of the ITTF L1 Manual was printed together with the PTT version and it is a compulsory part of the courses, taking 20% of the content. So far more than 250 courses with the PTT component have been held worldwide. 

Your first major contact with the ITTF, I’ve heard, was as a PTT guest at an ITTF Level 1 Course Conductor training course in Barbados. What was your experience there and how did this come about?

During the writing phase of the PTT manual, we told Glenn Tepper that it would be useful for us to attend a course, so Alejandra and I attended one in Barbados led by him.

I had a complicated trip from Germany, where I am based, to Barbados, then to a meeting in Venetia and from there to Rio de Janeiro for a Competition Manager task. One of my best friends, Leonardo, who also introduced me to PTT, had his wedding when the course in Barbados was planned.  So I faced a tough decision. I had the impression that it could be a turning point in my career, so I decided to attend the course. I showed up with sandals, Bermuda shorts, pen and notebook. After 5 minutes I was sweating with the rest of the group suffering from the heat, 35 degrees Celsius. 

What were the circumstances involved in your being hired by the ITTF in 2007?

There was a public announcement and I applied without much expectations. Glenn phoned me and asked me if I could travel in two or three days to the World Championships in Zagreb.

Of course I did! I prepared myself for the interview as much as I could. I was quite nervous, but I remember that I promised to work with passion for the ITTF.

Some years ago Glenn confessed to me that the keys to my being hired were the coaching manual and my presentations in Barbados, which released me from the guilty feelings I had for not attending my friend´s wedding! 

Can you compare your PTT work in the Americas with your more globally-focused ITTF responsibilities?

The first things I did after being elected was to create a Committee, mixing young and experienced people, while the second was to organize courses regularly, not only coaching, but also for umpires and classifiers. The budget was small, so we had to be creative with the hosts and experts.

I think key aspects in any job are the human relationships and the PTT era helped me a lot in learning how to deal with others, create teams and build relationships. When I started in ITTF as Development Coordinator, I had to deal with the daily follow up of the development programs in Europe, Africa and Latin America. So from PTT Americas doing 3 or 4 courses per year to ITTF doing around 50 was a big jump. But, being a professional, I could dedicate myself 100% to that. I was overwhelmed with so much information, but I always had Glenn on the side patiently advising me. Still today he is my mentor. I respect him as a person and as a boss. Thanks to all my colleagues on the Development & Education Team, we work in a very good atmosphere, which makes the job easier.      

You have become a specialist in the ITTF’s social projects working with “Peace and Sport” and the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) to name just two. What drew you to this area and what is your vision for the future?

This is not something new for the ITTF. As the duties of Glenn as Development Director first and then Deputy CEO have been increasing, I have assumed that responsibility under his guidance. I did it initially because of it being part of my portfolio, but over time I got personally engaged. I think the reason is mainly philosophical. I have been volunteering in different NGOs since my teenage years, both in the Para sport movement and also in slums through the church in Buenos Aires. I was quite active with the young communities in the church and even took a seminar to decide if being a priest was my calling. It helped me to see clearly that I must do something for others, but from a different perspective, which I found in the ITTF. In the future, ideally the National Associations (NAs) could implement their own projects according to their needs and aims. 

I am supposing that you have had very special and rewarding experiences that have resulted from your dedication to humanitarian table tennis projects.  Could you share a couple of them?

All social projects are special in a unique way. Kids smiling, laughing and willing to hug you are the best reward you can have, but many times the things I remember the most are the sad ones. Those experiences change my perception of life.

One of our tasks in the Development Program is to recruit new national associations to the ITTF. Once it is done, the strategy is to deliver a coaching course to them and assist in the empowerment of the NA. Normally the mission is carried out by a staff member or an experienced expert.

So, according to what I just described, I went to Swaziland, which is heavily affected by the HIV, with 25% of the adults infected.  During the course, one of the participants told me about an NGO in his neighborhood in which he takes part. It delivers food twice a week to around 50 children, most of them are orphans and half of them have AIDS. He invited me to visit the area. We went on Saturday morning and he prepared the people there to welcome me. When we arrived there were many children who received me singing and dancing to local music. It was wonderful. I was making a video and they sang in their original language Siswati. One little girl said something while the others completed the chorus. 
I asked one of the guys who attended the course, what did she say?

“She is talking about AIDS, we are dying of AIDS, we are losing our parents every day because of AIDS, so please behave yourself about this thing,” came the reply. “AIDS is killing us.”

It was difficult to swallow the bitter taste in my mouth, but thinking about it on my flight back I realized that the people were always smiling and being happy. That was an experience to remember. When I returned home to Germany, I saw life from a different angle.

Video: http://youtu.be/hRV77CiIh6E 

That’s a very moving experience.  I understand your wife is now involved as a PTT Classifier. How did that eventuate?  And I believe there is an interesting story as to how you met your wife. Would you care to share that with us?

Jasmine is a physician.  She works in a rehabilitation hospital, but during her studies she took some classification seminars and reached an international level.  She accepted to go to a few tournaments due to my usual travels and the logistics of taking care of our two kids. Some years ago she was appointed as the physician of the German PTT national team, so she is more involved in the local level classifying new players and doing paperwork.

Back in 2003 I came to Germany for an international course about sport for the disabled. The day before starting, there was a girl walking on the street and I said to her in Spanish: “You are very beautiful!” We used to do that in Argentina. Most of the time, I didn´t get any answer. But she looked at me and said “Gracias.” So we have been happily together ever since that day. I used to joke telling her that I was saying that to all girls passing by and that she was the first one to react after a few hundred. 

That’s a good one!  Something I noticed in your AGM report is that you are in the process of producing a lot of materials.  Would you like to share any new links with us? 

I did a master in Sport Management. When it came time to choose the final thesis, the available topics were not interesting to me. So I discussed with Glenn about doing something linked to my job that might be useful for the ITTF. His proposal was to write about Table Tennis for All (TT4A), so I immersed myself in that world for years, investigating and attending related conferences.

The thesis is finished and for a couple of years now, I have been working on a TT4A manual which will be delivered to the NA´s. The concept has a different approach than the sport “mainstream,” as it is more social oriented. We are not just aiming to bring the masses to play TT, we want the minority groups to be involved by offering some alternatives to the barriers preventing them from playing. It will be a menu where you can establish a project targeting groups like children, elderly, factory workers, disabled, immigrants, refugees, etc. The concept is based on three pillars. We want to make TT Popular, Universal and Inclusive, which fits perfectly with the ITTF’s P5 plan.

The strategy includes the establishment of the World Table Tennis Day (WTTD), encouraging the hosting of events worldwide on the 6th of April 2015. That day has been established by the IOC and UN as the International Day on Sport for Development and Peace. While doing that we send out a message of what we expect and what ALL means for us. Two to four weeks weeks before that day, the NAs should encourage clubs to open their doors as a “come´n´try,” then comes the WTTD that can be held in parks, schools, malls or any other popular place. Then the challenge is to keep the people playing all year long. 

Very good.  Of course, this series is to acknowledge Adham Sharara for his many contributions as ITTF president.  Would you like to express your sentiments about the progress the ITTF has made over the last 15 years?

Based on our historical documents, and comments from older officials, I think probably the ITTF progressed more in the last 15 years than in the first 73. Adham´s leadership skills and his vision are probably the main factors for the ITTF´s progress.

I used to attend conferences or workshops with people from other International Sport Federations (IFs), and the reputation of the ITTF is quite high. I don´t think other IF Presidents are so involved in almost every topic going on, or doing it voluntarily as Adham has done.  That makes it even more remarkable. On the other hand, I feel we also have the freedom to think and act by ourselves and discuss openly our strategies.

Another important factor has been Adham’s ability to select the people around him, officials and staff. We all work with motivation and passion. I just regret Adham´s retirement as President but that´s life. We have to accept the changes. The future looks bright, however, in terms of development as the next ITTF President Thomas Weikert also has a strong commitment to social issues. He has been a strong supporter through DTTB (the German TTA) of many of our projects like Ping Pong Paix in Burundi and Congo DR. I look forward to discover new pathways, with passion. 

Thank you very much, Leandro!