Heather Fell: From whiff-whaff to Olympic sport


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Columnist Olympic pentathlete Heather Hell investigates the allure of table tennis

Cigars and champagne are two less-than-healthy indulgences that one would not commonly associate with sport, especially not an Olympic sport. The British, however, have a history of looking at things from a different angle as the Mayor of London Boris Johnson famously explained when London won the Olympic bid: “The French looked at a dining table to have dinner on and we looked at a dining table to play whiff-whaff on.”

The sport of whiff-whaff, ping pong or table tennis, as it is now officially known, derived from dinner parties hosted by the English upper classes in the 1880s. The dining table was cleared, champagne corks were carved into balls, cigar box lids became bats and the after dinner entertainment commenced.

The sport originated with our upper classes but is now played by 2.4 million people in the UK with around 40 million playing globally, making it the sport with the most participants worldwide.

Table tennis held its first world championships in London in 1926 although did not become an Olympic sport until 1988. The attraction is simple: it is fast, fun and cheap - the modern bats and balls are thankfully more affordable than champagne and cigars. So how did we lose control of a sport that we invented?

For sometime now, China has dominated the world of table tennis and the only notable exceptions have been Chinese players gaining citizenship in other countries. One of their top athletes Zhang Jike said he grew up playing football but realised that had far less potential than table tennis in his country where the sport is immensely popular. The Chinese monopolise the sport the sport to such an extent that some have suggested they should provide training camps and inside knowledge to rival countries in order to make it more competitive and exciting on the world stage.

Sport of any sort has so many proven benefits but some can be inaccessible, expensive, weather dependant or only suitable for certain ages or fitness. Top level table tennis players require speed, power, agility and strength yet anyone can pick up a bat and have a go.

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It was in a village hall that Devon’s Paralympian David Wetherill found his love for the sport. David was born with a rare bone development disorder called Multiple Epiphyseal Dsyplasia and was told by a doctor, at the time of diagnosis, that he would be wheelchair bound by the time he was a teenager. Having always been a keen swimmer and footballer, he discovered his love for table tennis at the age of ten thanks to his father who ran the local club. When David could no longer play football he chose to focus his fast reactions and competitive nature on table tennis.

It helped him through school, identifying himself as a sportsman not a disabled person, and most significantly it was the appetite to succeed that drove him. In 2002 following a talk from another Paralympian, David decided to take it seriously and three years later, the year that London won the bid to host the Olympics, he competed in his first international.

Having competed in Beijing and London, David is now targeting the Rio Olympics in 2016 to win that elusive medal. The next stepping stone on that journey are the world championships this September in yes, you guessed it, China.

This once traditionally English sport is yet again growing in popularity. “PingPong” bars are popping up in London and there are now 750 table tennis clubs throughout the country.

Devon has seen a direct effect from the London games and one Plymouth club especially, part of the Olympic table tennis floor, is now being used by Woolwell TT Club. Founder Kev Buddell has noticed the growth of the sport and with the help of Sport England has managed to expand Woolwell TT Club. It now has thirty five tables available on club nights.

The top level athletes usually start from a very young age but this shouldn’t discourage anyone from taking up the sport. Woolwell TT club recently had a gentleman take up the sport at the age of 70 so it really is never too late.

This article was first published in the March issue of Devon Life. To get the magazine delivered every month to your home, subscribe at www.subscriptionsave.co.uk/dev or call 08448484217