It used to be that sports were run by sportsmen and women. But then, as is often the case, money got in the way and sports became more “professional”, so “professionals” were hired to run the sports.
For example, the head of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) used to be former star Chinese player Xu Yinsheng, until he was replaced in 1999 by a “professional”, an electrical engineer called Adham Sharara. The Egyptian-born Canadian also played on the national team for three years, but his biography makes it clear he is a career administrator who played, rather than top player-turned-administrator.
15 years later, Sharara is still in charge and coming out with gems like this:
“We need more co-operation from the Chinese. They’re opening the door but ever so slowly. They need to sacrifice to make the others better, even to lose to the others, so the sport becomes more and more interesting. I say help us for just five years and then you can go back and close the doors.”
The sport clearly has an issue: it is dominated by the Chinese to such an extent that any non-Chinese in competition are as likely as not Chinese-born defectors who couldn’t win a place on the team back home. As a result, the Chinese are bored and no one else cares, so a solution is needed.
But intentional losing? How would that work exactly? Presumably all bets are off (literally), and Sharara becomes the Vince McMahon of ping pong, inventing fierce (but fake) rivalries and handpicking winners and losers himself. Try telling the world’s best players (Chinese, obviously) that they have to sacrifice their prime years for the good of the game. How would the new world number 1 feel, knowing that his or her dominance was manufactured, because the Chinese were playing left-handed? If the fans are deserting the sport now, this would quickly clear the arenas.
Sharara’s frustrations are understandable: he wants the sport to be as big as possible, and blames China’s monolingual dominance as the reason he is unable to market the sport better and attract more sponsorship dollars. His solution is for the Chinese to help themselves by helping others: let other players train in the Chinese camps, spar with the champions, and sooner rather than later, they will catch up, and the fans – and $$ – will come flocking. For a man who spent most of last year fighting off corruption allegations, Sharara should know better.
He’s also missing the point. It’s not on the Chinese to do this, but on everyone else. Formula 1 is another sport trying to lessen a dominant grip (this one held by Sebastian Vettel), but the changes proposed there were mercilessly mocked by the drivers. Dominance can be exhilarating in other sports – golf’s TV numbers plummeted when Tiger had his leave of absence, for example. It’s up to Sharara and the ITTF to figure out how to make it work for table tennis.