Day 37, July 26 - Alan Abrahamson Encourages the ITTF to Think Big and Go for “Top 5”
“It’s abundantly clear that the sport is incredible at the grass-roots level.”
Alan Abrahamson is an award-winning sportswriter, best-selling author and in-demand television analyst. In 2010, he launched his own website, 3 Wire Sports, described in James Patterson and Mark Sullivan's 2012 best-selling novel Private Games as "the world's best source of information about the [Olympic] Games and the culture that surrounds them.” Today he speaks to the Countdown as an objective journalist and acknowledges the ITTF staff and president “for doing good work, for trying to make the world a little bit better, one day and one life at a time.”
Could you discuss the origins of your passion for the Olympic Movement?
Sure. I was almost 14 and watched the 1972 Munich Games on television, in black-and-white, at our farmhouse near Dayton, Ohio. There were many aspects about those Olympics that sparked what has been my lifelong passion. Everyone surely knows the story of the 11 Israelis. This for me was profoundly affecting. Beyond that … that the U.S. men’s team lost to the Soviets in basketball – the Dayton Flyers college basketball team were what occupied life in our winters – was astonishing. Then, on the last day, the American Frank Shorter won the marathon. Shorter’s victory showed me that there was a way to athletic purpose and status beyond (American-style) football. It was, in a word, revelatory.
How did you find your path of combining journalism with the Olympic Movement?
I knew as soon as I saw Frank Shorter win that I was going to become a sportswriter. Seriously. I saw that sports writing, and the Olympics, offered me a way out of rural southwestern Ohio. Thanks to a then-young writer, Marc Katz, I started working at the sports section of one of our local papers, the Dayton Daily News, pretty much soon after I turned 14. In 1976, I graduated from Northmont High School in Clayton, Ohio, and went to the famed Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with the idea that I would study Russian, which I did, and cover the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Well, some things don’t exactly work out. But this winter in Sochi my Russian – maybe it was a little rusty after all these years – came in handy.
As you know, the ITTF has publicly committed itself to a course to be in the “TOP 5 IN ALL WE DO.” Since you have been covering the big Olympic sports for more than 15 years, could you cite some of the common factors of success associated with the IOC Group A sports: Aquatics, Athletics, and Gymnastics?
Television. Television. Television. These are the sports that get featured on prime-time television. Pretty elemental. Also, these sports have developed breakout stars. You know them – Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and, in the case of gymnastics, generations of stars: Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and I could go on and on.
In your opinion, where would you rank Table Tennis right now?
As we all know, the IOC promoted table tennis after London 2012 to a higher bracket, into the 9th to 14th grouping. I am guessing table tennis is realistically 11th or 12th.
What do you think about this tactic, to be so bold in stating our “TOP 5” objective?
All for it. I am a big believer in thinking big and going for it.
We have an interesting phenomenon in the ITTF. Among all Olympic sport IFs, as concerns website popularity, we are regularly three or four, and at number two during our World Championships, yet we rank around #17 among all IFs in print media. Could you share some ideas and insights about why this is the case?
The Olympic movement tends to move in the English language. I am not saying this is right or wrong. I am just saying it is what it is. Given that, and given that most of the significant print outlets that cover the Olympic movement arguably tend to publish in English, No. 17 would tend to figure. Here in the United States, for instance, table tennis typically has limited visibility. Further, it’s difficult to identify athletes worth writing features about. What would possess an editor to assign some combination of reporter time/column inches/other resources to the sport? In today’s environment, an editor at a mainstream outlet must have good reason to write about Olympic sports to begin with. Track and field can hardly get column inches – why should anything else?
In your opinion, what strategies could Table Tennis activate to jump into, say, the top ten, for starters, in regard to print media?
Everyone understands that one country dominates the sport. That used to be the case in taekwondo, also, albeit a different nation. No longer. Why is that? Should table tennis take a look at what happened in taekwondo?
Also, what would happen if table tennis developed a genuine American star?
Judging by the fact that you took the time to investigate and write about the ITTF being tied for #1 with Volleyball in having the most affiliated national associations, our sport caught your interest. I would like to thank you for the time you spent with Glenn Tepper and others to gain more knowledge about our IF and our activities as well as for the impressive article you wrote about the ITTF reaching the mark of 220 member associations. Are there other aspects of our global expansion or successes that you have become aware of?
It’s abundantly clear that the sport is incredible at the grass-roots level. Even in the handful of countries in the world where table tennis does not yet have a recognized federation, it’s obviously there. When I was in the Bahamas for a track meet in May, the hotel had table tennis set-ups available for everyone. The reach of the sport is – global. This is a credit to Glenn, to the ITTF president and to everyone connected to the sport.
This Countdown series is to acknowledge the many contributions our ITTF President Adham Sharara has made to our sport since he was first elected in 1999. As an objective journalist, could you share whatever impressions you have had of our sport going back 15 years to the present? In other words, have you noticed an evolution or was there suddenly an “Aha!” moment recently?
The thing about table tennis, which I think people closely connected to the sport I think understand intuitively but is perhaps worth a reminder, is this – it’s easy for those who are not connected to it day-to-day to find a reason to love it. It’s fun. It’s not threatening. It’s Forrest Gump. It’s romping around with your friends, laughing, in somebody’s basement in your teenage years, whacking at the white ball. It’s beer pong in college. (Sorry but true. All connections to the story are worth exploring.) It’s the 1970s and diplomacy. It’s trick shots on YouTube. Table tennis has all this, and more, going for it.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
I have had the privilege in my journalism career of meeting many people who are passionate about what they do. I have written many stories about people who want to effect change. I would just like to say respectfully that Glenn Tepper – and his staff, and the ITTF president, for supporting him – deserves extraordinary credit for doing good work, for trying to make the world a little bit better, one day and one life at a time. That is the promise and the potential of the Olympic movement.